Population Matters

Another World Food Day, another Crisis

October 15th, 2010

Tomorrow, October 16, is World Food Day and for the fourth year in a row, the headlines are filled with discussion of yet another food crisis.  

Three years ago on World Food Day rising grain prices and shrinking grain reserves were setting off alarm bells.  It was just the beginning of what would become known as the 2007-8 food crisis.

Two years ago, after food riots had erupted in more than 30 countries, rice prices had tripled, and corn and wheat prices had doubled, world leaders were hopeful that food prices would continue to decline from their peaks and that the worst of the 2007-8 food crisis was past.

Last year on World Food Day, in the wake of the Great Recession, the FAO was reporting that the number of chronically hungry of people in the world had surged and that it would likely break the 1 billion mark for the first time in history after a decade-long rise in the number of hungry.  Another food crisis had arrived.

This year on World Food Day, the number of hungry people in the world has dropped back to an estimated 925 million, but a series of droughts, fires in Russia, and floods in Asia have led again to sharp increases in grain commodity prices and growing concerns about another food crisis.  Last Friday, the Financial Times, reported that, “Fears of a global food crisis swept the world’s commodity markets as prices for staples such as corn, rice and wheat spiraled after the US government warned of “dramatically” lower supplies.”  The food riots that broke out recently in Mozambique and killed 14 people may be a harbinger of more trouble to come.

The World Food Programme (WFP) is currently fighting two major humanitarian crises at once.  In the African Sahel, an estimated ten million people are suffering from a severe food shortage due to drought and high food prices.  In flood-stricken Pakistan, WFP has been funneling food supplies to over 7 million flood victims.  But beyond the headline disasters, lurks a chronic food crisis, one that promises to be here for many World Food Days to come.

The FAO reported last week placed 22 countries are on a “protracted” food crisis list.  Several factors account for this chronic hunger including severe poverty and weak or corrupt governments, but virtually all of the countries on the list also have high population growth rates.  Niger, which has one of the fastest population growth rates, has been experiencing a major food crisis every three years.  Malnutrition, according to the WFP, threatens the health and wellbeing of an entire generation of young people in Niger.  But Niger is just one of many countries caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and hunger.

The global hunger problem is not going away soon.  To keep up with population growth, developing countries will have to double food production by 2050.  And they will have to do so despite rising temperatures, increasing floods, intensified drought, slowly rising seas, topsoil erosion, falling water tables, loss of arable land to roads and urbanization, and higher and higher prices for fertilizer and fuel.   That’s no small task.

The FAO is circulating an online petition on global hunger calling on people to get angry at the fact that around a billion people suffer from hunger.  Everyone should get angry and sign that petition.  Far too little is being done to tackle the problem of global hunger.

We need to start with dramatically boosting the level of food development aid, which has fallen off sharply in the past two decades.  But it doesn’t end there.  Unless more is done to help women in developing countries prevent unwanted or unintended pregnancies, population growth rates in chronically hungry developing countries will continue to outpace food production.

A decade ago, World Food Day was a time to celebrate the progress we were making in reducing global hunger.  No longer.  Today, World Food Day is a time to get angry, ring alarm bells, and take action. Otherwise, we will back here again next year wondering what to do about the next food crisis.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

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