In some countries, the higher prices are leading to riots, political instability and growing worries about feeding the poorest people. Food riots contributed to the dismissal of Haiti’s prime minister last week, and leaders in some other countries are nervously trying to calm anxious consumers.
At a weekend conference in Washington, finance ministers and central bankers of seven leading industrial nations called for urgent action to deal with the price spikes, and several of them demanded a reconsideration of biofuel policies adopted recently in the West.
Many specialists in food policy consider government mandates for biofuels to be ill advised, agreeing that the diversion of crops like corn into fuel production has contributed to the higher prices. But other factors have played big roles, including droughts that have limited output and rapid global economic growth that has created higher demand for food.
That growth, much faster over the last four years than the historical norm, is lifting millions of people out of destitution and giving them access to better diets. But farmers are having trouble keeping up with the surge in demand.
While there is agreement that the growth of biofuels has contributed to higher food prices, the amount is disputed.
Work by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington suggests that biofuel production accounts for a quarter to a third of the recent increase in global commodity prices. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicted late last year that biofuel production, assuming that current mandates continue, would increase food costs by 10 to 15 percent.
Ethanol supporters maintain that any increase caused by biofuels is relatively small and that energy costs and soaring demand for meat in developing countries have had a greater impact. “There’s no question that they are a factor, but they are really a smaller factor than other things that are driving up prices,” said Ron Litterer, an Iowa farmer who is president of the National Corn Growers Association.
He said biofuels were an “easy culprit to blame” because their popularity had grown so rapidly in the last two or three years.
Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, called the recent criticism of ethanol by foreign officials “a big joke.” He questioned why they were not also blaming a drought in Australia that reduced the wheat crop and the growing demand for meat in China and India.
“You make ethanol out of corn,” he said. “I bet if I set a bushel of corn in front of any of those delegates, not one of them would eat it.”
The senator’s comments reflect a political reality in Washington that despite the criticism from abroad, support for ethanol remains solid.
Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, said he had come to realize that Congress made a mistake in backing biofuels, not anticipating the impact on food costs. He said Congress needed to reconsider its policy, though he acknowledged that would be difficult.
“If there was a secret vote, there is a pretty large number of people who would like to reassess what we are doing,” he said.
According to the World Bank, global food prices have increased by 83 percent in the last three years. Rice, a staple food for nearly half the world’s population, has been a particular focus of concern in recent weeks, with spiraling prices prompting several countries to impose drastic limits on exports as they try to protect domestic consumers.
While grocery prices in the United States increased about 5 percent over all in the last year, some essential items like eggs and milk have jumped far more. The federal government is expected to release new data on domestic food prices Wednesday, with notable increases expected.
On Monday, President Bush ordered that $200 million in emergency food aid be made available to “meet unanticipated food aid needs in Africa and elsewhere,” a White House statement said.