Scenes from the world food cri­sis

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

In the United States, spi­ral­ing food and en­ergy prices mean shock at the gas pump and a per-cus­tomer cap on Sam’s Club rice pur­chases. But food-price hikes in Haiti, Egypt, Cameroon, Burk­ina Faso, Ye­men and Mex­ico, to name a few na­tions, mean hunger, ri­ot­ing or even death.

In Fe­bru­ary, months be­fore sig­nif­i­cant West­ern at­ten­tion to the food cri­sis, 40 peo­ple died in food ri­ots in the West African na­tion of Cameroon. In Burk­ina Faso, the third stop on U.N. Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Ban Ki­moon’s tour of West Africa this week, a cen­tral mar­ket in the cap­i­tal was torched in March by ri­ot­ers an­gry with the ris­ing cost of liv­ing. The cost of rice has risen 300 per­cent in Sierra Leone, an­other site of the re­cent months’ ri­ots. In po­lit­i­cally re­pressed Egypt last month, ri­ots broke out at the cen­ter of the coun­try’s tex­tile in­dus­try north of Cairo. Two weeks ago, in Thai­land, the world‘s lead­ing rice ex­porter, prices rose five per­cent to a level triple last year’s, prompt­ing fears of deeper rice short­ages and hoard­ing.

The first of Haiti’s re­cent food ri­ots were re­ported four weeks ago. The poor­est coun­try in the West­ern Hemi­sphere and a pe­ri­odic source of refugees to the United States and sur­round­ing coun­tries, Haiti has suf­fered more than 50 per­cent in­creases in rice, beans and fruit prices in the last year. Ri­ot­ers struck when demon­stra­tions in the south­ern town of Les Cayes turned into vi­o­lent melees. At least four were killed and 20 were wounded. Other in­ci­dents fol­lowed. Shots have been ex­changed with United Na­tions peace­keep­ers. The 4-year-old Brazil­ian-led U.N. Sta­bi­liza­tion Mis­sion in Haiti, which con­sists of nearly 9,000 multi­na­tional po­lice and mil­i­tary per­son­nel and an­other 1,800 civil­ians, has al­ready grown re­peat­edly to meet the chal­lenges of pre-food cri­sis se­cu­rity con­di­tions now wors­ened by a de­te­ri­o­rat­ing eco­nomic en­vi­ron­ment.

Josette Sheeran, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the United Na­tions World Food Pro­gram, warns of a “silent tsunami that re­spects no borders.” Ris­ing prices, she said, threaten to “plunge more than 100 mil­lion peo­ple on ev­ery con­ti­nent into hunger” — peo­ple who were not in dan­ger six months ago.

The un­der­stand­able urge in the West is to “do some­thing,” most im­me­di­ately in the form of food ship­ments, which will feed some of the hun­gry in the short term if man­aged prop­erly. A day af­ter World Bank Pres­i­dent and Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion vet­eran Robert Zoellick called on the de­vel­oped world to “put our money where our mouth is,” the De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture re­leased $200 mil­lion in emer­gency food aid from a food re­serve it man­ages known as the Bill Emer­son Hu­man­i­tar­ian Trust. The United States, al­ready the world’s largest provider of food aid, sup­plied $2.1 bil­lion worth in 2007. Mrs. Sheeran’s WFP has called for an ad­di­tional $500 mil­lion in food as­sis­tance by May 1. The Gates Foun­da­tion also boosted its own food aid by 50 per­cent to $240 mil­lion this year. There are oth­ers.

But the real fixes are eco­nomic and struc­tural. Food aid is a tem­po­rary so­lu­tion. The cur­rent farm bill stalled in Congress is one ex­cel­lent place to be­gin. About two-thirds of this bill funds food stamps and other nu­tri­tional pro­grams which should be sep­a­rated out from the of­fen­sive, mar­ket-dis­tort­ing com­po­nents of the leg­is­la­tion. Most of the re­main­ing one-third will ex­ac­er­bate the world food cri­sis with un­nec­es­sary sub­si­dies and largesse for U.S. cot­ton, rice soy­bean, corn, and wheat pro­duc­ers. Th­ese sub­si­dies un­der­cut de­vel­op­ing-world pro­duc­ers and dis­tort the mar­ket for both U.S. con­sumers and their coun­ter­parts over­seas. The only ben­e­fi­cia­ries are the pro­duc­ers them­selves, who, far from the im­age of the Amer­i­can farmer of yore, of­ten run mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar agribusi­nesses. Un­needed farm aid is a bi­par­ti­san prob­lem and a bi­par­ti­san em­bar­rass­ment.

Ethanol is an­other key ag­gra­vat­ing fac­tor. The five­fold in­crease in the use of bio­fu­els man­dated by Congress must be jet­ti­soned. Cur­rently, about a fifth of the U.S. corn crop is con­verted into fuel. Congress failed to re­al­ize when it acted that the con­ver­sion of corn into fuel mat­ters hugely on the mar­gin in global mar­kets for food­stuffs. Thank­fully, a global back­lash against ethanol is de­vel­op­ing in Europe. It would be wel­come news if it soon reaches the United States.

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