High food prices may have made the job of feeding the world’s 850m hungry people harder, but they could also help rural communities in developing countries trade their way out of poverty.

Addressing the European parliament’s Who Will Feed the World? conference in Brussels on Thursday (3 July), EU agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said there were two sides to the food security coin.

“Higher prices can have an immediate and dramatic impact on the world’s poorest populations, putting years of development progress at risk,” she said.

“But they also provide a window of opportunity to stimulate agricultural production in many developing countries which have great potential, but where structural bottlenecks and low prices have left the potential untapped.”

The immediate priority was to increase harvests in the coming seasons, she added.

More research needed

To this end the commissioner planned to use EU money saved from low export subsidies and intervention purchases to buy seed and fertiliser for developing countries.

But this should go hand in hand with long-term policies, she added.

“More research in agriculture will enhance productivity growth. New crop varieties, improved cropping systems, more efficient use of water, and greater resistance to diseases and environmental stress are amongst the ways forward to put global agriculture on a sustainable footing.”

Mrs Fischer Boel also called for a world trade deal under the Doha Development Round.

“New market opportunities would help generate additional export income and would help to stimulate agricultural production,” she said.

Export restrictions

Mrs Fischer Boel also attacked countries like Argentina that are restricting their exports.

“Export restrictions do more harm than good,” she said. “They may bring short-term pain relief in one particular country, but they make the underlying problem worse by adding to nervousness on the world market and by cutting incentives for farmers to raise production.”

Also addressing the conference, chairman of the European parliament’s agriculture committee Neil Parish said EU farmers needed to be freed of unnecessary regulation to enable them to step up production.

“European farmers have some of the best agricultural land in the world and they have been champing at the bit to produce more for years,” he said.