Risk characterizes everyday life for many of the world’s poorest households. These households are more likely to be located in environments where livelihoods are highly susceptible to weather and price variability and where health risks are pervasive. Reducing the risks faced by poor households, and enabling poor households to better deal with adverse events when they do occur, is essential to improving their welfare in the short run and their opportunities for income growth in the long run.

When the World Trade Organization (WTO) was created in 1995, its members committed themselves to a set of disciplines for domestic support, market access, and export competition for agriculture. The Agreement on Agriculture paved the way for the pursuit of progressive reductions in world agricultural market distortions.

While agricultural trade policies are one factor affecting global food prices and price stability, they are not the only factor. Policies not directly related to trade can also have destabilizing effects if enacted by large countries and/or by a large number of small countries. Traditionally, focus has been put on agricultural policies and domestic support for developed countries’ farmers. Another strong example of this is the recent dramatic increase in pro-biofuels policies throughout both the developed and the developing world.

2006-2008 saw dramatic increases in the price of many staple food items, particularly maize, rice, and wheat. These staple commodities form the bulk of the diet of the world’s poor populations, many of whom spend over one-half of their income on food. The result in many areas of the world was worsening poverty for already poor populations due to a decline in purchasing power. While much attention has been given to the economic impacts of the rise in food prices, little empirical research has been conducted to examine the nutritional impacts of the food crisis.

Recent trends in food prices—higher levels and higher volatility—mirror trends predicted by a number of experts. Given the complex web of factors influencing global food security, governments of developed and developing countries, as well as international organizations, must use a comprehensive approach to prevent a food crisis reoccurrence. This comprehensive approach should comprise a number of initiatives and reforms; while some of these have been proposed before, their merits are even more relevant today and justify reprioritization and reallocation of national and international budgets.

With an estimated 44 million people falling into poverty since June 2010, rising food prices and increasing agricultural price volatility is at the forefront of global attention. Commodity exchanges have long been touted as a way to mitigate the effects of price volatility and increase economic efficiency in a liberalized market environment. As with other aspects of global agricultural markets, however, exchange markets are facing increasing global interdependence as traders draw on information generated both domestically and internationally.

The economic, political, social, and nutritional impacts of food price volatility and price spikes are clear. In the 2007-08 food price crisis, 33 countries saw violent riots and social unrest as a result of rising food prices; in 2011, increasing food prices have been at least partially blamed for political turnover in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as riots in several other countries.

Successful global agricultural trade hinges on open, secure agricultural markets. Such markets provide risk management by allowing for inter-regional diversification of crops and food products and by reducing price differences through market integration. In other words, secure, well-functioning markets can balance one country’s food deficit with another’s surplus, and vice versa. In this way, global trade can support global price stability and food security.

With the world's population predicted to reach 9 billion people by the year 2050, issues related to global food security have taken on a growing urgency. Rising commodities prices, adverse weather events, increased use of biofuels, global and domestic trade policies, and shifting consumption patterns in the developing world will all come into play as the world's population grows. Developing appropriate policies to address such challenges is critical to improving and maintaining global food security.

Global policymakers were faced with a stark reality when food prices rose for the eighth consecutive month in February. In addition to affecting global markets, such increases can have complex and widely varied impacts on agricultural markets at the country level. A new policy analysis tool from the Food Security Portal can help to estimate and analyze these domestic impacts.

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