Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The price of food and the famine in the Horn of Africa

 If you have visited your local grocery store lately, you will not have escaped noticing the rising price for food. Unless you are living on the edge of the poverty in North America or Europe, however, this increase is easily measurable but still bearable. Many of us adapt by searching for a cheaper item or we forgo the purchase. 
   We survive. In fact, very few people in the more developed parts of the world starve. An extensive social welfare system in most countries protects us from that.
   But for those who live in the Horn of Africa the rising prices can be fatal. There more than 12 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, and 40% of children under five are suffering from acute malnutrician. I have already written about this crisis before, so I will not belabor those facts and the great need that exists there.
   My concern today is to examine these rising prices with the famine in part of Africa. I will show that there is a connection.

   These rising prices are a global phenomenon. While the global food prices were reasonable throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they have been climbing steadily since 2000. Global food prices reached a historic high in February of this year, surpassing the spikes of 2007-2008, which were then the highest in 20 years.
   And while the current prices are in part related to bad weather in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, other significant factors are high energy prices, increasing use of grain for biofuels in the U.S.and elsewhere, and export restrictions on food.
   Food prices in Somalia are now often three times as high as the normal, making these goods inaccessible to much of the population. 
   A volatile global food supply is deepening the humanitarian catastrophe in the Horn of Africa, the World Bank reported recentlyShortages and near-historic prices for staples such as corn, wheat and sugar have magnified the impact of the drought now ravaging the Horn of Africa.
   "While the emergency in the Horn of Africa was triggered by prolonged droughts, especially in areas struggling with conflict and internal displacement such as Somalia, food prices that are near the record high levels seen in 2008 also contributed to the situation," the World Bank stated.
   Finally, large land leases (or "land grabs") to foreign governments and corporations in the Horn have further exacerbated this problem. These farms, designed solely for export production, effectively subsidise the food security of other regions of the world (most notably the Middle East and Asia) at the expense of local populations.
   The problem is not the growth in population, as postulated by the British philosopher Thomas Malthus in "An Essay on the Principle of Population" in 1798. Since then people have been concerned that human population growth will outstrip the available food supply. 
   But that is not the case in the Horn of Africa. They lack access to contraceptives, but most Somalis need children since they are a crucial source of farm labor and an important source of family income. They also provide a social security system. 
   For these families having fewer children is, therefore, not an option at present. Yet as their economic situation improves, they too will eventually have fewer children.
   Thus over-population cannot be blamed as the major reason for the current famine. Nor can drought by itself be ascribed as the chief source of the problem. There are many causes, and no single factor alone can explain it entirely.

   The main reason for this famine is the high price of food worldwide. This is intensifying a recurrent problem. The shortages and record prices have exacerbated the drought, and all the other factors mentioned thus far.
   In global terms, food prices last month were on average 33% higher than a year ago, the report added. Corn, or maize, has risen by 84%; sugar 62% and wheat 55%.
   The price rises were particularly severe in Africa. Corn prices doubled in Kampala, Mogadishu and Kigali over the last year, the World Bank report stated. And sorghum prices increased more than fourfold over last year in parts of Somalia.
  The report blamed the soaring prices on poor local harvests as well as shrinking global food stocks. Corn stocks were at their lowest levels since the 1970s creating a situation in which "even small shortfalls in yields can have an amplified effects on prices."
   Another factor that adds to the potential upward pressure on the price of maize is the diversion into the production of biofuels." Aid organisations have also connected rising food prices to the use of food crops for energy.
   Some prices had fallen back slightly since last February, the report noted, but it warned that the volatility still left the most vulnerable populations, as in the Horn of Africa, dangerously exposed.
   "Persistently high food prices and low food stocks indicate that we're still in the danger zone, with the most vulnerable the least able to cope," added the bank's president, Robert Zoellick.
  An economist in Kenya, Wolfgang Fengler, explained further: "The famine in the Horn of Africa is a result of artificially high prices for food and civil conflict than natural and environmental causes. This crisis is man-made. Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine."
  All the factors mentioned play a role. Civil conflict also exacerbates the problem, but it too is not a primary cause of the famine. It merely compounds what is already catastrophic in nature. Moreover, it hampers the distribution of aid.

   Blaming rising food prices does not offer us an excuse to stop providing aid to the famine victims. We cannot argue that we don't have any money left to give. Other people are suffering much more than we ever will. 
   Instead, let us give thanks for what we have received (even if it costs more). And then let us try to help the people in the Horn of Africa, among others, who need our help. We must provide relief for those who are suffering the most.

   Let us also work for justice, so that those who are contributing the most to the rising prices of food will be exposed. Just as Charles Dickens exposed the social conditions that prevailed in Victorian England, we need to do the same in our own societies. 
   We can start with ourselves and ask whether we have added to the misery of those living (and dying) in the Horn through our actions or inactions. Just because we cannot afford that bottle of wine that was recommended by a friend, does not mean that we are suffering in any way. 
   We also need to put pressure on our legislators so that legislation that can help to resolve the problem of rising prices. Pressure needs to be exerted at every level, municipal, state/provincial, federal, and international.

What does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
(Micah 6:8)

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