High and volatile food prices are the new normal: we must act now

Following a summer of dramatic increases in international and UK food prices, the third spike since 2008, it is becoming clear the dynamics of the international food system are changing - and not for the better. With increases of 10% on international food markets, and domestic staples up by as much as 113% in some countries, it is time to focus on what needs to happen next.

Research by Save the Children, due to be published next week, will highlight that we are facing a "new normal" of high and volatile food prices. The stakes are high. The countries with the highest burden of undernutrition, responsible for as many as 2.6m child deaths a year, are the most exposed to food price spikes. They tend to be net importers of food, and have citizens who spend 30-60% of their income on food.

When prices go up, poor people take their children out of school and prioritise foods that provide energy over nutrition. A relatively short spike can have long-term effects on the development and potential of children.

In the face of these changes, the G20 established the agricultural markets information system (Amis) last year to monitor and respond to food price volatility. Last month, France called for a meeting of Amis's rapid response forum, a request swiftly rejected by the US as being unnecessary. This kind of complacency could be disastrous if it fails to curb panicked policy responses. In 2010, an export ban imposed by Russia sent international food prices spiralling, while having limited impact on calming price rises in the country.

Russia has already rejected reports it would impose a grain export ban. Yet conversations in the corridors of agriculture ministries and trading floors suggest more subtle measures may be afoot, such as using government control of the national railway to slow exports. In 2010, the Kremlin denied export restrictions only three hours befor Vladimir Putin, then the prime minister, announced an export ban.

If the international community is serious about dealing with this problem, it needs to address the fundamentals. Investment in agriculture has been declining year on year in Africa. This pattern needs to change and will involve more investment from donors, and developing countries improving their ability to collect taxes - measures should be taken against companies undermining these efforts by dodging taxes.

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