By Nathan Stevens
October 14, 2011
A recent global food security conference at McGill University in Montreal looked at the issue of feeding a hungry world from a number of different angles. At the heart of the conversation is the incredible challenge that agriculture faces as the human population soars towards nine billion people by 2050. One of the key factors in the discussion was the impact of food price volatility in the developing world.
The volatile situation of the last number of years has been good for some and bad for others, including smallholder farmers. For smallholders that are able to produce enough for their families and have some left over to sell, the rise in prices had a positive effect. For those unable to produce enough for themselves, the rise in prices has had a negative impact.
Another key factor in price volatility is the issue of food item substitution. When a food item rises sharply in price in North America, consumers generally have plenty of replacement options for that item. For example, if the price for chicken is too high, consumers may choose to buy more pork. However, in the developing world access to food substitution choices are more limited, which means that cheaper food substitution options aren’t there when the price of a single item spikes. When a staple item skyrockets due to a wide variety of factors, these areas of the world are less able to cope.
Parallels were drawn between Africa today and the situation in Southeast Asia 30 to 40 years ago. There are remarkable demographic and economic parallels between the two regions. Food price volatility and talk of a food crisis rose sharply. Back then, the Green Revolution was able to provide the boost in farm productivity needed to provide enough food for much of the world, and the clamor about food shortages faded out of circulation. Today, the talk of a food crisis is on the rise again and there are new challenges in feeding a hungry world. Moving forward, the challenges facing agriculture are different from those of the past, but agriculture is willing to take them on.
Providing global food security is an incredible challenge for farmers around the world. Food price volatility is just one of many factors that influence food security and the impact of this volatility is experienced far more acutely in developing countries. Ultimately, farmers and industry will bear the burden of meeting this challenge.
Nathan Stevens is the Research and Policy Advisor for the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario. The CFFO Commentary represents the opinions of the writer and does not necessarily represent CFFO policy. The CFFO Commentary is heard weekly on CFCO Chatham, CKNX Wingham, and UCB Canada radio stations in Chatham, Belleville, Bancroft, Brockville and Kingston. It is also archived on the CFFO website: www.christianfarmers.org. CFFO is supported by 4,200 family farmers across Ontario.