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Food and Failing States
May 2008

Recently, the media has featured the dramatic increase in the price of rice and other agricultural products around the world, which sparked food riots and hoarding in some countries. There are even new documentaries, such as King Corn, and blogs analyzing the problem, along with considerable debate on what the current problem actually is. Is it a shortage of food, inadequate distribution, or prices soaring too fast? Does the world know how to grow enough food? What is the role of food aid, and what kind of food aid? Are biofuels the enemy? Are we moving in the right direction in addressing this crisis?

The spike in grain prices is attributed by some to drought, disease, and increased use of crops for biofuels, while farm neglect and a population boom are blamed by others for Asia’s rice crisis. Still others say it’s the fact that we consume more than we produce and that speculators are fueling the crisis.

In response to the crisis, some governments are using food subsidies and price freezes. Food organizations, both international and local, have been forced to cut their rations, and they are asking for help. (A modest way for individuals to help is to play the online word game FreeRice.) While the UN and the World Bank just created a food crisis task force, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is calling for "an urgent rethink of the respective roles of markets and governments."

Soaring prices in food and commodity markets have serious implications for resource management and the world economy. This phenomenon has been called a "silent tsunami," a current emergency involving long-term global challenges and requiring social justice. With the prospect that more governments could fall due to food-related civil unrest like that recently in Haiti, this is also a national security issue for the United States.

However, opinions converge where the challenge ahead of us is one that we have never had before. In fact, with world population rising, nations need to produce a lot more food, and they must do so while addressing environmental concerns from greenhouse gas emissions to water supplies. In this context, food cannot be a weapon. With the macroeconomics at play in this global issue, governments, international organizations, NGOs, citizens, and even US presidential candidates must all collaborate to solve the problem.
—Marie Mainil


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