Ausgabe 16/2008

Global Food Crisis The Fury of the Poor


Part 2: 'People Are Dying Before Our Eyes'

In the Middle Eastern country of Yemen, people get by on an average of €1.18 ($1.86) per day. The government faces the challenges of a wave of refugees from Somalia, tribal warfare in the north and the constant threat of terrorism. Since February, wheat prices in Yemen have doubled and the price of rice and cooking oil has increased by a fifth. And since the end of March, people have died in Yemen in unrest over bread prices.

Within the last quarter, food prices have increased by 145 percent in Lebanon and 20 percent in Syria. "Even parsley, for which we paid almost nothing in the past, has suddenly tripled in price," complains one resident of the Syrian capital Damascus.

Iraq and Sudan, once the "bread baskets" of the Arab world, are nowadays dependent on the World Food Programme. More than a million people in Iraq and 2 million in Sudan's Darfur region require food aid. Life in Darfur, Sudan's western province, has always been difficult. The Sahara has shifted southward in the last four decades, while rainfall has declined dramatically. Yields of sorghum, the area's most important grain crop, have dropped by two-thirds.

The civil war in Sudan has made more than 2 million people in refugee camps completely dependent on food aid. Fields in the region have not been farmed for years. "People are dying before our eyes, while the world looks on," says Johan van der Kamp of the German aid organization Deutsche Welthungerhilfe.

Developing countries faced a similar challenge more than a generation ago, which led to the advent of the so-called Green Revolution. Through the use of fertilizer, pesticides and hybrid seed, farmers in developing countries were able to boost their harvests considerably. Some now believe that it is time to launch a second green revolution. The heads of research at agricultural conglomerates are convinced that genetic engineering could be the answer to the world's food problems. But the question is: how long would it take?

Food shortages have even become an important issue in affluent areas, like Dubai, where supermarkets have pledged not to raise the prices of 20 staple foods for at least one year. The goal, clearly, is to prevent dissatisfaction within the city's legions of Indian and Pakistani construction workers. Without them, the enormous hotels, museums and artificial islands with which Dubai is making such a stir in the world would not exist. Foreign workers are paid their meager wages in the local currency, the dirham, which is tied to the falling dollar.

The beneficiaries of globalization on the Gulf can ill afford food riots in the shadow of their skyscrapers and shopping malls. "The consequences of discontent, anger in the Middle East can be more geo-political than they may be elsewhere," Robin Lodge of the United Nations World Food Programme recently told the news agency Reuters. Nowhere is this truer than in Egypt.

Saad Ibrahim owns a small snack shop in Cairo in a neighborhood behind the Al-Azhar Mosque. He sells dishes like noodles and chickpeas in tomato sauce, and his shop is in a good location. Nevertheless, most of the faithful now walk quickly past his shop after Friday prayers. "I have fewer customers every day," says Ibrahim.

Last fall a ton of noodles cost about 1,500 Egyptian pounds, or a little more than €175 ($276). Since then, prices have tripled. Ibrahim blames the government for the price hike. "As an agricultural country," he says, "we could grow everything ourselves, instead of importing it for a lot of money."

Thirty-two million of Egypt's population of 80 million get by on €1 ($1.58) a day, and 16 million on even less. The price of cooking oil alone has risen by 40 percent within the last year. Inflation jumped to above 12 percent in February, and the higher cost of wheat has had an especially adverse impact.

"Aish baladi," a soft, round flatbread, is a mainstay of the Egyptian diet. The state has subsidized it for decades, which has helped to preserve calm. But for how much longer can this system function? The lines are getting longer in front of bakeries that sell the subsidized bread, as more and more Egyptians depend on government aid. Riots in recent weeks claimed at least 11 lives after corrupt bakers sold inexpensive, subsidized flour at high prices on the black market, triggering an angry response from the public.

Meanwhile, the government has slated $2.5 billion (€1.58 billion) of its new budget for bread subsidies. But providing cheap bread comes with its own bizarre consequences. Some farmers are already feeding bread to their livestock because of the exorbitant cost of animal feed.

Raising cattle is a profitable business because rising incomes in some developing countries mean that more and more consumers can afford to eat meat. The new middle class in Delhi and Beijing is no longer satisfied with traditional diets high in foods like rice and lentils. But it takes seven kilograms of feed and vast quantities of water to produce just one kilogram of beef, which only drives up prices.

In Jordan, which has a modern system of agriculture, the cost of staple foods has increased by 60 percent within a year. "I can hardly sell my vegetables anymore," says Hussein Bureidi, a vendor who operates a stand near the Grand Mosque in the Jordanian capital Amman. "How can this go on?" King Abdullah fears a return of the 1996 food riots, when angry citizens clashed with police in the city of Karak.

In Algeria, the prices of cooking fat, corn oil, sugar and flour have doubled within six months. With the exception of an inadequate, 15-percent increase in salaries for civil servants, the government has done little to fend off what Radio Algiers called an "attack on our standard of living." Until now, oil and gas revenues have not been used to fund additional food subsidies. If this were the case, the government might find itself no longer able to service its foreign debt on time.

But India has the largest number of underfed people, about 220 million. Aptly enough, two international conferences on the food crisis took place in New Delhi last week. Jacques Diouf, the Senegalese head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), blamed the dilemma on rapid growth in demand in both China and India. The crisis, Diouf said, could expand into an unprecedented catastrophe.

China has close to a quarter of the world's population to feed, but only 7 percent of its farmland. A similar situation applies in India. This means that both countries must import food on a large scale, prompting many exporting countries to impose export quotas so that their own citizens are not suddenly forced to go without.

When Haiti's hungry poor went on a rampage last week, the United States closed its embassy there as a precaution. The incidents also alarmed British Prime Gordon Brown, who wrote a letter to his Japanese counterpart, Yasuo Fukuda, the current chairman of the G-8 nations. In the letter, Brown recommended that the international community endeavor to prepare a "fully coordinated response" to rampant hunger.

It would not come a moment too soon.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


© DER SPIEGEL 16/2008
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