Financial Crisis May Worsen Food Crunch It Eclipsed

Article excerpt

Call it crisis eclipse.

The global food crisis that dominated headlines earlier this year has been overshadowed by this fall's financial crisis, but it continues to exact a crippling toll on the world's poor. And, although commodity prices for a wide range of crops have fallen by as much as 50 percent from record highs in June, the financial crisis is expected to make it dramatically worse: credit for farmers could dry up, meaning less money to buy fertilizer and seed, leading in turn to greater global shortages of food.

Money for food aid could dry up as well. In June, governments and donors pledged $12.3 billion for the food crisis. So far, only $1 billion has actually been disbursed, as lending institutions and governments instead scramble to save ailing banks.

"My concern is that with the food crisis out of the headlines, policymakers will assume it's not a problem. Another worry is that, [with the financial crisis], there will simply be less money to invest in agriculture. We've got to turn that around," says Robert Ziegler, the director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.

Some factors contributing to the food crisis have ebbed, which adds to the notion that the worst is over.

The price of oil, needed to transport food to markets, has dropped from July highs of nearly $150 a barrel to around $50 today.

Corn, soybean, and wheat prices have fallen about 50 percent from record highs earlier in the year. And many of the restrictions set by grain-exporting governments like Vietnam, China and India - all of whom feared shortages and effectively hoarded grain supplies, causing prices to shoot up further - have now been eased, meaning supplies have stabilized and prices have come down accordingly.

Lower prices haven't ended crisis

Still, a country like Cambodia helps illustrate that lower prices have not ended the crisis. The price of rice - the country's staple food - has gone down by about 7 percent since August. But observers say that's not enough to offset the staggering 25 percent inflation of the last year.

"Workers already spend about 70 percent of their income on food. Prices have gone down, but they're still higher than other years. If you look at people's income versus inflation, many more are poor today," says Yang Saing Koma, president of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development of Agriculture, a think tank in the country's capital, Phnom Penh.

In fact, the Asian Development Bank estimates that 2 million more Cambodians may have been pushed into poverty.

The problem is playing out across the globe: food prices rose by 24 percent in 2007, pushing 75 million more people into chronic hunger, estimates the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). In 2008, food prices surged again by 51 percent, meaning that millions more are likely to join the 923 million people already suffering from malnutrition. World food prices have come down by a modest 6 percent since September, the FAO estimates, but that can't reverse the damage already wreaking its way across the globe.

"Food prices are dropping, which is great, but its entirely too early to say that the food crisis is over," says Marcus Prior, a spokesman for the UN's World Food Program (WFP) in Nairobi, Kenya.

He points out that the food crisis is taking its greatest toll on sub-Saharan Africa, where 1 in 3 people were already estimated to be chronically hungry before the crisis. Last year, staggering food inflation added another 24 million people to the total of malnourished.

"We've seen people have to make decisions, taking their children out of school ... so the children can help with work," says Mr. Prior, adding that Somalia, northern Kenya, northern Uganda and Ethiopia are among the hardest hit, because of conflict, drought, and successive harvest failures. …