Causes of High Food Prices

Publication | October 2008

This paper discusses the causes of high food prices, focusing on staple grains and edible oils. Though food prices have come down from the spikes of early 2008, they are likely to remain higher than they were in early 2007 for years to come.

Since mid-2007 basic food prices have rocketed with disastrous consequences for poor consumers. The spike in international market prices through the first half of 2008 has now subsided. Still prices of rice, wheat, corn (maize), and edible oils remain well above the levels of just a year ago and are likely to remain elevated and volatile for years to come.

Two separate dynamics need to be understood in order for countries to make necessary adjustments. A gradual rise in food prices has been under way since at least 2004 with three general and fundamental factors at work: rapid economic growth in the People's Republic of China and India especially put upward pressure on prices as demand simply outpaced supply; a sustained decline in the United States dollar since mid-decade added to the pressures on dollar-denominated international market prices; and a combination of high and rising fuel prices coupled with legislative mandates to increase production of biofuels has established a firm link between petroleum prices and food prices.

The causes of price spikes are crop-specific. Drought and disease in 2007 caused wheat prices to jump, and supplies of edible oil were reduced as farmers in the United States shifted acreage out of soybeans into corn for nonfood uses (ethanol). Rice is the clearest example of crop-specific causes - the price spike was driven by export bans that were aimed at helping contain domestic food price inflation in exporting countries, but had the unintended effect of setting off panic as supplies to the already thin world rice market were sharply reduced.

Asia will need several years of good rice harvests in order to stabilize the situation and reduce the exposure of the poor to another shock in food prices. This will not be easy to achieve as input costs are driven higher by high energy prices. Thus, it seems unlikely that world food prices will return to the declining trend seen between the mid-1970s and the first few years of this century.


  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • What has Caused Commodity Prices to Increase since 2000?
  • Transmission of World Commodity Prices into Domestic Economies
  • Country Results: Contrasting Experiences of Rice Importers and Exporters
  • Can Anything be Done about High Food Prices?
  • Technical Appendix
  • Appendixes
  • References

Additional Details

  • Agriculture and natural resources
  • Economics
  • Poverty
  • 1655-5252 (Print)

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