In recent days we have repeatedly heard news reports of the rising cost of food and food shortage. The effects have been mild to moderate in wealthy, developed nations like the US, more worrisome in Asia and severe in some poorer parts of the world. Namibia and Haiti have already seen food riots. The cause of the shortage and soaring prices are manifold, some of it brought about ironically, by rising standards of living in Asia and a proportionate increase in demand for food.
The recent issue of the Economist calls the burgeoning world food crisis The Silent Tsunami and suggests ways to bring it under control - generous aid from richer nations, scientific innovations for high yield crops, end of government interventions to manipulate international food markets and re-assessing the cost of biofuels .
PICTURES of hunger usually show passive eyes and swollen bellies. The harvest fails because of war or strife; the onset of crisis is sudden and localised. Its burden falls on those already at the margin.
Today's pictures are different. “This is a silent tsunami,” says Josette Sheeran of the World Food Programme, a United Nations agency. A wave of food-price inflation is moving through the world, leaving riots and shaken governments in its wake. For the first time in 30 years, food protests are erupting in many places at once. Bangladesh is in turmoil (see article); even China is worried (see article). Elsewhere, the food crisis of 2008 will test the assertion of Amartya Sen, an Indian economist, that famines do not happen in democracies.
Famine traditionally means mass starvation. The measures of today's crisis are misery and malnutrition. The middle classes in poor countries are giving up health care and cutting out meat so they can eat three meals a day. The middling poor, those on $2 a day, are pulling children from school and cutting back on vegetables so they can still afford rice. Those on $1 a day are cutting back on meat, vegetables and one or two meals, so they can afford one bowl. The desperate—those on 50 cents a day—face disaster.
Among the many causes cited in the article, the alarm bell about the negative effects of diverting staple crops like corn, wheat and soy to manufacture fuel has been sounded by many in the past. Not only has the practice made those crops too expensive for poor people who depend on them for food, it has also raised the price of other staples like rice because farmers are increasingly choosing to grow crops for fuel rather than for food. While the idea surrounding ethanol as the clean-green fuel has gained successful foothold in wealthier nations concerned about pollution and global warming, biofuels are coming under increasing attack in less affluent countries.
(See also Anna's article of February 2006 where among other things, she argued that ethanol as the affordable and environmentally friendly fuel is a notion that is mostly bunk, promoted by the corn lobby)