March 14, 2012

Food prices and advocacy organizations: turning all the news into bad news

Johan Swinnen and  Pasquamaria Squicciarini write in Science (Mixed messages on prices and food security):
Because donors, like TV viewers and newspaper readers, tend to pay more attention to negative news, development organizations have an incentive to portray events negatively.
. . .
As recently as 2005, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) explained: “The long-term downward trend in agricultural commodity prices threatens the food security of hundreds of millions of people …”. The dramatic increase of food prices in 2008 caused a major turnaround in opinion. FAO wrote: “Rising food prices … worsen the … food deprivation suffered by 854 million people”. This reversal of opinion was fairly widespread with some extreme examples coming from non-governmental organizations. In 2005 Oxfam stated: “Low prices [on world markets make] it impossible for farmers in developing countries to compete. As a consequence, over 900 millions of farmers are losing their livelihoods”. Three years later, Oxfam argued: “[Higher] food prices … have pushed millions of people in developing countries further into hunger and poverty”.
. . .
[T]he background document for the 2008 FAO Summit on Soaring Food Prices explained that the impact of soaring food prices on the poor may be positive or negative, depending on how much they produce and consume food, and that it may represent an opportunity for promoting agricultural development. The FAO press communication at the summit does not mention potential benefits and focuses exclusively on how high prices hurt the poor. Studies by World Bank researchers show complex effects of food price changes on poverty in developing countries, yet official World Bank communications at the time of the crisis largely emphasize how rising prices hurt the poor.

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