Ausgabe 16/2008

Global Food Crisis The Fury of the Poor

Around the world, rising food prices have made basic staples like rice and corn unaffordable for many people, pushing the poor to the barricades because they can no longer get enough to eat. But the worst is yet to come.


Fort Dimanche, a former prison in the hills above the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, is a hell on earth. In the past, it was home to the torture chambers of former dictator "Baby Doc" Duvalier's death squads, the Tontons Macoutes. Today thousands of impoverished Haitians live in the prison's grounds, digging through piles of garbage for food. But even dogs find little to eat there.

On the roof of the former prison, enterprising women prepare something that looks like biscuits and is even called by that name. The key ingredient, yellow clay, is trucked in from the nearby mountains. The clay is combined with salt and vegetable fat to make dough, which is then dried in the sun.

For many Haitians, the mud biscuits are their only food. They taste of fat, suck the moisture out of the mouth and leave behind an aftertaste of dirt. They often cause diarrhea, but they help to numb the pangs of hunger. "I'm hoping one day I'll have enough food to eat, so I can stop eating these," Marie Noël, who survives with her seven children on the dirt cakes, told the Associated Press.

The clay to make 100 of the biscuits costs $5 (€3.15) and has risen by $1.50 (€0.95), or about 40 percent, within one year. The same is true of staple foods. Nevertheless, the same amount of money buys more of the mud cakes than bread or corn tortillas. A daily bowl of rice is almost unaffordable.

The shortages triggered revolts in Haiti last week. A crowd of hungry citizens marched through Port-au-Prince, throwing stones and bottles and chanting, "We are hungry!" in front of the presidential palace. Tires were burned, and people died. It was yet another of the rebellions that are beginning to occur with increasing frequency worldwide, but which are still only a harbinger of what is yet to come.

Food is become increasingly scarce and expensive, and it is already unaffordable for many people. The world's 200 wealthiest people have as much money as about 40 percent of the global population, and yet 850 million people have to go to bed hungry every night. This calamity is "one of the worst violations of human dignity," says former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Graphic: Consequences of the global food crisis

Graphic: Consequences of the global food crisis

Should we be surprised that despair often turns into violence? The food crisis afflicts the world's poor -- in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East -- like a biblical plague. Prices for staples like rice, corn and wheat, which were relatively stable for years, have skyrocketed by over 180 percent in the last three years. A bottleneck is developing whose consequences are potentially more severe than the global crisis in the financial markets. With nothing left to lose, people on the brink of starvation are more likely to react with boundless fury.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) addressed this global crisis at a joint meeting last weekend. World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned that exploding food prices threaten to cause instability in at least 33 countries, including regional powers like Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan, where the army has had to be brought in to protect flour transports. The crisis is helping radical Islamic movements gain strength in North Africa. There has been unrest in recent weeks in Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal, the Ivory Coast and Cameroon, where the violence has already claimed about 100 lives.

There are several reasons for the food crisis:

  • The world population is growing constantly, while the amount of arable land is declining.
  • Climate change is causing a loss of agricultural land, irreversible in some cases, as a result of droughts, floods, storms and erosion.
  • Because of changing eating habits, more and more arable land and virgin forests are being turned into pasture for livestock. The yield per acre in calories of land given over to pasture is substantially lower than that of arable land.
  • The World Bank wants developing countries to introduce market reforms, including the abolition of protective tariffs, a move that often causes massive damage to local agriculture.
  • Speculators are driving up the prices of raw materials. The resulting high oil price leads to "energy crops" being cultivated instead of grain for food or animal feed.
  • Millions of people displaced by civil wars need food, and yet they themselves are no longer capable of producing food.

What we are beginning to face is not just an acute bottleneck, but a worldwide, fundamental food crisis. It affects most of all the poor, who spend a disproportionately large share of their income on food and water. The crisis is so dire that it is obliterating any progress made in recent years in fighting disease and starvation.

With too many people and not enough agricultural land, a struggle for the distribution of the best farmland is taking shape that could turn into a new North-South conflict. "These days you hear a lot about the world financial crisis," wrote US economist Paul Krugman recently in his regular column in the New York Times. "But there’s another world crisis under way -- and it’s hurting a lot more people."

Mexicans were the first to take to the streets, when they protested against higher prices for cornmeal, the basic ingredient in tortillas. Mexico can only cover a portion of its demand with domestic production. It imports the rest, mainly from the United States. Meanwhile, more and more farmers in the US are selling their corn to biofuel producers, who pay a higher price for the grain.

To avert further protests, Mexican President Felipe Calderón decided to increase government subsidies for corn, which were already high to begin with. But only countries that are relatively strong financially can afford this. In other countries, like Haiti, Bolivia, Algeria and Yemen, the lower classes have been hard hit by food-price inflation.


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