Rice grains. The directors of three U.N. food agencies are urging “swift, coordinated international action” to prevent a repeat of the 2007-2008 global food crisis. Photo by: Johanan Ottensooser / CC BY-NC-SA

Last week, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim warned sharp spikes in food prices are endangering the “health and well-being” of millions of people, particularly those in Africa and the Middle East. Now, directors of three U.N. food agencies are urging “swift, coordinated international action” to prevent a repeat of the 2007-2008 global food crisis.

In a statement released Tuesday (Sept. 4), Ertharin Cousin, José Graziano da Silva and Kanayo Nwanze said two problems must be addressed: high prices, and production, trade and consumption of food amid rising demand and climate change. Cousin, da Silva and Kwanze are the executive director of the World Food Program, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization and president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, respectively.

A severe drought in many grain-producing nations — including the United States, Brazil, Russia and Ukraine — has resulted in lower yields and, consequently, high prices. As Devex has reported, aid agencies funded through voluntary contributions such as WFP might not be able to buy the same amount of food when prices go up.

“As an aid organization, we see that with a rise in food prices on the one side, the number of hungry people could rise, but on the other side, a 10 percent increase in the cost of our food basket means we have to spend $200 million more a year to buy the same amount of food,” Bettina Luescher, WFP’s chief spokeswoman for North America, reiterated in a phone interview with Devex.

“Of course governments around the world are the biggest donors and they see how serious the situation is,” Luescher said. “But we can’t predict whether we are going to get more contributions from donor governments … Times are tough these days.”

The three U.N. directors stressed, however, that the world is in a much better position to respond to these challenges and prevent a food crisis.

New social safety net systems are one example of how today’s reality will not likely lend to a crisis of the same magnitude in 2008. But the rising cost of wheat and soy still present serious risks, especially to urban and rural poor people, as well as to those living in food import-dependent countries.

The U.N. agency heads also look to the “long haul” with sustainable solutions: further investment in agriculture and social protection, as well as policies that encourage alternative uses of grains, are all necessary to prevent the “world’s poorest and most vulnerable” from paying “the highest price.”

Oxfam, which published an analysis of this year’s surge in food prices, urged leaders to “stop dragging their feet” and heed the United Nations’ call. “Convene an emergency meeting of the Rapid Response Forum to prevent the threatened food price crisis becoming a reality,” GROW Campaign Spokesperson Colin Roche said.

On the heels of the U.N. directors’ statement, Oxfam released research findings on how “extreme weather events” could affect food prices. In a statement, Climate Change Policy Adviser Tim Gore said extreme droughts and floods “can wipe out entire harvests.” And while everyone will feel the effects of dramatic price hikes, “the poorest people will be hit hardest.”

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is an award-winning journalist based in New York City. Her coverage on politics, social justice issues, development and climate change has appeared in a variety of international news outlets, including The Guardian, Slate and The Atlantic. She has reported from the U.N. Headquarters, in addition to nine countries outside of the U.S. Amy received her master of arts degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2014. Last year she completed a yearlong fellowship on the oil industry and climate change and co-published her findings with a team in the Los Angeles Times.