In 2008, food prices around the world surged and awakened fears – which continue to this day — that the world could re-live the disastrous food shortages of the early 1970s.
Harvard economics professor emeritus Peter Timmer's life and career was shaped by that food crisis in the 70s. Timmer, who's also a fellow at the Center for Global Development, lived through it as a young economist doing field research in Indonesia, and much of his work has been aimed at preventing another one. The events of 2008, and continuing high food prices around the world, brought him out of semi-retirement. Today, he says, he's busier than ever.
NPR's Dan Charles interviewed Timmer for his Planet Money podcast about how the rice market went crazy. Here's an excerpt, edited for length and clarity.
Q: You had some experience as a commodity analyst on Wall Street. Do you approach things a little differently because of that?
A: These markets never looked open and transparent to me. In the short run they look like — oh my God — they're kind of rigged. Speculators get into the market and push prices. So I always have looked at commodity markets slightly askance. They're not the nice perfect markets that we'd like to think they are.
Q: How is rice different from potatoes or wheat or corn?
A: This is a staple food commodity that can be stored. So everybody who participates in the rice economy is potentially a speculator. You don't store bread. Wheat farmers, by and large, do not store grain on the farm.
Also, it's different in how much is traded across international borders. With wheat and corn, it's a third or even a half [of global production]. For rice, it's maybe 5 percent.
Q: Is this a reflection of emotional attitudes toward rice?
A: Certainly there's a deep cultural attachment. But that comes out of the sheer physiological importance. Historically, people [in Asia] have gotten 70-80 percent of their calories from this crop.
Q: 70 or 80 percent of their calories?
From this crop! So naturally you take that pretty seriously. There's nothing like it in Europe or North America.
Q: Did the latest crisis, in 2008, leave long-lasting effects?
A: World prices remained higher. Higher rice prices do hurt the poor in much of Asia. We have more poverty in Asia now than we would have had without the crisis.
Q: What about the psychological impact?
A: Every country that I know in Asia has reinforced their determination not to let price spikes happen in their country.
Q: So the crisis was the result of interventions in the market, but you're saying the result is even less confidence that the market can work?
A: Right. Right now, nobody trusts the world rice market. So I've been trying to figure out ways to increase the trust that countries have, that consumers and farmers and traders have, in a reliable world rice market.
I think we're beginning to make some progress. Countries are talking about doing what I think is the right thing, which is to very gradually start building up their rice reserves. Because if you've got larger reserves, then you can trust trade.
Q: It's a damaging thing, right, when people don't trust the market?
A: Producing everything for your own consumption out of your own resources is extraordinarily costly just in resource terms, but we also know that it's devastating to our long run economic growth because trade is how you specialize, it's how you get good at certain things and import other things.
Q: What do you say when somebody asks you for a concise "lessons learned" or a prescription for the future?
It's all about managing expectations. You can be open and transparent: "Here's how much rice is in the warehouse, here are the ships that are coming, everything is fine, we'll keep the price stable." Then it's great.
But what happens when, as happened in 1996, we discovered a warehouse that we thought had 200,000 tons of rice in it, and it was empty? It was a corruption problem. The local guy had sold it off and pocketed the money. Suddenly we discovered we didn't have the 200,000 tons of rice we thought we had.
Q: It sounds like you're saying, sometimes openness is great and sometimes openness doesn't work.
A: Exactly. I don't think there's any iron-clad rule in stabilizing people's expectations. The search for rules — I understand that, it's very desirable. But situations are different each time.
Q: It almost sounds like the prescription is something almost as vague as "be wise."
A: (Laughs) I've been accused of saying that, yes. Or, it's "Be prepared." Understand your situation, do the analysis.