Global Food Shortages, Rising Prices Threaten Public Health: Advocates Call for Food Aid Restructuring

By Krisberg, Kim | The Nation's Health, June-July 2008 | Go to article overview

Global Food Shortages, Rising Prices Threaten Public Health: Advocates Call for Food Aid Restructuring


Krisberg, Kim, The Nation's Health


EVEN THOUGH it tops global development goals at No. 1, eliminating hunger may be moving even farther from the world's grasp. Rising food prices are pushing the planet's poorest communities further into poverty and threatening to unravel hard-won successes in health and economic opportunity.

A collision of factors is pricing adequate food supplies--a fundamental building block of good health--out of reach not only for the world's poorest, but for some in the United States as well. In April, the World Bank reported that global food prices rose by 83 percent during the 36 months preceding February 2008, with wheat prices alone rising by 181 percent. Just in the past year, the price of rice rose by 120 percent, with corn and soybean prices not far behind. Up to 100 million people, the World Bank estimated, could be pushed deeper into poverty because of rocketing food costs, threatening social stability and peace.

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"This is the new face of hunger--the millions of people who were not in the urgent hunger category six months ago, but now are," said World Food Program Executive Director Josette Sherran. "The response calls for large-scale, high-level action by the global community, focused on emergency and longer-term solutions."

Such solutions vary as much as the causes, which range from high fuel costs to climate change to protective trade policies that end up distorting food prices. Rising demand and government subsidy support for biofuels are also taking a toll, encouraging farmers to grow food for fuel instead of food to eat. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, about 30 percent of U.S. corn production will go toward biofuel production in 2008 rather than into world food and feed markets. And in a somewhat ironic twist, researchers noted that successes in economic growth around the world are being accompanied by demands for more expensive foods such as meat--an energy-consumptive product that requires more land be used for animal feed.

The resulting increase in food prices has led to protests and unrest around the world, including food-related riots reported in Bangladesh, Haiti and Egypt.

"There was an ongoing awareness of food prices, but until people took to the streets, the extent and magnitude of the impact on poor people was somehow being hidden," said Asma Lateef, director of the Bread for the World Institute, the research arm of the advocacy group Bread for the World. "We're aware of this now, but 854 million people suffered from hunger even before the food crisis began."

Though stories of food shortages and hunger-driven unrest only recently became a high-profile international issue, "one could have seen all of these (factors) coming together, but people were looking at different crises without seeing how they all connect," Lateef told The Nation's Health. Since 2000, she noted, there has been a successful reduction in the numbers of people who live on less than a dollar per day, but for people living on the margins of poverty, any shock can set them back.

According to Ken Crossley, deputy director of the World Food Program's U.S. Relations Office, populations that routinely live on $1 or $2 a day are now spending up to 70 percent of their incomes on food. Underemployed and low-income populations in urban areas who were previously able to "scrape by" are now being priced out of the market, he noted. And as hunger and poverty increase, the World Food Program's purchasing power has decreased, Crossley said during an April briefing co-hosted by the United Nations Association of the United States of America and APHA. In emergency appeals, the World Food Program called on governments to be as "generous as possible," as the program's food costs have risen 55 percent in the past year, leading to a $500 million shortfall. President Bush in April released $200 million in emergency food aid, and in May proposed that $770 million in additional food aid be included in upcoming federal appropriations legislation. …

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