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Can Food Prices Be Stabilized?

CAMBRIDGE – Under French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s leadership, the G-20 has made addressing food-price volatility a top priority this year, with member states’ agriculture ministers meeting recently in Paris to come up with solutions. Small wonder: world food prices reached a record high earlier in the year, recalling a similar price spike in 2008.

Consumers are hurting worldwide, especially the poor, for whom food takes a major bite out of household budgets. Popular discontent over food prices has fueled political instability in some countries, most notably in Egypt and Tunisia. Even agricultural producers would prefer some price stability over the wild ups and downs of the last five years.

The G-20’s efforts will culminate in the Cannes Summit in November. But, when it comes to specific policies, caution will be very much in order, for there is a long history of measures aimed at reducing commodity-price volatility that have ended up doing more harm than good.

For example, some inflation-targeting central banks have reacted to increases in prices of imported commodities by tightening monetary policy and thereby increasing the value of the currency. But adverse movements in the terms of trade must be accommodated; they cannot be fought with monetary policy.