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High Food Prices, Revolutions, and the Future


A vendor exchanges money with a customer at a shop selling garlic, onions and potatoes at a wholesale market in Mumbai. India's food price index rose 8.76 percent in the year to April 16, government data showed.

A vendor exchanges money with a customer at a shop selling garlic, onions and potatoes at a wholesale market in Mumbai. India's food price index rose 8.76 percent in the year to April 16, government data showed.



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This is the VOA Special English Agriculture Report.

Food prices are down from their record highs in February. But prices are still higher than they were a year ago. In a year of Arab protests, high food prices helped fuel the anger against oppression, corruption and poverty.

Many experts think the political fires that burned across North Africa and the Middle East started last year in the wheat fields of Russia. A combination of heat, drought and wildfires during the summer of twenty-ten destroyed one-third of Russia's winter wheat crop. World food prices rose after Russia halted wheat exports.

Shenggen Fan is head of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. He links higher food prices to the uprisings in Egypt and other Arab countries.

SHENGGEN FAN: "Definitely, it is one of the factors that really caused the Arab Spring."

The last time food prices jumped was in two thousand eight. At that time, Egypt was also was among the countries where food riots and demonstrations took place.

Ghiyath Nakshbendi is a professor in the Department of International Business at American University in Washington. He agrees that food prices played a part in the Arab revolutions.

GHIYATH NAKSHBENDI: "At the end of the day, the most crucial reason for the Arab Spring is basically economic. And so consequently when a citizen cannot have enough money to purchase food and feed his family, definitely that will create a kind of upset with the system."

Professor Nakshbendi says an event like climate change can affect food production in many countries. But in a globally connected economy, even an event in one country can be felt worldwide.

GHIYATH NAKSHBENDI: "Something happening in Thailand is going to have an impact on rice export to other countries."

Cornell University economist Chris Barrett says another problem is that gains in farm production have slowed.

CHRIS BARRETT: "What we are seeing right now is the bitter harvest of very poor investments in agriculture research over really the last twenty years."

Shenngun Fan says the return of high prices in twenty-eleven offers some important lessons. If investment in food production does not increase, he says, then the world will continue to see high prices.

SHENGGEN FAN: "Food price hikes will come more often and more frequent. Second, food prices obviously will remain very high."

He says food supplies are not growing enough to meet the demand of seven billion people. The world is expected to add two billion more by the middle of the century. And people in emerging economies like China are eating more meat, which requires more animal feed. But in twenty-eleven, for the first time, the United States used more maize, or corn, for biofuels than for animal feed.

The good news is that high prices always encourage farmers to grow more. A record harvest in twenty-eleven is helping to ease food prices in many parts of the world, but not all.

And that's the VOA Special English Agriculture Report. I'm Karen Leggett.

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Contributing: Steve Baragona and Jerilyn Watson

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