Amid surging global food prices and sharply rising demand, it’s laudable that world leaders are helping provide for their people by securing local food supplies. They err, though, when they begin to restrict food exports, tax food imports or impose other market barriers at a time the world relies increasingly on international trade to feed itself.
The United Nations World Food Program says some forty countries have banned the export of food commodities as prices for those goods climbed in the past year. Other nations have imposed large export duties or similar measures on their producers, costs that are passed along to consumers abroad, many of them poor.
In announcing that the United States was providing an additional seven hundred million dollars in emergency food aid to address the crisis, President George Bush urged nations that have imposed such restrictions to lift them. "Some countries are preventing needed food from getting to market and we call on them to end those restrictions to help ease the suffering of those who aren’t getting food," President Bush said.
Some nations have heeded the call. Nigeria has suspended the one-hundred-percent duties that pushed the cost of foreign rice beyond the means of many of its citizens. Ukraine eased export restrictions on its grain crop. And Thailand dropped plans for joining with other rice-exporting countries to set up a group similar to the OPEC oil cartel to set international prices for the grain. Underscoring the argument against such moves, one of the proposed members of the group, Myanmar, saw most of its mid-year rice harvest wiped out by Cyclone Nargis, and now will likely depend on rice imports as it rebuilds from the devastating storm.
But as the recent United Nations food summit concluded, countries need to do more.
Among other actions, easing or eliminating barriers to expanded world food trade in the short run will help get rice, wheat, corn and other goods where they are needed now. And in the long run it will help boost food production, allowing farmers in Africa and other regions who are locked out of protected markets to better compete.