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Food Price Spike Shows Reform Urgent

The current spike in food prices is a repeat of the 2007-08 crisis and indicates urgent reforms are needed to a stressed global agricultural system, John Beddington, the U.K. government’s chief scientist said on Jan. 24.

“In 2007-08 everyone said this was just a one-off because we have been looking at price declines for 30 to 40 years and then the same thing has happened,” Beddington told reporters at the release of a report commissioned by the U.K. government on future food security challenges. “It indicates the system is under stress,” he added.

Food prices hit a record high last month, outstripping levels that prompted riots in 2008, according to the United Nations food agency and have been a factor in widespread protests in North Africa and the Middle East.

Beddington said it was the volatility of prices that posed the greatest threat to social stability. “Where you get social disruption is when something happens very quickly and that is what happened with the price spike in 2007-08 and that is what is happening (again),” he said.

Beddington said free trade was “absolutely essential” to limit price spikes and other measures might include the development of regional reserves which could be either physical or financial.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy in a speech laying out his G20 presidency agenda called for new rules to curb commodity price volatility, warning that the world risks food riots and weaker growth if leaders fail to act.

U.K. Farming and Environment Minister Caroline Spelman told the media briefing that she welcomed France putting food security and price volatility at the top of the G20 agenda.

“There is a tangible political will to address this and I think one of the keys to this will be getting the Doha round (of World Trade Organization negotiations) going again,” she said.

She added that “transparency is crucial,” referring to the ability to know who is buying, who is holding stocks and who has the capacity to meet a short-term need.

It called for minimizing waste in all areas of the food system and improving the governance by reducing subsidies and trade barriers that disadvantage poor countries.

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