Last year the skyrocketing cost of food was a wake-up call for the planet. Between 2005 and the summer of 2008, the price of wheat and corn tripled, and the price of rice climbed fivefold, spurring food riots in nearly two dozen countries and pushing 75 million more people into poverty. But unlike previous shocks driven by short-term food shortages, this price spike came in a year when the world's farmers reaped a record grain crop. This time, the high prices were a symptom of a larger problem tugging at the strands of our worldwide food web, one that's not going away anytime soon. Simply put: For most of the past decade, the world has been consuming more food than it has been producing. After years of drawing down stockpiles, in 2007 the world saw global carryover stocks fall to 61 days of global consumption, the second lowest on record.
"Agricultural productivity growth is only one to two percent a year," warned Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., at the height of the crisis. "This is too low to meet population growth and increased demand."
High prices are the ultimate signal that demand is outstripping supply, that there is simply not enough food to go around. Such agflation hits the poorest billion people on the planet the hardest, since they typically spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food. Even though prices have fallen with the imploding world economy, they are still near record highs, and the underlying problems of low stockpiles, rising population, and flattening yield growth remain. Climate change—with its hotter growing seasons and increasing water scarcity—is projected to reduce future harvests in much of the world, raising the specter of what some scientists are now calling a perpetual food crisis.
So what is a hot, crowded, and hungry world to do?