ROME, ITALY — Three Rome-based UN agencies said on Sept. 4 that the current situation in world food markets, characterized by sharp increases in maize, wheat and soybean prices, has raised fears of a repeat of the 2007-2008 world food crisis. But, the groups said, swift, coordinated international action can stop that from happening.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural  Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP) said the agencies need to act urgently to make sure that these price shocks do not turn into a catastrophe hurting tens of millions over the coming months.
Two interconnected problems must be tackled: the immediate issue of some high food prices, which can impact heavily on food import-dependent countries and on the poorest people; and the long-term issue of how we produce, trade and consume food in an age of increasing population, demand and climate change.
“In responding to those challenges, we are better placed today than five years ago. We have developed new policies and new instruments, like the United Nations High-Level Task Force on Global Food Security and AMIS, the G20's Agricultural Markets Information System, which improves transparency in global markets,” the groups said. “We also have the AMIS-related Rapid Response Forum, set up to facilitate coordinated policy responses by the major world producers and traders of key cereals and soybeans in the event of market upheavals.”
The agencies said they have adopted a twin-track approach which supports long-term investments in agriculture, notably smallholder agriculture, while ensuring that safety-nets are in place to help poor food consumers and producers avoid hunger, asset losses and poverty traps in the short run.
Many countries have social protection systems including safety nets - such as assistance for smallholder farmers, nutritional support to mothers and children, and school meals - to ensure that their poorest citizens have enough to eat; yet, these need to be expanded significantly in poorer countries. Safety nets that are affordable, predictable and transparent are an absolute must if we are to safeguard against recurring price shocks and crises. 
Small-scale food producers also need to be better equipped to raise their productivity, increase their access to markets and reduce their exposure to risk. And, of course, people need decent jobs and incomes so that they can afford the food they need and escape from poverty.
“In responding to high food prices, the things we must avoid doing are just as important as the things we should do,” they said. “In particular, countries must avoid panic buying and refrain from imposing export restrictions which, while temporarily helping some consumers at home, are generally inefficient and make life difficult for everyone else.
“Above all, however, we must understand that high food prices are a symptom, and not the disease. So while the international community must take early action to prevent excessive price increases, it should also move to act on the root causes behind such surges.”