The other crunch: food prices

Although the food price crisis has slipped from the agenda as the credit crunch has gathered pace, for poor people around the world it hasn’t gone away – and may now be set to worsen again. 

While the FAO’s food price index has fallen by around 30% since its peak last summer, that only takes it back to May 2007 levels: still well above recent norms.  Meanwhile, the global total of undernourished people is now over a billion, up from 850m just a couple of years ago. Now, FAO officials say privately that they expect the next findings from the index to show a new increase. 

If that’s right, then we’re really moving in to worst case scenario for developing countries, who are already reeling from the credit crunch. So what’s happening here at the London Summit on this front?

I asked that to Douglas Alexander, the UK’s international development secretary, in a press conference he did an hour or so ago.  He pointed to the £200m the UK has committed to a new ‘rapid response social fund’ to provide safety nets for the most vulnerable people, and applauded the work of the World Bank and WFP in particular. On increasing supply, meanwhile, he suggested that infrastructure investment is crucial (which it is).

I also caught up with Peter Mandelson, the UK’s business secretary, and asked him how the trade system could be proofed against the kind of crazy security of supply perturbations that caused such problems last summer, when over 30 countries had export restrictions in place. He stressed that what’s needed is to keep markets open, and that any impediments to this would harm supply by undermining incentives.

In analytical terms, I can’t fault anything either of them said. But note the lack of specifics about what this summit should be doing: there’s no getting round the underlying fact that preventing a resumption of the food price spike isn’t on the agenda here.  It should be.  As a senior IMF official put it to David and I when we were over in DC recently: “the last thing we can afford now is another crisis creeping up on us”.