Scenes from the world food crisis
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.