The World Bank reported April 14 that world food prices have jumped 37 percent from a year ago. That has pushed an estimated 44 million more people into poverty. As countries around the world recover from weak economies, political instability or, like Japan, from natural disasters, a central concern should be the price, safety and availability of food.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the global food price index, a measure of the international prices of a basket of food commodities, hit the highest level in February since records were first kept in 1990. That eased a bit in March, but the index still stood at over double its level in 2004.
The average price of wheat this year, $346 a ton, is twice the price in 2005. Part of that comes from increased demand, but another part connects to the rising price of energy.
Each rise in prices falls heavily, and unfairly, on the poorest 1.2 billion people living below the poverty line of $1.25 per day, who spend most of their money on food. According to Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, past famines were caused less by actual shortages of food than by the loss of purchasing power by the poor.
It is unlikely Japan will see the kind of food riots that took place in Haiti, Bangladesh or Egypt in 2008, but individuals in Japan may no longer have the luxury of being able to spend a relatively small percentage of their income on food. The soaring food costs around the world will have large effects on Japan and the solutions are not simple or easy.
Boosting imports and releasing stockpiles can serve as temporary fixes in Japan, as they do in most countries, but that should be done in a moderate and considered way. If those measures are insufficient, rationing of certain staple foods may be required as well.
The uncertain safety of some food products only adds to the difficulty. Keeping prices stable might be easier, though, once safety of all food is ensured.
The government must also accept advice and assistance from outside organizations, such as the FAO, to get the farms, fisheries and food-related factories in disaster-hit Tohoku operating again. Their absence has a marked effect, but the rising price of food products can be moderated with sufficient planning. The government should make food a top priority now.