Stephanie Bunker is the United Nations Spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Chad Hart is the US Policy and Insurance Analyst with the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute.
Food crisis threatens global security
ROBERT ZOELLICK, PRESIDENT, THE WORLD BANK: In the US and Europe over the last year, we’ve been focused on the prices of gasoline at the pump—$2.50, $3.00, $3.50, and more. While many are worrying 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. In many developing countries, the poor spend up to 75 percent of their income on food. When prices of basic foods rise, it hits hard.
VOICEOVER: Countries around the world are experiencing unrest, protest, and sometimes violence as food prices continue to rise. Within this past year, global prices for food staples have increased on average by 40 percent, rendering even basic food staples like wheat and rice disproportionately expensive.
STREETER, PHILIPPINES (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Of course we are really affected by the price increase of rice. How can we afford to buy that rice at 40 or 50 pesos per kilo when we don’t even have a job?
VOICEOVER: According to the UN, the security implications of this crisis should not be underestimated.
STEPHANIE BUNKER, SPOKESPERSON, UN OCHA: In January this year, wheat prices were up 83 percent compared to a year earlier.
STREETER, RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): You are talking about flour. Even rice is not available in our country. Its price has gone up from Rupees 35 to Rupees 65. There’s none available to eat. How much higher will the price go?
BUNKER: It’s affecting basically poor countries, but also some middle-income countries. But it’s not just about the food—that’s what the important thing is. You have at least a billion people who live on a dollar a day or less. When you live on a dollar a day or less and the price of your food goes up 40 percent, it means the people will not be able to pay their school fees for their children. They won’t be able to go to clinics if they get sick. They won’t be able to buy any more nourishing food. They’ll be subsisting basically on staples like rice or manioc or wheat. You will see a rise in malnourished mothers giving rice to malnourished babies. And that, of course, has long-term implications for the development of any country.
JACQUES DIOUF, DIRECTOR GENERAL, FAO: We believe that in this present situation we have to tackle the problem at highest political level. To be honest with you, I’m surprised that I have not been summoned to the Security Council to discuss these issues, as many of the problems that are being discussed there would not have the same consequences on peace and security.
VOICEOVER: But what is causing this rise in food prices?
CHAD HART, AGRICULTURAL ECONOMIST, FAPRI: And what we’re looking at in terms of food pricing is coming about due to several factors. One, I think that the biggest, I would argue, would be the higher energy prices we’re seeing throughout the world. When we’re talking about moving food around the world—like I said, the US is a major food exporter; you know, look at areas like Africa, major food importers—it takes a lot of energy to move that food around the world, and that adds to the food costs that we see. At the same time, we are seeing agricultural commodities being utilized for non-food usage, for example, the biofuel usage. And so we’re seeing more pressure, higher prices.
BUNKER: In addition, you know, certain countries, like India and China in particular, are taking in more cereals because they’re producing more meat. And so their diet is changing. There’s also been some element of bad harvests. There was a very severe Australian drought this year, and Australia is a very big food producer. Additionally, complicating this, the food stocks that countries have this year are really low. Normally we might have a buffer, but we don’t have that much of a buffer this year.
HART: One of the issues with free trade becomes this issue of having stockpiles of food that you may not have kept now because of more open trade, figuring that you can obtain those from the market.
VOICEOVER: Sheer supply and demand economics does not explain the whole story. Professor Hart elaborated on countries’ policies that may be affecting worldwide food prices.
HART: We are definitely seeing countries move to protect their own food supplies and also to protect their own domestic markets. We have countries like Argentina, where they have increased their export taxes on a lot of their agricultural commodities, basically preventing those commodities from leaving the country. Same thing with India and their rice exportation ban.
VOICEOVER: Countries are also taking a second look at policies that aggravate the price of basic foods.
HART: When you look at the 2007 Energy Act, there are facets of that which show a movement from corn-based ethanol to trying to broaden the scope to non-food plant material being utilized. They set aside almost half of the target for biofuels that would come from cellulosic ethanol, as opposed to corn-based ethanol.
VOICEOVER: Responding to the global food crisis, international organizations are stepping forward to coordinate humanitarian aid and institute structural interventions.
BUNKER: FAO, for example, Food and Agricultural Organization, is advocating for governments to give farmers, especially small farmers, not your big farmers, better seeds, better fertilizer [to] increase production. The World Food Programme is also talking about trying to make sure that emergency food aid is actually working towards productive investments and not just, like, free food.
ZOELLICK: But we can’t be satisfied with studies and paper and talk. This is about recognizing a growing emergency, acting, and seizing opportunity too.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.