Why Are So Many Fighting For Food?

ABC News Asks Reporters Around the World to Analyze the Global Food Crisis

April 10, 2008 —

Food prices are rising around the world. In an interview with ABC News, Gregory Barrow, senior public affairs officer at the World Food Program (WFP), said that "the WFP has identified a number of countries that have been badly affected, and we have identified a type of country that's most likely to suffer from rising food prices."

""The kind of country to be worst-affected is a country which depends on importing its food to meet its people's needs, it is likely to have witnessed dramatic inflation recently, and where individuals typically spend a significant portion of their income, i.e. 50 percent or more, on food."

According to Barrow, this definition "would cover a number of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as countries in Asia, like Bangladesh and Pakistan."

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ABC News takes a look at some of the countries most badly hit by the growing food crisis.

HAITI

The poorest country in the Americas, Haiti has seen some of the worst food-related riots in recent months, with protestors taking to the streets, burning tires and looting shops. As the vast majority of Haiti's population struggles to get by on less than $2 a day, the rising prices of staple food items like rice and beans have left many Haitians angry with the government for not reducing taxes on foodstuffs.

President Rene Preval recently acknowledged that the country's problems were related to its dependence on imported rice and promised to boost food production. But opposition leaders immediately attacked him for doing little to address immediately the issue of food shortages.

Rising fuel costs have also made transportation of foodstuffs increasingly expensive, making the current global crisis especially painful for this nation, which already suffers from extreme poverty. On Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked donors to provide emergency aid to Haiti.

The current unrest has provoked the U.S. Coast Guard to keep a careful eye on Haiti, in case of a migrant exodus to American shores.

INDIA

For the more than 600 million people who work in agriculture here, for the more than 600 million farmers and their families who live on less than $2 a day, it is the difference between cooking with oil and barely eating anything.

Wholesale inflation hit its highest level here in three years, and for 1.1 billion Indians, that means that fruits and vegetable prices have risen 20 percent in just the last month -- mostly because of lack of irrigation and unseasonably early rainfall. To try and tame inflation, the government relaxed import duties on oils and banned exports on all but the most expensive rice.

But India is as much part of the problem as it is victim. This country is the second-largest rice producer in the world and is now exporting a fraction of what it used to, helping driving rice prices up in Asia and around the world.

And there have never been more Indians -- the country adds 20 million each year -- and they have never been richer, demanding more and more food, especially meat, which takes more wheat to produce.

The more that the new global giants China and India eat, the higher your food prices will go.

KENYA

In Nakuru, Kenya, the price of kales, the staple vegetable, has doubled in the last three months.

Local conditions are partly to blame; last year's post-election violence ripped through Nakuru and the resulting ethnic fighting has driven people from their farms.

But food prices are rising across all of Africa - due to the cost of oil and demand for bio-fuels. This is causing social unrest throughout northern and western African countries and sometimes deadly violence, such as in Cameroon.

Kenya's response? A promise, so far unfulfilled, of free seeds and fertilizer for farmers.

The Head Of The World Food Program urged the international community last November to take action .

"I have seen in West Africa what havoc could be caused by the triple threat of climate change, rising food prices and population growth. But I have also seen that there are solutions to help people adapt before it is too late," said Josette Sheeran of the food program. She described the combination as a "perfect storm."

EGYPT

Deadly riots erupted in Egypt last weekend, underscoring how rising costs and inflation can undercut governments in an already shaky region. State police were called in to quell the unrest, which left more than 100 injured among reports of looting and vandalism.

According to Joshua Stacher, a Middle East expert at Syracuse University, food prices are up 40 percent while salaries are stagnant. Wage hikes are under discussion; typical public salaries are roughly $26 a day, Stacher says. Many take second jobs at night to make ends meet.

Both economic experts and Egypt's working class say the government's economic reform efforts are to blame.

"This has been going on for four years in Egypt???each year it has gotten progressively worse. We've seen the slashing of subsidies, massive amounts of inflation, the floating currency, and this is producing prices that are out of whack," said Joshua Stacher, a Middle East expert at Syracuse University.

The cost of basic necessities has risen across the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates saw record inflation of 9.3 percent last year, while Iran's rate was closer to 20 percent. But unlike those states, the countries of the eastern Mediterranean ??? Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and others ??? lack the oil revenues to help fund public assistance programs.

IRAQ

In Iraq, fears over security have affected food prices.

Many Iraqis in Baghdad, Basra and other cities and towns try to stock up on food whenever possible to avoid the potential danger of returning to the markets. As food disappears from shelves, demand for it grows, and store owners capitalize on the situation by raising prices.

An Iraqi reporter working with ABC News says that after the recent battles in Nassiriya, the price of a sack of flour went up by nearly 50 per cent.

Additionally, the high rate of unemployment (which has reached 40 percent in some parts of the country) means that several families cannot afford to buy such staples as rice, flour and sugar.

Despite Iraq's status as an oil-producing nation, rising fuel costs have made transporting food an ever-expensive endeavor.

BRAZIL

Brazil is increasingly seen as a "feeding bowl" for China and India. The growing demand for food in these two rising giants has forced them to turn to Brazil, where agriculture and livestock play a crucial economic role.

Brazil is leading the way in soyabean production; it is currently the world's No. 2 exporter of soy beans and in the past two years it exported just over 25 million tons -- China alone imported 10 million tons of that share. Soy is often used to feed livestock and with China 's appetite for beef rising, so too does its appetite for cattle feed.

Brazil is also a world leader in the bio-fuel industry ??? many of the country's cars run on ethanol, a product made from cheap sugarcane. Critics of these programs complain this demand for bio-fuels is also responsible for causing international food shortages, thus pushing up food prices.

Defenders of biofuel programs, such as Brazil's President Lula, insist that sugarcane cannot be grown to replace other crops as the land conditions are not suitable. Sugarcane plantations for ethanol currently take up 3 percent of the country's farmland.

Brazil has over 100 million acres of degraded land that can be used to grow more crops. It has lately been feeling the heat of rising food prices, especially in wheat products so the pressure is on for this land to be put to use.

INDONESIA

Just last month hundreds of Indonesians took to the streets in the capital of Jakarta, demanding that the government bring down the price of food. They were enraged over local newspaper reports that people were dying due to starvation.

Over the last year, the price of basic foods has skyrocketed.

Rice, a staple food in the country, has risen 25 percent, cooking oil 40 percent and soybeans 50 percent.

With nearly half of Indonesia's population, more than 100 million people, living on $1 to $2 a day, the high prices mean many people are going hungry.

The government has responded by subsidizing soybeans and cooking oil and increasing rice production. The fear here is that rising food costs will result in security concerns, in Indonesia and across the region.

CHINA

China's demand for meat and milk is rising with its wealth. But a bad winter and rising fuel costs is affecting all sorts of Chinese staples -- tofu, noodles, and vegetable oil.

The rising food prices are fueling inflation, which was up 23.3 percent in February from the year before.

The Chinese government has reduced food exports and offered subsidies to rein in prices. Government officials fear continued inflation will spark massive social unrest in the same way it did leading up to the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

Last year, three people were killed in a stampede when a Carrefour supermarket offered free vegetable oil on a first-come, first-served basis.

As food prices rise around the world, it's easy to point the finger at China. Twenty percent of the world's population lives here, and as its economy continues to grow, so does its appetite.

RUSSIA

In Russia, according to official statistics, the average household now purchases double the volume of food that it did only ten years ago.

What only recently was seen as a sure sign of Russia's economic success trickling down to the ordinary citizen is now beginning to worry some experts, who doubt whether Russia can afford the newfound consumerism.

"Russia imports vast quantities of food and is now also integrated into the world economy. Global inflation will affect it badly," Catrina Stewart, the finance correspondent for the Moscow Times, told ABC News.

Russian overdependence on food imports is not just an economic concern. It has a political dimension as well -- and that worries many Russian politicians.

Russia's eastern region is literally fed by China. More than 80 percent of all foodstuffs available in that vast territory are Chinese imports. With such economic reliance on China, Moscow's politicians fear that they may eventually lose some control over their eastern territories.

Russia has little agricultural capacity: less than half of its arable land is farmed and cultivated, and the yield remains poor. Nearly 80 years of communism killed the traditional family farm and today there are very few Russians interested in becoming farmers, especially since laws on land ownership are vague and arbitrary.

The irony is that Russia's huge profit from oil and gas exports has dealt another blow to its agriculture -- the state has had plenty of cash to afford massive food imports and so has neglected local farming.

In light of the new data and projections on global food prices, this neglect may now backfire. Russia quite simply lacks a healthy agricultural industry to absorb the potential impact of the rising cost of food imports.

The blow will at least in part be compensated by rising oil and gas prices, but some economists believe that Russia's heavy reliance on food imports could still affect it by propelling inflation even higher.

"As recently as 2000, inflation in Russia was as high as 20 percent," Martin Gilman, a Moscow University economics professor, told ABC News.

"Early in 2007 it reached its low point of 7.5 percent. That's when the relapse began and the fever is now raging. This January inflation rose to 12.6 percent year-on-year, and it seems to be heading toward 15 percent in the months ahead."

Joohee Cho, Margaret Conley, Clarisse Fortune, Sonia Gallego, Ammu Kannampilly, Zoe Magee, Tomek Rolsk, Nick Schifrin, Jim Sciutto, Lara Setrakian, and Stephanie Sy contributed to the reporting of this story.