In the space of less than five years, street demonstrations and violent outbursts -- one leading to the toppling of a government -- have erupted around the world due to huge spikes in food prices. Ten years ago the West typically saw food as merely a development issue. Fortunately, this perception has changed and we now see the interrelationship between social (including food) security and physical and national security.
Since the first major food price crisis to hit in modern times in 2008, the international community, the media and politicians have come together to find solutions and in some cases point blame. While these efforts were clearly well intentioned, there is no single factor that has caused the crisis and the solution goes beyond the scope of specialist taskforces and sound bites.
The food price crisis is the outcome of broader structural problems created as a by-product of a globalized world, which isn't to say that globalization is bad but rather that it comes with its challenges as well as opportunities. Positive globalization is about managing resources responsibly and spreading the wealth. In short, our success is tied to the success of others.
However, we as a "global society" have not developed a successful model. Even though per capita income has increased nine fold since the industrial revolution, there is a twenty fold income gap between America and the poorest regions in Africa. This trend cannot continue.
In addition to a growing wealth gap, resource efficiency and management are other critical issues. Currently 80 percent of the world relies on only four food staples, namely wheat, rice, corn (maize) and potatoes. While prices for these staples are lower than their peak levels in 2008, prices are still much higher than historical averages. According to the UN, food prices are expected to increase between 15 - 40 percent during this decade.
Although we are able to technically produce enough food to feed the world, we are not able to get food to where it is needed most at a price that is affordable by most. With the world population expected to rise to nine billion by 2050 from almost seven billion people today, how are we going to manage to feed the world in the future and avoid even more suffering and civil strife?
Addressing these issues is complicated and goes far beyond agricultural reform, innovation, and developing new distribution models. The shift to a green, low-carbon economy increases demand for plant based inputs, requiring even smarter resource management so to avoid affecting food production negatively. It is also not simply a matter of financial regulations to reign in excessive speculation -- as massive hunger also existed before this phenomenon -- but ensuring that the financial sector is providing the necessary liquidity to keep the food and related sectors going. Then there are broader issues such as poverty reduction, education and healthcare.
While the solutions are not clear, it is evident that no single person or institution can manage these problems. The ability to create positive globalization, solve problems like the food price crisis, and create sustainable growth will require dedication from society: government, international organizations, civil society and the private sector. Each has a role to play in the process of developing a societal solution, be it through market, humanitarian or regulatory means.
To accomplish this, we will need to break down silos between the private and public sectors and be open to listening to one another. Furthermore, our perception of development assistance needs to change even more. Development should not be looked at as a mere humanitarian initiative but rather as an investment in long term economic growth.
Currently the world's four billion poorest people, which typically live on an average of less than $2 a day, have a combined purchasing power of $5 trillion, which is larger than the GDP of Japan. Now image the type of positive globalization that could be developed if we could pull these people out of poverty.
When delegates convene at the World Economic Forum this week in Davos, I hope that one positive result of the food price crisis will be the recognition that we cannot succeed in a failing world. Thus we must come together as a 'global society' to ensure we can help put food on the table, and not just for today or tomorrow but for billions of children to come.