CRS food experts warn of impending 'cascade of hunger'

from Catholic Relief Services
Published on 29 Apr 2008
By Elizabeth Griffin

This is how Haiti's poor describe the burning sensation associated with chronic hunger: like drinking bleach or battery acid.

The Haitian Creole phrases klorox and asid batri are being heard more often on the streets of the Western Hemisphere's poorest country lately as the skyrocketing price of food - part of a global crisis - pushes more people to the brink of starvation.

The rising cost of food staples around the world is making national and international headlines. The crisis is prompting economists, agronomists, finance ministers and heads of state to come up with immediate and long-term solutions so that more widespread price increases are averted and increasing discontent is mitigated.

"What we are seeing is unprecedented," says Catholic Relief Services food aid expert Lisa Kuennen-Asfaw. "If immediate needs are not met, and if resources and policies supporting increased agricultural production are not put in place soon, we are heading for a cascade of hunger the world over."

Prices are increasing sharply in every region of the world for some of the most basic foodstuffs traded on international commodity markets. The price of wheat has doubled in less than a year, while other staples such as corn, maize and soy are trading at well above their 1990s levels. Rice, which is the staple food for about 3 billion people worldwide, has tripled in cost in the last 18 months. In some countries, prices for milk and meat have more than doubled.

In Egypt, a 110-pound sack of wheat cost about $8 two years ago. Today, that same sack of wheat costs more than $25. As prices rise, more and more Egyptians are unable to afford their daily bread. They stand in long lines for hours to buy government-subsidized bread, missing work or school to do so.

In Ethiopia, Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, whose urban centers take in the poorest of the poor, have seen a 20 percent increase in demand for services. As CRS' biggest partner in Ethiopia, the Missionaries of Charity tells CRS staff that the signs of the problem are visible; increasing numbers of women, children, elderly and disabled people are living on the streets.

In Burkina Faso, a middle-class family of seven now spends 75 percent of its monthly revenue on food costs alone, and still needs extra money to pay for other household costs like rent, medical expenses and utilities.

The rising cost of food around the world is causing CRS to look for new approaches in addressing hunger in both rural and urban areas. As one of the largest private providers of food aid in the world, the agency is assessing how these price increases are affecting the people we serve.

Stoked by rising fuel prices, unpredictable weather in key food-producing countries, and demand from emerging economies like India and China, the surge in food prices has already sparked violent protests across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. In Haiti, an island nation already plagued by chronic hunger and where most people survive on less than $2 per day, deadly riots and street protests broke out in defiance of skyrocketing food prices. Demonstrators say the cost of food, coupled with a lethargic government, have left them hungry and politically dissatisfied.

"The anger is palpable across the globe," says Sean Callahan, CRS' executive vice president of overseas operations. "The food crisis is not only being felt among the poor but it is also eroding the gains of the working and middle classes, sowing volatile levels of discontent and putting new pressures on fragile governments."

CRS food experts say that safety net programs need to be put into place to help with short and medium-term solutions. Food and cash transfer programs need to be incorporated immediately for countries suffering the most. The World Food Program put together a 30-country watch list to identify many of the countries in most need. CRS food experts recommend transfers be carried out using food vouchers, cash-for-work and food-for-work programs, as well as school feeding programs. In addition, they recommend the U.S. government increase its immediate food aid and funding by at least $1.1 billion for this year, to carry out food and cash crisis mitigation efforts.

At the heart of the food crisis is that global supply needs to catch up with demand. This situation hits countries that consume more than they produce the hardest. In response, poor countries need to significantly boost agricultural production in both near-term and longer-term timeframes.

"One solution," says Kuennen-Asfaw, "is to provide a support mechanism to small [farmers] through production safety net programs such as subsidizing seeds and fertilizers. This won't address the longer-term production problems, but will significantly help boost agricultural production and increase yields during the next growing season."

CRS food experts and program staff from around the world are very concerned about this growing food crisis, but they are hopeful that through the implementation of some of the above programs, widespread famine and food insecurity will be avoided.

Elizabeth Griffin is the Director of Communications for Catholic Relief Services.

For more information on the Global Food Crisis, including interviews with CRS experts and stories from the field, go to Catholic Relief Services is the international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. The agency provides assistance to people in more than 100 countries and territories based on need, regardless of race, nationality or creed.