Spectre of hunger

Print edition : May 23, 2008

An Egyptian girl buys government-subsidised bread from a bakery in Cairo, Egypt, on April 16. Egypts government is struggling to contain a political crisis sparked by rising food prices.-HOSSAM ALI/AP

Rising food prices cause unrest in the Third World and threaten to destabilise global security.

RISING food prices could spark worldwide unrest and threaten political stability, the United Nations top humanitarian official warned in the second week of April after two days of rioting in Egypt over the doubling of prices of basic foods in a year and violent protests in other parts of the world.

Sir John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and the U.N.s emergency relief coordinator, told a conference in Dubai that escalating prices would trigger protests and riots in vulnerable nations. He said food scarcity and soaring fuel prices would compound the damaging effects of global warming. Prices have risen 40 per cent on average globally since last summer.

The security implications [of the food crisis] should also not be underestimated as food riots are already being reported across the globe, Holmes said. Current food price trends are likely to increase sharply both the incidence and depth of food insecurity. He added that the biggest challenge to humanitarian work is climate change, which has doubled the number of disasters from an average of 200 a year to 400 a year in the past two decades.

Officials in the Philippines have warned that people hoarding rice could face economic sabotage charges. A moratorium is being considered on converting agricultural land for housing or golf courses, while fast-food outlets are being pressed to offer half-portions of rice.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation said rice production should rise by 12 million tonnes, or 1.8 per cent, this year, in order to help ease the pressure. It expects sizable increases in all the major Asian rice-producing countries, especially Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand. In fact, Josette Sheeran, Director of the U.N. World Food Programme, had warned in March of a worsening global food crisis: We are seeing a new face of hunger. We are seeing more urban hunger than ever before. We are seeing food on the shelves but people being unable to afford it.

In Britain, Professor John Beddington, the new chief scientific adviser to the government, used his first speech in March to warn that the effects of the food crisis would bite more quickly than climate change. He said the agriculture sector needed to double its food production, using less water than today.

He said the prospect of food shortages over the next 20 years was so acute it had to be tackled immediately: Climate change is a real issue and is rightly being dealt with by major global investment. However, I am concerned there is another major issue along a similar time-scale that of food and energy security.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank President Robert Zoellick (right) at a news conference in Bern on April 29. U.N. agencies and the Bank decided to set up a task force on food to deal with the unprecedented rise in global food prices.-RUBEN SPRICH/REUTERS

Rocketing food prices are causing acute problems of hunger and malnutrition in poor countries and have put back the fight against poverty by seven years, the World Bank said in early April.

This is not just about meals forgone today or about increasing social unrest, it is about lost learning potential for children and adults in the future, stunted intellectual and physical growth. Even more, we estimate that the effect of this food crisis on poverty reduction worldwide is in the order of seven lost years, said Robert Zoellick, the Banks President.

He called upon rich countries to commit an extra $500 million immediately to the WFP, and sign up to what he called a New deal for global food policy.

Zoellick said: In the U.S. and Europe over the last year we have been focussing on the prices of gasoline at the pumps. While many worry about filling their gas tanks, many others around the world are struggling to fill their stomachs. And its getting more and more difficult every day. He said the price of wheat had risen by 120 per cent in the past year, more than doubling the cost of a loaf of bread. Rice prices were up by 75 per cent in just two months. On average, the Bank calculates that food prices have risen by 83 per cent in the past three years. In Bangladesh a 2-kg bag of rice now consumes almost half of the daily income of a poor family. With little margin for survival, rising prices too often means fewer meals, he said. Poor people in Yemen were now spending more than a quarter of their income on bread.

The Banks analysis chimes with research from the International Monetary Fund, which shows that Africa will be the hardest hit continent from rising food prices. More than 20 African countries will see their trade balance worsen by more than 1 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) through having to pay more for food.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has written to his Japanese counterpart, Yasuo Fukuda, who is Chairman of the G-8 industrialised countries, calling for a fully-coordinated response to the food crisis.

A protest against rising living costs in Dakar, Senegal, on April 26.-AFP

Zoellick welcomed Browns initiative, and said: This is about recognising a growing emergency, acting and seizing opportunity too. The world can do this. We can do this. Zoellick also called for a boost to long-term financial support to aid production. We must make agriculture a priority. The Bank plans to double its loans to agriculture projects in developing countries in 2008 to $800 million. A number of governments have imposed export bans on commodities, to try to bring prices under control.

Zoellick was also critical of the dash to grow crops for biofuels. The U.S. and the European Union have encouraged wider use of such fuels to try to tackle climate change and provide an alternative to oil, but the policy has sometimes diverted agricultural land away from food and exacerbated price rises. Zoellick criticised the subsidies and import tariffs used to promote wider use of the fuels.

The WFP on April 22 said it had started to cut the provision of school meals to some of the worlds poorest children. Josette Sheeran said that the price of basic foods was rising so rapidly that a shortfall in financing for its food relief programmes had grown from $500 million to $755 million in less than two months. About $300 million has been pledged so far by donor countries to fill the WFPs financing gap, including $60 million offered by Britain.

However, the new money is too late to maintain all of the WFPs operations. A programme providing meals for 450,000 Cambodian children has already been suspended, and Sheeran said that a similar programme in Kenya, serving 1.2 million children, is facing cuts of nearly 50 per cent. Sheeran said the cutbacks reflected heartbreaking decisions forced on the WFP. We need all the help we can get from the governments of the world who can afford to do so, she said.

Gordon Brown said rising food costs posed as serious a threat to world prosperity as the global credit crunch and could reverse hard-won progress in the developing world. He said he would review British policy on biofuels. The food crisis is also being driven by rising demand from consumers in fast developing countries such as China and India, at a time when food production is being hit by climate change. Sheeran said the world had consumed more food than it produced for the past three years, but added that agricultural output was beginning to creep upwards in response to high prices.

Douglas Alexander, the U.K. International Development Secretary, announced a $910 million aid package aimed at mitigating the immediate effects of the food price crisis, and addressing the long-term causes. In that package, $60 million will go to the WFP to help fund its financing gap, $50 million is to go to Ethiopia to boost the incomes of its poorest families, while $800 million would be spent on agricultural research over five years.

Alexander said: There is no simple answer to this global situation. As part of the U.K.s response, we will work with key international institutions, such as the World Bank, IMF and U.N., to develop a comprehensive approach that will help put food on the table for nearly a billion people going hungry across the world.

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