High Food Prices: A Silent Tsunami

Tue, 07/01/2008

 “Of course I am happy when I eat. When I’m hungry, my stomach hurts, I don’t feel like playing, I don’t feel like doing anything.”  – Jorge Hernandez, 8 years old, El Salvador

The World Food Program (WFP) has said that high food prices are creating the biggest challenge that WFP has faced in its 45 year history, a silent tsunami threatening to plunge more than 100 million people on every continent into hunger.

“What we are seeing now is affecting more people on every continent, destroying even more livelihoods and the nutrition losses will hurt children for a lifetime,” said Josette Sheeran, Director of WFP.

“This is the new face of hunger – the millions of people who were not in the urgent hunger category 6 months ago but now are.”  - Josette Sheeran

Analysis being carried out by WFP supports World Bank estimates that about 100 million people have been pushed deeper into poverty by high food prices. Like the 2004 tsunami, which hit the Indian Ocean leaving quarter of a million dead and about 10 million more destitute, the food price challenge requires a global response.

At that time, the donor community, including governments, the corporate sector and private individuals, stepped up, giving a record US$12 billion to help with recovery efforts. “We can only hope the world will listen, understand, and dig into their pockets to meet this extraordinary appeal,” said Josette Sheeran.

The WFP is urging a comprehensive approach where all parties, from governments to United Nations agencies to NGOs (non-governmental organizations), all work together. Alongside other partners, WFP will follow a 3-track response:
● in the short term, WFP will seek full funding for targeted food safety nets and mother-child health programs in extreme situations, scale up school feeding and use it as a platform for urgent, nutritional interventions

● in the medium term, WFP will offer its huge logistics capacity to support life-saving distribution networks – every hour of the day, WFP has 30 ships on the high seas, 5,000 trucks on the ground and 70 aircraft in the sky, delivering food to the hungry; it will also expand cash and voucher programs and support local purchases from small farmers, helping them to afford inputs and sustain livelihoods;

● in the long term, WFP will support policy reform and provide advice and technical support to governments engaging in agricultural development programs; at the same time WFP will pursue local purchase contracts that can help farmers increase investment and yields.

“I feel sad because I can’t give my children the bread and vegetables they dream of.” – Raju Kumar, father of three, New Delhi, India

Just as WFP sends an emergency team into the field to deal with a natural disaster, it has assembled its top specialists to deploy programs to mitigate the effects of high food prices among the most vulnerable.

Partnerships will play a critical role in fighting this emergency. WFP has been engaging with donor governments, UN agencies, institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and other humanitarian actors, including NGOs to mobilize a coordinated response.

The urgency of the situation is underlined by WFP’s decision to suspend school feeding to 450,000 children beginning in May in Cambodia, unless new funding can be found. WFP representatives in 78 countries around the world are facing similar difficult choices.

The recent Food & Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) world food summit was a missed opportunity to feed the world. Despite pleas from the WFP to solve the crisis of the high cost of food, the biggest winner at the summit was not the hungry but America’s corn industry. The day the summit ended, American corn prices rose to a record high of 250% higher than in 2006 price.

The delegates failed to agree on a common approach to biofuels. President Lula da Silva’s defended Brazil’s biofuels program, saying “his country has historically relied on ethanol from sugar cane as a necessary substitute for expensive gasoline.” But the Western world’s dash in recent years for biofuels is not a result of necessity, but choice. The reason the U.S. and the EU have mandated massive biofuel growing programs is that it is more politically convenient to pay farmers to produce crops for fuel than it is to encourage drivers to conserve fuel. Meanwhile, it is the world’s poor who suffer as even more of the world’s productive land is devoted to growing fuel, rather than food.

Biofuel producers claim that the crops have had only a 2%-3% impact on this year’s price increases. But the picture is very different when it is broken down into individual crops. While biofuel production has had a negligible impact on the price of rice and wheat, biofuel cultivation has been responsible for up to a third of the increases in the price of corn and seed oil.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary, Ed Schafer claims that ethanol accounts for no more than 3% of the recent increase in food prices. The figure is, at best, optimistically low. The International Food Policy Research Institute of Washington, a research group funded by governments, puts the figure at 30%. Other estimates are as high as 60%.

The way to solve the global food price emergency is to invest heavily in agricultural production in poor countries through UN agencies, eliminate rich world farm subsidies and impose a moratorium on recently established biofuel programs.

We must use every available means to provide more food and cash assistance for hungry and poor people. Some of these options include:
- increasing funding for international food aid for the World Food Program and other providers in the supplemental spending bill now moving through Congress;
- allowing the purchase of some food aid near its beneficiaries to reduce shipping time and costs;
- working with international organizations and groups in poor countries to coordinate aid;
- increasing benefit levels as well as participation in the Food Stamp Program;
- strengthening the WIC and school meals programs;
- providing additional resources, indexed to inflation, for The Emergency Food Program (TEFAP) and other help for food banks; and
- revisiting our energy policies related to biofuels.

What can we do?

Congress has opportunities to take the above actions in the supplemental funding request now being shaped, and in the FY 2009 appropriations process.

The key agriculture policy reforms in the U.S., Europe and Japan are needed to give farmers in developing countries a fair chance to produce and sell their crops. Reducing trade-distorting subsidies to U.S. agricultural interests is one critical step toward easing the current crisis in food prices and preventing the cycle from recurring. Unfortunately, Congress has missed this opportunity in the farm bill that it has just agreed to.

The hidden hope in this current global hunger crisis is the opportunity for hundreds of millions of poor people around the world who work in agriculture to benefit from the policy changes and increased attention to their situation that are being provoked by the surge in food prices. If ordinary citizens and their respective governments work together to respond to the current crisis, the dramatic progress against hunger that the world has seen over the last 30 years can resume with even greater urgency and resolve.

Isreal 2,495.3
Egypt 1,779.3
Iraq 1,636.8
Afghanistan 1,010.8
Sudan 906.1
Pakistan 762.9
Colombia 580.3
Jordan 512.4
Ethiopia 329.4
Kenya 322.2
Open market in Nairobi, Kenya

Reducing hunger and poverty depends on thoughtful investments to improve agricultural productivity and rural infrastructure around the world. Congress should begin to reverse underinvestment in global agriculture in its 2009 appropriations process.


Ethiopia 329.4
Liberia 156.0
Rwanda 95.3
Dem. Rep. Congo 92.7
Malawi 50.0
Sierra Leone 29.5
Burundi 25.5
Niger 23.2
Eritrea 2.8
Guinea-Bissau 0.1