Ensuring that vulnerable populations in the United States and abroad have sufficient and nutritious food is imperative. In 2010, 49 million Americans faced food insecurity, and their numbers have been rising since 2000. Poverty is the primary cause of insufficient access to adequate and nutritious food. Lack of knowledge and other factors, such as ease of access to nutritious food, may also be contributors.
Food price spikes hurt the poor and vulnerable populations globally. The 2007-2008 food price crisis was the latest to focus world attention, including discussions within the G8, G20, and G77. Not only do price spikes and supply shortfalls risk hunger and starvation, but they drive the price of food higher over the long term. The impact of price spikes is especially pronounced for low-income populations, who spend a higher percentage of their disposable income on food. In addition to spikes, general price volatility in agriculture stemming from unpredictable weather and other conditions adds to price pressures. Differentiating between price volatility, price spikes, and high prices is important for identifying the appropriate policy intervention. Export bans on staple food commodities, for example, may have a short-term effect on volatility, but rarely affect long-term food price trends.
Addressing price spikes and supply shortfalls requires pursuing multiple strategies simultaneously. These include investing in agricultural productivity gains that build resilience to climatic conditions; removing barriers to trade; conserving land and water resources; reducing post-harvest losses; and pursuing new renewable energy strategies that would use feedstocks that do not rely on crops and that are food staples across much of the world. Other factors that may contribute to price spikes, such as speculation, warrant investigation.
In addition to these longer-term strategies, food safety nets should be strengthened in the short term, either through public-sector intervention or private charities. Policy has more effectively targeted food safety nets to needy populations, and the nutritional quality of food distributed through safety net programs has improved. Further work, however, is needed to improve the nutritional quality of food assistance and the effectiveness of various approaches.