Yes, it's definitely a food 'crisis'
People line up to receive food donations in Cite Soleil, a slum of Port-au-Prince in Haiti, after devastating floods brought by Tropical Storm Noel.
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Scott Jagow: Today we launch a special series called Food Fight. We start with the most obvious question: How did we get to this point? We're joined by Duncan Green. He's the head of research at Oxfam in Great Britain. Duncan, why are so many countries fighting over food?
Duncan Green: Well, food prices started rising in 2001, 2002, and then a year ago, they started taking off. And I think the reason is that there's been a convergence of different forces. So, China and India are eating more meat has led to the increase in demand. The big shift to biofuels has taken grain out of the food system and put it into people's gas tanks. And the high price of oil has fed into oil-manufactured products like pesticides. So, there's been a whole bunch of things pushing up the price of food.
Jagow: If you had to point to one specific thing as a major cause here, what would it be?
Green: Oxfam is really pointing to biofuels, because certain factors behind the food crisis are good things. That is people in poor countries like India and China are eating more. That's a good thing. We don't want to stop that. But the switch to biofuels is really questionable on environmental grounds. Many of the biofuels that are being produced don't actually save carbon by the time you factor in all the fertilizers, pesticides, changing in land use. So you don't save anything on carbon emissions and global warming, and you put a squeeze on food prices.
Jagow: We've been hearing the word "crisis" used a lot in this situation. Would you use the word crisis?
Green: Definitely. If you think a lot of poor families spend 50 percent or three-quarters of their income on food, if the price of food doubles, suddenly they are in really difficult situations. They either have to eat less food or they have to switch to less nutritious, cheaper food.
Jagow: In terms of this situation getting better this year or getting worse, possibly, what does that hinge on?
Green: Well it hinges on the harvests coming in, and there's some suggestion that the harvests will be bigger. I mean, farmers do respond to high prices. They're businessmen and women, after all. So there will be an increase in production, but not enough. So I think, our analysis that we're entering a prolonged period of high prices. So governments have to do various things. In developing countries, governments have to invest far more in agriculture. They've actually been investing less in agriculture. And the kind of agriculture they invest in has got to be the kind that actually benefits poor people the most. So we are particularly urging them to invest in small-scale agriculture, small family farmers in poor countries.
Jagow: Duncan Green, the head of research at Oxfam in Great Britain. Thanks for joining us.
Green: Thank you.
Jagow: Tomorrow on Food Fight: Higher demand is good for farmers, well, some of them.