Ordinarily, the price of food is not part of the conversation when finance ministers meet. But on April 12 and 13, at the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington, D.C., ministers tackled the subject with urgency. Two days of rioting in Haiti earlier in the month had left four people dead in the latest outbreak of unrest worldwide related to soaring food prices. Over the past year, food-related violence has erupted in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Italy, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mexico, Mozambique, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen. Last year, Argentineans boycotted tomatoes during presidential elections when the vegetable became more expensive than meat; Italian shoppers boycotted pasta for a day to protest rising prices and the Russian government froze the price of milk, bread and other foods in advance of parliamentary elections.
World Bank President Robert Zoellick says world food prices have risen 80 percent over the past three years, threatening to push 100 million people in low-income countries deeper into poverty. Time magazine painted this picture in February: “From Mexico to Pakistan, protests have turned violent. Rioters tore through three cities in the West African nation of Burkina Faso last month, burning government buildings and looting stores. Days later in Cameroon, a taxi drivers’ strike over fuel prices mutated into a massive protest about food prices, leaving around 20 people dead. Similar protests exploded in Senegal and Mauritania late last year. And Indian protesters burned hundreds of food-ration stores in West Bengal last October, accusing the owners of selling government-subsidized food on the lucrative black market.”
In Washington, the finance ministers vowed to combat high food prices with a “New Deal on Global Food Policy” that’s still to be worked out. But with relatively little to show from half a century of IMF/World Bank economic and monetary policies, developing nations may be reluctant to abide by whatever that new deal prescribes.
With global stockpiles of some basics at their lowest point in decades, the World Food Program, the world’s largest humanitarian agency, made an “extraordinary emergency appeal” for $500 million, saying the money is needed by May 1 to avoid cutting rations to the poorest nations. “A new face of hunger is emerging: even where food is available on the shelves, there are now more and more people who simply cannot afford it,” says Josette Sheeran, the program’s executive director.
Blame the soaring food prices on spiraling oil prices — topping $100 a barrel recently — that pushed up the cost of fertilizers and the cost of trucking food from farms to local markets and shipping it abroad. Blame them on greater demand for food in China and India, where many no longer grow their own food and have the money to buy lots of it. Blame them also on climate changes, in which prolonged droughts, floods, deep frosts and record warmth have disrupted harvests across the globe. Blame them, too, on the push to produce biofuels as an alternative to hydrocarbons that have lured thousands of farmers away from growing crops for food.
Against this backdrop, an obesity epidemic seems obscene. According to the World Health Organization, globally there are more than one billion overweight adults, at least 300 million of whom are obese. The organization ties this to rising incomes; urbanization, with its diets of higher proportions of fats, saturated fats and sugars; less physically demanding work; technology in the home; and more passive leisure pursuits.
The end to each of these crises — skyrocketing fuel prices, food prices and body fat — is nowhere in sight.
By Rosalind McLymont