- Global Voices - https://globalvoices.org -

Global: The price of food, the cost of despair

Categories: Caribbean, Central Asia & Caucasus, East Asia, Latin America, Middle East & North Africa, South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Argentina, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon, Costa Rica, Cote d'Ivoire, Cuba, D.R. of Congo, Egypt, El Salvador, Haiti, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Philippines, Saint Lucia, Singapore, South Korea, Syria, Tajikistan, Trinidad & Tobago, Vietnam, Yemen, Development, Economics & Business, Environment, Food

The crisis of skyrocketing food prices is affecting all economic groups in every corner of the world. Every day, it seems, high-priced food sends another country lurching through some crisis: demonstrations, riots, rumors of hoarding, falling governments, even deaths.

Global Voices is well positioned to follow the nuances of this complex issue with authors tracking citizen media in nearly every country of the planet. This article is an attempt to place an overall narrative on the global food crisis [1] with observations from our authors from around the world. Clicking on the links will take you to all the posts that have been referenced.

Let’s begin in the Caribbean [2]. In Barbados, locals learn to deal with a 30% increase in flour prices, along with gasoline and diesel price jumps. Trinidad and Tobago’s Minister of Agriculture, denies there is a food crisis on the two islands, but locals notice an increase in chicken and flour prices. Cuba is trying a new agriculture policy of providing more land to private farmers.

Prices and shortages of food can be seen across Latin America [3], as many people are becoming desperate. Blame is being placed on both farmers and governments for their failure to act. Arab bloggers in Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Egypt [4] are also feeling the pinch, and writing about it too.

Worries continue to circulate in Cambodia [5] that nearly 500,000 children could start missing meals due to a 20% increase in the price of rice. However, a dramatic increase in rice production may not be beyond hope in this country. Farmers here can cultivate two or three harvests per year on the same piece of land.

The latest riots

Riots in Cairo

Protesters in Cairo lighting fires and throwing rocks at a barricade, April 7, 2008 – Photo by James Buck [6]

Two days of riots broke out on April 6 and 7 in Egypt, where prices of staples have doubled [7] since 2004 (and in some cases quadrupled). At least two people were killed and 111 people – including police – were injured (See our special coverage on Egypt's General Strike [8]).

In Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, protesters blocked roads and burned tires [9], demanding the government cut taxes on key imports.

Just days later, four people were killed and 25 injured in riots in Haiti [10], where the prices of rice, beans, and fruit have increased 50% in the past 12 months. Less than a week after the violent demonstrations, Haiti's prime minister was ousted [11] in a vote of no confidence.

For Natifnatal, a Haitian currently in Abu Dhabi, the food crisis offers simple math [12]:

For those who don't even know the basics can present the equation: hunger + poverty + rising prices = demonstrations + the Prime Minister's resignation + violence, and argue that an increase in food aid would suffice to reduce hunger.

Even as a cargo plane crashed in Kinshasa on April 15 killing 75 people, Congolese blogger Du Cabiau à Kinshasa, ruminated on a more silent, less telegenic disaster facing the country: the doubling of food prices [13] in the same week.

The effects on trade

So many countries of the developing world import a large percentage of the foodstuffs necessary to feed their populations. Rising prices means problems grow quickly. Even for food exporters, rising prices has touched a nerve. In Korea, one of the world’s most prolific rice producers, a Netizen argues [14] that rice should be withheld from free trade talks, allowing the country to do as it seems fit with its strategic commodity.

Sometimes protectionism won’t be enough, however. As the price of rice has increased throughout Southeast Asia’s rice growing nations [14], governments were forced to plea for calm and pray that domestic prices would soon begin to fall. The situation is doubly bad for rice importers like the Philippines, where the poor have felt the brunt of the price increase. Indonesia, another importer, has canceled its imports due to high prices. Cambodia and Vietnam have abandoned exports. Bloggers in Malaysia report rumors of rice shortages. The Government of Brunei could move to subsidize food staples like cooking oil, flour, milk, eggs and chicken.

Japanese milk [15]
Milk in Japanese supermarket

For decades food prices in Japan have been in stasis, which is strange for a country that imports almost every staple other than rice. Not any longer. Price increased [16] for the first time in more than two decades. The same goes for milk products [15], which consumers been paying for at the same rate for three decades. Beer, cooking oil, and soy sauce also experienced increases.

A silent killer

In Bangladesh, where people spend as much as 80% of their salaries on food, high prices for rice have hit the middle class [17]. It’s much worse for the poor, as media reports confirm several hunger deaths. The country’s military chief raised the ire of many when he suggested people replace rice by eating potatoes.

In Tajikistan, where people already faced a winter-long energy shortage, it looks like more than 260,000 people [18] are in need of immediate food assistance. Worries persist that this number could grow to 2 million by winter.

Talk about globalization. In Yemen, the prices of staples have risen [19] while the cost of certain electronic goods have dropped. Kuwait has also seen price increases, no thanks to the falling U.S. dollar.

In Burkina Faso
, where people felt the government sat on its hands as prices in some sectors increased more than 40% since the beginning of the year, riots sparked in several cities throughout the country in late February, resulting in plenty of property damage and more than 300 arrests.

At about the same time in Cameroon [20], anger over rising prices and falling wages sparked three days of violent confrontation with the military. Anger was also fed by President Paul Biya's attempt to change the constitution so he could sit for a third term.

The story is far from over. We’ll keep posting updates – so please check our Special Coverage page on the Global Food Crisis 2008 [1]often.