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This is a joint post with Vijaya Ramachandran.
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) recently reported that the December 2010 Food Price Index surpassed the peak reached in June 2008. A closer examination of the data, however, provides some modest hope that the worst effects of the 2007-08 price spikes can be avoided, with luck and better policies.
First, it is important to note that only two of the five components of the Food Price Index were above 2008 levels—meat (slightly above) and sugar (more than twice as high). Second, as shown in the chart below, staple grain prices, which are key to preventing hunger among the poor, are increasing sharply, while rice and, to a lesser degree, wheat remain well below their 2008 peaks. Maize is the exception, thanks in part to U.S. policies supporting corn-based ethanol that bring to mind the zombies populating popular culture—they just won’t die!
The New York Times yesterday (and Paul Krugman earlier in the week) called on rich countries to "step up to the plate" in confronting the food crisis in developing countries -- in the short run by increasing their donations of food aid. and in the medium run by getting rid of economically inefficient, inequitable, and environmentally unsound subsidies for biofuels, especially corn-based ethanol.