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Campaign politics and the food crisis

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Lisa Napoli: “A silent tsunami that respects no borders.” That’s what the head of the U.N.’s World Food Programme called the worldwide food crisis at a summit on Tuesday. Food prices have risen so high that the Programme has had to stop school food programs in three countries. That’s as the U.N. Secretary-General says close to $800 million is needed to cover the expenses of the agency’s emergency operations. Commentator Will Wilkinson says the American political process contributes to the inflation of worldwide food costs.

Will Wilkinson: Do Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses cause food riots in Mozambique?

In recent months, demonstrations and riots have broken out all over the less-developed world in protest of the rising cost of the grains that make up the daily bread of so many. The recent run-up in prices is hitting the world’s poor especially hard. But this mess is largely the aftermath of a perfect storm of American special-interest politics.

The supply of corn is at an all-time high, but those gains in production aren’t going into peoples’ bellies; they’re going into American gas tanks. According to a new World Bank report, almost the entire increase in the global production in corn over the last three years went into biofuel production here in the U.S. Meanwhile, many farmers worldwide have switched their crops to corn to profit from surging biofuel-driven demand. This has pushed up the price of other grains, like wheat.

Back in 2003, John McCain noted that ethanol is a creation of government subsidies and “does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality.” And he was right. But in a speech in Iowa last August, a not-so-maverick McCain fell into line and touted the virtues of ethanol. Hillary Clinton flip-flopped, too.

Iowa’s not really the problem, nor Big Agra, which just happened to benefit from a fluke of political history. The real problem is the nature of electoral politics, which encourages politicians to meddle in markets and pick winners as they cruise the campaign trail. This makes worries over global warming or energy independence more likely to result in a bonanza of special interest subsidies than in any real improvement.

Usually, it’s taxpayer wallets that take the hit. This time around, it’s hungry children. That’s sad. But sadder still, voters may be helpless to put a stop to it — much less keep it from happening again.

The 2012 Iowa caucus isn’t that far away.

Napoli: Will Wilkinson is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.
You can find a link to his blog at our Web site:

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