The Food Crisis of 2008: A "Silent Tsunami"


The Food Crisis of 2008: A "Silent Tsunami"

April 24, 2008

Food prices are soaring, and the ramifications are being felt worldwide.

Called the "silent tsunami" by Josette Sheeran, executive director of the UN World Food Program, rising food prices are threatening the stability of political regimes and advancements made in reducing poverty and hunger in the developing world. This crisis is atypical because it's happening in many countries simultaneously, affecting those not normally touched by famine. Noted economist and UN advisor Jeffrey D. Sachs has described the situation—which threatens to plunge 100 million people into hunger—as "the worst crisis of its kind in more than 30 years."

The World Bank recently announced that the price of food has increased 83% since 2005 and that supplies have dwindled to record lows, due to a combination of record demand from the growing middle class in emerging economies like China and India, increased production of biofuel, climate change and bad weather. The price of wheat has risen by 130 percent, while rice rose 74 percent between March 2007 and March 2008.

While increased costs for food and the soaring price of oil and fertilizer have affected North Americans, countries in the developing world where people live on less than $1 a day are the hardest hit. The world's poorest people are spending more money on food, often buying less food or food that is not as nutritious. As a result, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 36 countries now face an outright food crisis. Although the US government announced on April 15 that it released $200 million in food aid to "meet unanticipated food aid needs in Africa and elsewhere," experts say billions are needed to create long-term solutions.

In Darfur, food supplies have been halved by the UN World Food Program. The cutbacks, due to the rising costs of food and recent attacks and banditry, are hurting those who need it most. "Attacks on the WFP food pipeline are an attack on the most vulnerable people in Darfur," said Josette Sheeran, WFP Executive Director.

Concerns over food has boiled over and caused social unrest all over the world. In Haiti, protestors upset over the skyrocketing price of rice and food staples took to the streets chanting "we're hungry." The government responded with an emergency cut in the price of rice and ousting the country's prime minister. During a week of protests and looting, a Nigerian UN peacekeeper was shot dead in the capital, Port-Au-Prince, while three Sri Lankan officers on patrol were injured by gunfire. Tensions in Haiti have ceased, but observers are warning that future incidents are likely to flare up.

Earlier this month, Egyptians protested escalating food prices that have risen 40% since the start of the year, which led the government to order the army to bake bread to cope with shortages. A similar scenario unfolded in the Philippines, where the government is now promising life sentences for those caught hoarding rice and smuggling flour. Food riots have also erupted in Niger, Senegal, Cameroon and Burkina Faso, as well as in Morocco, Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Bangladesh, Mexico and Yemen. In March, Argentina's attempt to control rising food prices led to a three-week strike by producers.

Some of the world's biggest rice producers, such as China, Egypt, Vietnam and India, have started cutting back on their exports to keep more of their domestically grown rice at home–adding pressure to world prices.

Food security is a critical component of the work that AJWS supports. In Africa, AJWS prioritizes food security in its disaster aid and relief work; in the Americas, AJWS supports groups promoting sustainable agriculture; and in Asia AJWS funding encourages sustainable agriculture and organic farming.

One example of a successful project is Kilili Self-Help Project (KSHP) in Kenya. Program participants learn ecology and agriculture techniques, which help them to produce food locally. The result is that Kenyan communities are becoming increasingly self-sufficient, increasing their food security, family income and environmental health.

AJWS also works with its grantees to enable them to partner with peers and experts, building their capacity to respond to environmental concerns. One such example is Integrando Campesinos para la Agricultura Sostenible (Integrating Peasants for Sustainable Agriculture), a peer exchange between five Central American grantees. Eleven organizations in four countries have met over three years, sharing farming techniques and strategies for protecting indigenous land rights.

The global food crisis is hurting those who are most vulnerable—the world's poor and marginalized. AJWS is working hard alongside its grantees to address these issues from a rights-based approach. It will continue to take a strong commitment to the communities of the developing world to stem the tide of the "silent tsunami."