The need for encouraging transparency in information about global food markets has loomed increasingly important in reaction to the history-making volatility of recent months. The claim has been made that with adequate information, price swings would have been considerably less than the terrifying fluctuations that have characterized markets this year. This concern then leads to a debate whether price volatility, even of the most jarring sort, is a positive or negative for achieving long-term goals of an adequate supply of food. More than a few national leaders with responsibility for achieving transparency or not contend that holding markets steady depends on withholding information and even on outright secrecy. Others assert just the opposite, that the more reliable the data that are available, the less likely are prices to register extraordinary swings.

It is Tom Vilsack, the US secretary of agriculture, who recently aligned his commit-ment to spurring transparency with a desire to assure free movements among nations. He declared that nations “should share information on stocks and production,” while incorporating in the same statement his belief in the necessity of abstaining from export embargoes and the cautious use of export quotas and export taxes. He went so far in melding these concepts to declare, “We need a concerted effort by the private sector, governments and multilateral institutions to increase transparency and market information, increase agricultural productivity and facilitate trade.”

This is one of the first times that freedom of information has been joined with these other concepts as fundamental to global food production expanding sufficiently to accommodate the huge expansion in demand projected by the middle of this century. Expressing confidence in the ability of farmers to expand production in order to fulfill global food needs, the secretary emphasizes America’s commitment to investing in fundamental research to bolster productivity. But once again, he qualifies his faith in what farmers can achieve in using advances made possible by biotechnology by saying this outcome depends on producers having accurate, transparent information. He goes so far as to explain that transparency means improved data collection along with the dissemination of information about physical cash markets and also better monitoring of weather conditions.

Global markets for most foodstuffs over the years and longer have proved in powerful ways the direct and powerful impact of free-flowing information in accounting for price movements. And it is these market developments that more often than not affect and even determine farmers’ decisions about what crops to plant as well as equally important choices that producers make about timing and quantities in marketing of crops. Sheltering farmers from reliable information that will help them make wise decisions, as some nations have sought to do, is as counter to progress in food production as any manmade intervention could be.

Trade agreements among nations meant to encourage free-flowing movements as well as efficient production of foods have rarely, if ever, incorporated language designed to assure the sort of transparency Mr. Vilsack advocates. It has been mainly the responsibility of entities like the World Trade Organization and the International Grains Council to assemble the data and to disseminate it in a manner that will provide real-time information to its users. In too many instances, these organizations have encountered resistance in obtaining or successfully persuading the release of data that will be helpful to understanding just what may be happening. Even national weather forecasts are sometimes withheld to confound observers seeking information on prospective production. Just those kinds of information gaps proved to be huge factors in the difficulties caused by the disappointing 2010 wheat crop in the Black Sea region. Indeed, just how essential transparency is may best be proven by the problems that unfold when the opposite course is pursued. Much is made about freedom of information in political debating, but there’s hardly a place it is more important than in assuring well functioning food markets.