The rising price of food has been a subject of many news stories over the past few months, with the intensity of attention ratcheting up recently upon news that the FAO’s food price index has just surpassed its 2008 peak.  Stories about this issue – well, at least the good stories – point out the highly variable way in which this increase in the price of food has played out in different places.  One good example of this sort of reportage is from Saturday’s Washington Post.

This variability, however, tends to be illustrated instead of interrogated, with explanations remaining remarkably shallow (see my earlier complaints about how explanations related to “local specificity” and “cultural difference” tend to obscure important processes and blame the victims of larger processes).  However, a quick examination of the information we have about food prices and their impacts points to the fact that global food prices are not all that useful for understanding the variable food outcomes we see in the Global South.  First, we have to understand that the increase everyone is talking about is in an index of food prices – that is, the price data drawn from a number of different foods.  Though the index is going up, this does not mean that the prices of all foods are rising equally.  As the WaPo and others have noted (and is quite clear in the FAO presentation of the data), when you disaggregate the crops and their prices, the biggest increases globally are in sugar, cooking oils and some fats (there are, of course, local surges in price for particular crops, but those are often independent of the larger global markets).  While cereal prices are increasing, they are not rising as quickly as these other foods, and they remain below 2008 levels.  So who is hit by these prices has a lot to do with who consumes sugar, or products heavily constituted by sugar and oils.  Oils are widely distributed in diets, but sugar is not – the poorest tend to have the least access outside the Global North (ironically, this is reversed in the Global North, as noted by Fast Food Nation and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me).  Meanwhile, staple crop prices are not rising anywhere near as rapidly.  So the principal drivers of the rising price index are not a huge portion of the diets of those in Global South . . . with one key exception: urban populations.  More on that in a second.

Second, who is hit by these prices has to do with the degree to which producers and consumers are linked to global markets.  Many rural producers are consumers of their own produce, or the produce of their neighbors.  As a result, they are somewhat insulated from shifts in commodity prices.  I’ve seen this at work in Ghana firsthand – it is a disaster for incomes in these areas, but not for food security.  Instead, people just eat the crops they might otherwise have sold at market.  Of course, this comes with other costs, such as in terms of the purchases of needed household goods, and sometimes in terms of children’s education (in places where school fees are still charged).  But in terms of food security, not so much.  FEWS-NET has offered this same interpretation of the impact of rising food prices on the countries in which it operates, arguing that this increase in this index is not as worrying as what we saw in 2008.  This is one of those instances where integration with global markets, long seen as a goal of development programs and a clear pathway to prosperity, can also produce significant new challenges for the global poor . . . or at least that segment of the rural poor whose livelihoods and production are highly integrated with global markets.

So, where people are dependent on global commodities that are internationally sourced for their food or incomes, shifting global food prices are more likely to result in direct shocks to their food security.  While there are certainly rural populations that fit this description, once again it is the urban poor who are most generally and directly exposed to this challenge.  With little food production of their own, they are dependent on purchased food that has passed through one or more middlemen from the source of production.  By definition, their food supply is more commodified, and more connected to global markets, than most of their rural counterparts.

Therefore, there isn’t a whole lot of point to looking at global price indexes to understand the relationship between these prices and food insecurity.  Instead, we have to look at who is affected by these prices, and how – the connections are complex and often involve tracing what appear to be unrelated factors as they radiate out from these price changes.  This is the only way to appropriately design interventions to address these issues . . .

Don’t tell us that the food price index is rising – tell us why it is rising . . . then we can do something about it.