Friday :: Apr 11, 2008

Starving and Rioting

by Turkana

Not that it matters to anyone in the position of being able to do anything about it, but a food crisis is devastating much of the world. As the Guardian reports:

Rocketing global 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 yesterday.

Robert Zoellick, the Bank's president, called on rich countries to commit an extra $500m (£250m) immediately to the World Food Programme, and sign up to what he called a "New Deal for global food policy".

Zoellick said: "In the US and Europe over the last year we have been focusing 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 it's getting more and more difficult every day."

He said the price of wheat had risen by 120% in the past year, more than doubling the cost of a loaf of bread. Rice prices were up by 75% in just two months. On average, the Bank calculates that food prices have risen by 83% in the past three years.

And the U.N.'s World Food Program can't keep up. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported:

Meteoric food and fuel prices, a slumping dollar, the demand for biofuels and a string of poor harvests have combined to abruptly multiply WFP's operating costs, even as needs increase. In other words, if the number of needy people stayed constant, it would take much more money to feed them. But the number of people needing help is surging dramatically. It is what WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran calls "a perfect storm" hitting the world's hungry.

The agency last month issued an emergency appeal for money to cover a shortfall tallied at more than half a billion dollars and growing. It said it might have to reduce food rations or cut people off altogether.

And the problem is not going away. From the Associated Press:

Soaring food prices that have sparked unrest across the globe are likely to persist despite an expected increase in production, threatening millions of people worldwide who live on a dollar or less a day, a U.N. agency said Friday.

Prices of bread, rice, milk, oil and other basic foodstuffs have sharply increased in the past months in many developing countries, according to a report by the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization. Prices of wheat and rice have doubled compared to last year, while those of maize are more than a third higher.

Cereal prices have risen as a result of steady demand, especially from China and India, supply shortages and new export restrictions, FAO said.

Time Magazine recently reported on the depth and breadth of the social unrest:

Rocketing food prices — some of which have more than doubled in two years — have sparked riots in numerous countries recently. Millions are reeling from sticker shock and governments are scrambling to staunch a fast-moving crisis before it spins out of control. From Mexico to Pakistan, protests have turned violent. Rioters tore through three cities in the West African nation of Burkina Faso last month, burning government buildings and looting stores. Days later in Cameroon, a taxi drivers' strike over fuel prices mutated into a massive protest about food prices, leaving around 20 people dead. Similar protests exploded in Senegal and Mauritania late last year. And Indian protesters burned hundreds of food-ration stores in West Bengal last October, accusing the owners of selling government-subsidized food on the lucrative black market. "This is a serious security issue," says Joachim von Braun, director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), in Washington. In recent weeks, he notes, he has been bombarded by calls from officials around the world, all asking one question: How long will the crisis last?

The forecast is grim. Governments might quell the protests, but bringing down food prices could take at least a decade, food analysts say. One reason: billions of people are buying ever-greater quantities of food — especially in booming China and India, where many have stopped growing their own food and now have the cash to buy a lot more of it. Increasing meat consumption, for example, has helped drive up demand for grain, and with it the price.

There are other problems too. The spike in oil prices, which hit $103 per barrel in recent days, has pushed up fertilizer prices, as well as the cost of trucking food from farms to local markets and shipping it abroad. Then there is climate change. Harvests have been seriously disrupted by freak weather, including prolonged droughts in Australia and southern Africa, floods in West Africa, and this past winter's deep frost in China and record-breaking warmth in northern Europe.

The push to produce biofuels as an alternative to hydrocarbons is further straining food supplies, especially in the U.S., where generous subsidies for ethanol have lured thousands of farmers away from growing crops for food.

And don't expect to hear any of our presidential candidates talk about that.

To make matters worse, global stockpiles of some basics have dwindled to their lowest point in decades. Rice — a staple for billions of Asians — has soared to its highest price in 20 years, while supplies are at their lowest level since the early 1980s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the global supply of wheat is lower than it's been in about 50 years — just five weeks' worth of world consumption is on hand, according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization.

And the vultures are doing their part.

The creeping fear that the world might actually run short of food — no longer simply the stuff of sci-fi movies — has led speculators to pour billions into commodities, further accelerating price rises.

Some nations that grow a lot of food are now restricting exports, out of fear that their own people may soon have too little.

For the world's poorest people, the price spikes are disastrous. AID officials say that millions who previously eked out enough to feed their families can no longer afford the food in their local stores, and are seeking help from relief organizations.

Wealthier nations have been slow to respond to the crisis, but not many are starving in wealthier nations. Politicians have not made it a priority. But governments of poorer nations are now being threatened by the crisis, and that could, finally, wake up governments everywhere. The recent election defeat of Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf was partially due to his people's difficulties in affording food staples.

At Hullaballoo, dday put it very succinctly:

This goes well beyond any political issue. Over the past week we've all received urgent calls for money from candidates for state and federal office. Poor people worldwide don't have a flashy email they can send you. Yet they need your support more than ever.

WFP's Fill the Cup program has for small amounts that can feed the hungry for a week or more. That's probably the best way to get resources into the hands of those who need them.

Global Giving has programs that feed children in Niger and India, for example.

World Hunger Year tackles community-based solutions to hunger and poverty.

CARE has a World Hunger Campaign.

Do the research, see which organization fits with your comfort level, and give. Millions of people are at risk and our financial mess has at least a little to do with it. The other thing you can do is DEMAND that your Congresscritter raise US donations to the World Food Program. Global poverty is an economic and national security issue. It's also, as John Edwards called it, the moral test of our generation.

As that Associated Press article concluded:

"People are dying because of their reaction to the situation. People will not be sitting dying of starvation, they will react," (FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf) said.
Turkana :: 10:18 AM :: Comments (12) :: Digg It!