Global shortage is food for thought

Global concerns on food security have continued to escalate. The reported food riots in many countries are only the beginning of deeper long-term concerns on food security. Most emerging markets have resorted to ad hoc, short-term measures. Squeezing out on liquidity may taper demand, but at the lower end, it will hurt the poor. The supply-side response, through improved regulation and more efficient public distribution system, can prove efficacious in the short term.

Of course, over the longer period, redressing endemic causes or deficient agriculture and inability of supply to meet the rising demand curve needs to be addressed.

Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, while addressing the recent Spring Meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, referred to the land diversion for bio-fuel contributing to food scarcity as being unconscionable. This sentiment may be echoed in many capitals, but is only a part of the problem. Estimates vary on how much food for humans has been lost in this process, as compared to the more fundamental causes: the unprecedented third year drought in Australia, and global warming leading to a decline in over-all agricultural productivity. Rising incomes in demographically dense but poorer countries has contributed substantially to both rising demand of cereals as well as changing consumption habits, generating pressure in the higher value-added food chain. Increasing consumption of animal proteins necessitates production of adequate animal feed of acceptable quality and the efficiency of conversion within the food chain vary greatly. They need independent assessment.

In this context, the coherence of an international response to growing concerns of food security remains grossly under-addressed. In the recent communiqué of the International Monetary & Financial Committee of the Board of Governors of the International Monetary Fund, there is only a passing reference to food security in the overall context of financial stability and inflation management. The communiqué does mention that "a number of developing countries, especially low-income countries, face a sharp rise in food and energy prices, which have a particularly strong impact on the poorest segments of the population." The committee urges the Fund to work closely with the World Bank and other partners in an integrated response through policy advice and financial support.

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