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Barbara Laskin

Macalester professor finds dependency on Asian rice contributed to 2008 West African global food crisis

Asian rice map width=

February 22, 2010 – St. Paul, Minn.– During the 2008 global food crisis, certain West African countries fared worse than others due to increased dependency on Asian rice, which severely undermined local rice production.  Macalester College Geography Professor William Moseley and co-authors made this discovery that will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Global food prices climbed more than 50 percent between April 2007 and March 2008, creating hardships for the world’s urban poor who spend a disproportionate amount of their income on food.  Increases were even worse for those populations dependent on rice, which rose 100 percent over this same period.  High food prices touched off food riots around the world, with rice-dependent urban West Africa arguably suffering more of these disturbances than any otherworld region. 

“It is important to understand this crisis if policymakers are to work towards improving agriculture and food security in this region,” said Moseley, the lead author of Neoliberal Policy, Rural Livelihoods and Urban Food Security in West Africa: A Comparative Study of The Gambia, Côte d'Ivoire and Mali.

Co-authors Moseley, J. Carney and L. Becker wondered why some areas of West Africa seemed to fare much better, and others worse, during the 2008 global food crisis.  By examining food security and agricultural policy in The Gambia, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali over the past 30 years, they concluded that neoliberal economic approaches (which reduced tariffs on food imports as well as subsidies for inputs needed by local farmers) increased dependency on imported Asian rice and severely undermined local production.  This policy worked, providing cheap imported rice for urban consumers, until global food prices skyrocketed in 2007-2008.

Female Farmers MaliFemale farmers in southern Mali.

“Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Mali’s landlocked nature was actually a benefit in this instance as it helped protect local rice producers from cheap imports and preserved a higher level of food self-sufficiency,” said Moseley.  “Mali also, quite counter intuitively, benefitted from a surge in sorghum production (another major food crop) which accompanied a decline in cotton output because of low global prices for this company.  This meant that poorer urban consumers could switch to sorghum when rice prices became too high.”

The question now, according to Moseley, is what these countries should do from 2009 moving forward? While many are calling for a renewed emphasis on production, and a New Green Revolution for Africa, the authors argue that there must be caution not to repeat the same mistakes of the first attempts at this in the 1960s through early 1980s.

“These early attempts often favored the wealthy and male members of the community, as well as cash crops over food crops,” said Moseley.  “We must also revisit the policy context of the 1980s-1990s which created the 2007-2008 crisis. As such, tariff barriers and subsidies may be appropriate to protect and support local food producers.”

Macalester College, founded in 1874, is a national liberal arts college with a full-time enrollment of 1,958 students. Macalester is nationally recognized for its long-standing commitment to academic excellence, internationalism, multiculturalism and civic engagement.