The demand for food is growing worldwide, fed by economic gains in places such as India and China. As always, this rising demand, and the rising food prices that result, are hitting the world's poor the hardest. Already this has resulted in riots in Egypt, Haiti and West Africa, and more unrest is sure to come.
But it's a crisis that can be tackled if wealthy Western nations, including the United States, are willing to let free markets do their magic. That means eliminating, once and for all, farm subsidies. It means never giving a government check to a farmer who lets his fields sit idle. It means allowing genetically modified foods that can increase yields, resist droughts and feed people more efficiently.
It means reducing tariffs and quotas and strengthening free-trade agreements. It also means ending government subsidies for corn ethanol, which provide financial incentives to grow corn for fuel, rather than for food.
This is not a typical food crisis, which in the past has involved famine and shortages. There is plenty of food to go around. The problem has to do with price. To a large measure, the rising price of oil has caused this, making food much more expensive to grow and ship.
But under a typical free-market scenario, this increase in price would lead farmers to invest in more land and plant more crops. There is, after all, money to be made. Unfortunately, governments all over the world, including in the United States, have created disincentives to do so. As if to underscore this economic illiteracy, some of the world's poorest countries are turning to protectionist measures, including price controls and subsidies, to counter the crisis. All they are doing is driving prices even higher.
Since January, rice has become 141 percent more expensive. The World Bank says 33 countries may face social and political unrest because of high-priced food. People who survive on little each day now must survive on even less.
In the middle of all this, Congress has yet to pass a proposed farm bill. Now would be a good time to rip it in pieces and start over. This nation's protectionist agriculture laws are designed to make it impossible for Third World farmers to compete with American agri-business. All that does is make the world's poor even poorer.
With oil prices bringing this inequity into high relief, it's time to do as Americans do in other segments of the economy and free the market to solve the problem.