Press Conference on Response of Secretary-General’s High-Level Task Force to Recent Increase in Food Prices

18 February 2011

Press Conference on Response of Secretary-General’s High-Level Task Force to Recent Increase in Food Prices

18 February 2011
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on Response of Secretary-General’s High-Level Task Force


to Recent Increase in Food Prices


With steadily increasing food prices beginning to squeeze the world’s poorest people — who were already spending nearly all their income on basic staples — the top United Nations food security official today appealed to the international community and multilateral agencies to be ready to respond to market volatility and supply shocks affecting the nutrition, lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable communities.

“We are extremely concerned about the uncertainty around food supplies and changes in food prices that we have seen since 2008 [which] contributes to food insecurity, poverty, hunger and political instability,” David Nabarro, Coordinator of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Task Force on Global Food Security, told a Headquarters press conference via video link from Geneva.

Mr. Nabarro said he had just informed the members of the Economic and Social Council — which is expected to conclude its 2011 organizational session later today (See Press Release ECOSOC/6466) — that with food prices at or near the record 2008 levels, the 22-member Task Force and the “whole UN system” was working together to understand and respond to the current uptick in prices, which was already causing some hardship.  One of the key concerns was that, while United Nations agencies and other actors were better prepared to tackle the issue than they had been three years ago, the current situation was turning out to be far more complex, he cautioned.

“Indeed, we are not talking about a ‘world food security crisis’ right now, but about serious price volatility and food shortages in some parts of the world affecting the most vulnerable people and communities,” he continued, underscoring that, while wheat and sugar prices continued to spiral upwards, the prices of other staples, such as maize, had remained relatively stable in some developing-country markets.  As such, some of the world’s poorest people, already living on less than $2 a day and spending three quarters of their income on food, were now paying some 15 per cent more than they had paid in 2010 to cover basic nutritional needs.  There was real concern that some 40 million people had been pushed below the poverty line in recent months, he added.

Mr. Nabarro said the Task Force was very concerned about such trends, noting that the World Food Programme (WFP), already on “high alert” over the pre-positioning of its supplies, was reporting that vulnerable communities lacking social protections or safety nets to absorb the price shocks and shortages were facing difficulties.  The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) had also reported that some poor households had already implemented coping strategies, such as eating fewer meals, cutting health expenditures, letting their debts rise and working longer hours in the informal employment sector.

Responding to questions, he cited a host of factors that could be linked to the price increases, including weather-related disasters such as droughts and floods caused by La Niña in some countries and regions, as well as political instability which had disrupted food supply chains in others, contributing both to supply shortages and high prices.  He said the Task Force had long pressed the international community to acknowledge that systematic underinvestment in agriculture and food security systems had played a major role in such trends.

Mr. Nabarro stressed that one of the upsides was that small farmers could take advantage of the current state of affairs to increase production and incomes.  Their respective Governments must help them do so, while remaining mindful of the dangers of “up and down price volatility”, as well as market fluctuations, he said, adding that small farmers needed help in making wise decisions on when and how to increase production.

He went on to say that all Governments needed to invest in better-functioning value chains, strengthening safety nets for poor people, with a particular emphasis on the nutrition of pregnant women and children, and in supporting countries with weak economies as they tackled the consequences of the price spikes.  The agencies comprising the Task Force were doing their part, with UNICEF “on standby” in respect of its programmes for children and pregnant or lactating women.  The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were examining inflation and redeploying some mechanisms implemented in 2008.

To another query, he replied that scaled-up investment in agriculture must target roads and infrastructure, as well as seeds and fertilizer.  It must improve the quality of post-harvest systems, access to them, and training, among other things, he said, going on to emphasize that such investments would not come about through official development assistance (ODA).  Agricultural matters were always going to be a “private business” matter, so private sector actors were needed to drive the process, he added.

Mr. Nabarro said the United Nations was monitoring efforts to draft codes of conduct for international land acquisition and considering ways in which international private investors could equitably go into developing countries.  Civil society was key to monitoring foreign direct investment patterns and outcomes, he noted.

Commenting on the unique nature of the current situation, he pointed out that, while some areas within developing countries were facing serious difficulties, sub-Saharan Africa had enjoyed” “fantastic” maize harvests.  Another bright spot for the continent was that much of its food was produced locally so the population was less dependent on foreign markets.  African Governments had taken pains to ensure that rice prices remained reasonably stable, he said, noting that, at the same time, urban dwellers were paying more for sugar and meat.

Overall, the United Nations system was focused on individual households in order better to address realities on the ground and their impact on poor communities, even as wider-ranging initiatives were under consideration, he said.  It was a bit more difficult to tackle such issues as market fundamentals, supply and demand, and speculation because United Nations agencies were not in control of “national market levers”.  As such, they were carrying out analysis in order to provide input into the current and future Group of 20 (G-20) discussions on food price volatility and mitigating their consequences for vulnerable people.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.