Out of Control Policy Blog

Global Food Follies

If there was any silver lining to the global food price crisis, it was that countries around the world started tearing down long-standing trade barriers such as tariffs and quotas against food imports. But that silver lining proved short-lived as another threat to free trade emerged: export bans and export taxes on domestic food.

To return soaring food prices to earth and placate irate consumers (read: voters): India announced a temporary ban on some varieties of rice; China slapped export taxes on rice; Pakistan imposed a 35 percent duty on wheat; and Russia quadrupled wheat-export taxes to 40 percent.

But the problem with such measures is that the relief they provide will be temporary – and the pain they cause more enduring. Why? Farmers who can't command the market price for their produce will have little incentive to invest in yield-enhancing technologies, making it much harder for food production to catch up with demand. Farmers will certainly lose out -- but so will consumers.

The only country that seems to understand this is South Africa which has refused to jump on the export-ban bandwagon. "We don't believe banning exports will help us in the long run," noted Lulu Xingwana, the South African agricultural minister.

Check out Noble laureate and Chicago econ prof Gary Becker's brilliant analysis of the Malthusian fallacies underlying the discussion of this issue here.

Shikha Dalmia is Senior Analyst

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