World Facing Huge New Challenge on Food Front: Business-as-Usual Not a Viable Option

A food shortage is quickly driving food prices to record highs


| April 16, 2008


A fast-unfolding food shortage is engulfing the entire world, driving food prices to record highs. Over the past half-century grain prices have spiked from time to time because of weather-related events, such as the 1972 Soviet crop failure that led to a doubling of world wheat, rice, and corn prices. The situation today is entirely different, however. The current doubling of grain prices is trend-driven, the cumulative effect of some trends that are accelerating growth in demand and other trends that are slowing the growth in supply.

The world has not experienced anything quite like this before. In the face of rising food prices and spreading hunger, the social order is beginning to break down in some countries. In several provinces in Thailand, for instance, rustlers steal rice by harvesting fields during the night. In response, Thai villagers with distant fields have taken to guarding ripe rice fields at night with loaded shotguns.

In Sudan, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), which is responsible for supplying grain to two million people in Darfur refugee camps, is facing a difficult mission to say the least. During the first three months of this year, 56 grain-laden trucks were hijacked. Thus far, only 20 of the trucks have been recovered and some 24 drivers are still unaccounted for. This threat to U.N.-supplied food to the Darfur camps has reduced the flow of food into the region by half, raising the specter of starvation if supply lines cannot be secured.

In Pakistan, where flour prices have doubled, food insecurity is a national concern. Thousands of armed Pakistani troops have been assigned to guard grain elevators and to accompany the trucks that transport grain.

Food riots are now becoming commonplace. In Egypt, the bread lines at bakeries that distribute state-subsidized bread are often the scene of fights. In Morocco, 34 food rioters were jailed. In Yemen, food riots turned deadly, taking at least a dozen lives. In Cameroon, dozens of people have died in food riots and hundreds have been arrested. Other countries with food riots include Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines and Senegal. (See additional examples of food price unrest.)

The doubling of world wheat, rice, and corn prices has sharply reduced the availability of food aid, putting the 37 countries that depend on the WFP’s emergency food assistance at risk. In March, the WFP issued an urgent appeal for $500 million of additional funds.





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