A sharp spike in prices for wheat, corn, rice and other staples has sparked riots in Mexico and Egypt, marches by hungry children in Yemen and the spectre of starving people in Haiti turning to mud pies for sustenance. This growing unrest is forcing the global community to focus on the causes of higher food costs and what can be done. But it's also raising the troubling possibility that cheap prices for food may be gone for good, an economic relic of the the past.
That scenario would be disastrous for the progress of fighting poverty in poor countries - and it would threaten to halt a long period of rising living standards in the United States tied directly to the inexpensive cost of food.
"Don't look now, but the good times may have just stopped rolling," the economist Paul Krugman wrote in his New York Times column. The Economist was more strident: "The era of cheap food is over," it declared. World Bank President Robert Zoellick, reaching back to policies created during the Great Depression for inspiration to address food inflation, is pushing a "New Deal" for global food policy, aimed at aiding impoverished countries with income support and help in producing crops.
The gloom-and-doom outlooks are prompted by rising prices for commodities, which started increasing steadily in 2001 before suddenly soaring recently. Wheat prices have gone up by 181 percent over the past three years, according to the World Bank; food prices around the globe have risen by 83 percent during the same period. In March, rice prices hit a 19-year high. Corn prices recently rose from $2.50 a bushel three years ago to $6, for the first time. Zoellick has predicted a sustained period of higher food costs, saying he expects prices to remain elevated through next year and stay above 2004 levels for at least the next seven years.