Tufts University

Grains of Truth

Food Price CrisisTufts nutrition and economics experts give perspective to the global food crisis.

Whether it's a family in Boston trying to stretch their food stamp dollar or a family in Bangladesh watching prices at the marketplace double, people all over the world are struggling with what experts are calling a global food price crisis.

A host of factors have contributed to the problem—recent droughts in major grain-exporting nations like Australia, population growth, decreased agricultural productivity, biofuel development, a weak dollar, increased costs of fuel used not only for transportation but also for fertilizer, to name a few. And these factors can serve to compound the crisis.

"Food is our everlasting pleasure, but it goes through so many of our activities."

— James Tillotson

"Food is our everlasting pleasure, but it goes through so many of our activities. It really cuts in. Now you have this double whammy of not only agricultural commodities but energy commodities, like oil, hitting at the same time," says James Tillotson, a professor at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. "But you don't have a blanket department that handles this double whammy, so we have to improvise to solve the problems that are arising."

To help explain some of the factors at play—and some of the potential solutions—Tufts experts shared their expertise on various aspects of this crisis.

The Problem of Improving Diets

Ironically, the food crisis has been precipitated in part by improvements in some developing nations. Impoverished people tend to have lower quality diets. But as some populations around the world emerge from poverty and want to eat better, the demand for more, and higher quality, food creates a crunch.

With the need for increased production comes a potential for negative environmental impacts: more water is required to produce more grain, and more grain is needed to feed more livestock for meat and dairy products, all leading to increased stress on natural resources in environmentally fragile countries, according to Patrick Webb, dean of academic affairs and professor at the Friedman School and former chief of nutrition for the UN World Food Programme.

As all this is happening, says Webb, people emerging from poverty are migrating from rural to urban settings, depleting the labor pool for the farms and endangering the very productivity needed to sustain this upwardly mobile population.

"We're seeing fewer and fewer people left behind on the farms and very often it's women and older men and kids left behind," says Webb. "We're asking them to do more and produce more, in better and more technologically advanced ways. We may need to reconsider that model."

Food Price Crisis

A cashier rings up groceries at a Chicago supermarket in May 2008.

For the populations in developing countries with an increased demand for food, Webb says there is also a need to guard against a too-hasty dietary transition by moderating demand. If not, those populations could go from a state of chronic undernutrition to one of obesity very quickly.

"That's going to take some work because we don't know how to transition effectively," says Webb. "If China and India and Indonesia and other countries all say, 'You did it that way, you can't tell us not to,' then we have a problem."

Parke Wilde, an associate professor who focuses on domestic food policy at the Friedman School, agrees that the scope of the crisis is different for developing countries. Experts say that while food takes up an average 10 percent of the household budget in the U.S. and other developed nations, it can consume half or more of the budget of a family in an underdeveloped country.

For the American consumer, Wilde says, "When you're thinking about how high food prices are, the answer is high enough to sting, but not high enough to cause most people to be eating less food," he adds.

"When you're thinking about how high food prices are, the answer is high enough to sting, but not high enough to cause most people to be eating less food."

— Parke Wilde

This is partly because, in the U.S., the root of the price increases does not begin with the dollar amount on the supermarket shelf, but rather the spike in the price of food commodities that are purchased by large food manufacturers—or, in the case of corn commodities and ethanol production, by fuel producers. That means, if food commodity prices double stateside, the consumer feels just part of the effect. If food prices double somewhere like Bangladesh, the effect on the consumer can be devastating.

Wilde compares it to the jump in fuel prices in recent years. Up until recently, he says, economists were shocked that the steady rise in fuel prices did not result in a significant decrease in driving or heating fuel usage by Americans.

"The reason was, even with the price increases, fuel was still in same range it always had been, the same comparatively low fraction of the consumer budget," he says. But in the past two years, as the increases propelled that share beyond its traditional level, economists noted some "astonishing things"—including a drop in the total number of automobile miles driven on roads in the U.S.

"That's the type of response that you wouldn't see in terms of total food consumption until prices had gone much higher than they have to date," says Wilde. (continued)

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Homepage photo by Channi Anand, Associated Press (Farmers harvest wheat in Jammu, India, on May 1, 2008). Inside photos: Photo of grocery store by Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated Press. Photo of ethanol plant by Charlie Riedel, Associated Press. Photo of USAID in Sudan by Alfred de Montesquiou, Associated Press.

This story originally ran on Oct. 6, 2008.