U.N. reports prices for many foods at record highs

Vendors prepare their food stands in Moscow's Dorogomilovsky Market.

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Kai Ryssdal: The United Nations released its world food price index today. Up more than 2 percent in February. Just like the productivity bump that might not sound like a lot. But it's the biggest jump since the U.N. started keeping records 20 years ago.

From the Marketplace's Sustainability Desk, John Dimsdale has more.


John Dimsdale: For the most part, food prices have been on a tear since a poor summer growing season. A dry hot summer in Russia, wet cool weather in North America, floods in Pakistan and Australia have tightened supplies of some grains. Is this a long-term change in the weather? Nobody knows for sure. But Gawain Kripke of Oxfam takes it as a warning.

Gawain Kripke: Whether or not these particular events are climate change, this is probably what the future is going to look like. More rain when you don't want it. Droughts when you don't want them, and generally higher temperatures.

The Earth Policy Institute estimates each 1.8 degree rise in temperature during a growing season means a 10 percent loss in harvest size. Fortunately, the weather hasn't been all bad everywhere. Big rice exporters -- like China, Indonesia and Thailand -- had good harvests this year. But the yields for most grains, corn, and soybeans have contributed to unrest in countries that can't grow their own food -- like the Middle East, says Oxfam's Kripke.

Kripke: Most of the Middle Eastern countries, which are food importers, are under stress because of these high food prices, because of the balance of payments and they have to pay more for importing food.

Protests in the Middle East are creating a price spiral for both food and oil. It takes a lot of oil to produce and transport food. As oil prices rise, so do food prices. Scarcer crops also contribute to the higher prices that create unrest in the Middle East. And all that only creates more concerns about the supply of oil, pushing the price up even more.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

About the author

As head of Marketplace’s Washington, D.C. bureau, John Dimsdale provides insightful commentary on the intersection of government and money for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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