Free the Food

Sunday, May 11, 2008

AMONG THE many negative consequences of the recent explosion in food prices is that more than 40 countries have taken steps to discourage grain exports -- or to stop them altogether. For hard-pressed governments in the developing world, this is a politically tempting and, indeed, understandable approach: One's own hungry citizens come first. But it is fatally shortsighted. Over time, the curtailment in trade simply encourages hoarding and discourages production. The result: shrinking supplies and higher prices.

In some cases export bans have resulted in a cutoff of aid to the destitute people who depend on the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) for their daily bread. The WFP has wisely shifted to purchasing commodities in countries near hunger zones, which both stimulates agricultural markets in the developing world and avoids the high transportation costs associated with U.S. and European grain. But the WFP reports that, in recent weeks, these regional purchases have been stymied by export controls.

The WFP wants to export 2,500 metric tons of cereal from Burkina Faso to Ghana and Niger, but the government of Burkina Faso says no, citing new rules imposed in February. Three shipments to the strategically critical nation of Afghanistan have been obstructed by its neighbors. Pakistan has so far denied a WFP request, made in February, to ship 100,000 metric tons of wheat to hungry Afghans. Iran slapped the WFP with a $300,000 export tax, forcing it to abandon a purchase of 3,000 metric tons for western Afghanistan. And on April 15, Kazakhstan imposed a ban on wheat exports, scuttling a purchase of 5,500 metric tons.

A laudable exception is India, which has permitted the WFP to buy and ship 25,410 metric tons of rice as a humanitarian exception to that country's ban on rice exports. India is also considering easing its policy more generally.

At a time of real hardship around the globe, this is an issue the United States needs to tackle through strong diplomacy. It does not, to be sure, have much influence on Iran. But it could certainly encourage other countries blocking aid shipments to follow the Indian example. Export controls on food are unwise; when they affect humanitarian aid, they become unconscionable.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company