Can Another Food Crisis Be Prevented in 2011?

A vendor carries vegetables on a bicycle along a street in downtown Hanoi on December 17, 2010. The consumer-price index hit 11.1 percent in November, assuring that the full-year inflation rate will be a double figures. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)

Rising food prices are raising concerns of a repeat of the 2008 food crisis, which led to widespread food shortages and rioting in many Asian countries. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Price Index, which measures the average price of key commodities on the world market (e.g. meat, cereals, sugar), rose 32 percent between June and December 2010 and is now higher than the peak reached during the 2008 crisis.

The largest price increases have been in sugar and cooking oil, as well as in cereals such as wheat and corn, which are now 50 percent higher than a year ago. Wildfires in Russia and record flooding in Australia have contributed to the rising price of cereals and experts predict that prices are likely to continue climbing as the threat of extreme weather events in 2011 remains high.

The price of rice, a key staple in Asia, has also been increasing steadily over recent months as severe flooding last year in Vietnam and Pakistan—both major rice exporters—have affected supplies in the region. The retail price of 1 kilogram of rice in Vietnam, for example, rose 50 percent between July and November 2010. Climate change and the rising price of oil, which is now near $100 a barrel, are threatening to further destabilize the price of rice and other key commodities in the region.

"The global food aid machinery is gearing up to cope with sharp increases in hunger and poverty in poor countries that are dependent on food imports to feed their population," says C. Peter Timmer, a leading authority on the agriculture and rice economy in Asia who served as principal advisor to the Asia Society/International Rice Research Institute Task Force report, Never an Empty Bowl: Sustaining Food Security in Asia, released in September 2010.

"As usual, the short-run rhetoric is crowding out attention to the long-run problem of slow growth in agricultural productivity over the past decade, especially for food grains in developing countries. Addressing this productivity problem in Asia and in the world will require a range of solutions, including increasing funding for research on rice, investing in the modernization of food marketing systems (and to improve the policies that govern these systems), and funding for safety nets that help the poor cope with both chronic poverty and their vulnerability to spikes in food prices. None of these proposals alone will solve the current problem of high food prices, but failure to make these investments will mean a future of recurring food crises."

What can be done to avoid another food crisis in 2011?

Read the Asia Society/IRRI Task Force report, Never an Empty Bowl: Sustaining Food Security in Asia, at and share your comments below.