World hunger has taken on a new face. No longer is it confined to images of emaciated children and dead cattle transmitted for decades from dusty, arid, African plains. In 2008, food riots took place in over 30 countries, as millions took to the streets demanding affordable food. Civil unrest put many governments under pressure and toppled the leadership of Haiti, while demonstrators were killed in Senegal, Cameroon, and Mozambique, among other countries. These food riots stemmed from soaring food prices, which began an upward tick in 2002, and have surged since 2007. Last year, global wheat prices spiked by 150 percent, more than doubling the price of bread in many poor countries, while rising oil prices dramatically increased prices of agricultural production and transport.
Increased food prices have had a devastating effect on the welfare of the one billion people worldwide who live on less than $1 a day. Indeed, low-income families in the world's least-developed countries typically spend more than half their income on food. In Sahelian countries such as Niger, where 60 percent of the population lives below the $1-a-day level, field studies have demonstrated that high food prices result directly in increased child mortality. Studies by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Niger present a striking correlation between increased food prices and the numbers of children that succumb to acute malnutrition.
In the Tambacounda region of Senegal, a 2008 Oxfam survey found that, in an average year, poor households earn $800 to $1,000 annually, of which some $400 to $450 is used to buy food. Because of the doubling of prices in 2008, such incomes now buy only about half of a family's annual food needs. As a result, 60 percent of parents have had to cut the number of meals their children eat; 40 percent have had to change their diet to less nutritious foods; and half of all households have had members, generally working-age men, migrate to cities or other countries, leaving the burden of household and farm work to women.
Though I've worked in famine relief for over 15 years, I had never seen food riots prior to 2008, largely because--until recently--most of the world's hungry were those living in rural areas: small farmers, herders, fishermen, and landless agricultural workers. These unlucky millions have had little or no say in the policies governing their livelihoods, and often have no street where they could march. But food insecurity and the desire for a better life pushed many of these people to migrate to urban centers, where unemployment has skyrocketed and tensions run high. The urban poor in developing countries have had many reasons to riot in the past, but only now is the price of staple food among them.
International food prices have now declined somewhat after peaking in mid-2008 but remain high compared to long-term trends. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported in June that for the first time the number of the world's hungry has passed the 1 billion mark, another 100 million having been added in the past year--an 11 percent rise over the previous twelve months. More than one in six people around the world are considered undernourished, with the total rising for more than a decade. (The minimum standard is 2,100 calories per day, including a proper nutritional balance required for a healthy and active life.) An average North American eats over 3,700 calories every day, while a Bangladeshi consumes some 2,200 calories and an Ethiopian only 1,880 calories. Every day, 16,000 children die, or one every five seconds, from hunger-related causes--acute malnutrition, chronic undernourishment, vitamin or mineral deficiencies which result in weakness, and heightened susceptibility to illness.
Put simply, children die of hunger because their parents cannot afford the food they need. At the same time, spending more on food leaves less money for other essentials such as health and education, both of which have an immediate and long-term impact on children and families. It should also be noted that a rising infant mortality rate is one of the most accurate indicators of future state failure.
For decades, many organizations, including Oxfam, have criticized the policies of cereal-exporting wealthy nations in North America and Western Europe, which have kept the price of food artificially low and undermined farmers' incomes in developing countries. Indeed, the cereal sector has long been among the most subsidized in the northern hemisphere. Producer support to farmers in developed countries, which totals over $200 billion annually, represents about 30 times the amount provided in agricultural aid to developing countries.
As a result, cheap food from developed countries has been dumped all over the world, including through international food aid programs. This has led to a handful of northern countries capturing substantial market shares in many developing nations, at the expense of local food production. Though the United States and the European Union produce only about one-fourth of world cereals, they are the main exporters of such food, responsible for more than half of global grain trade. Indeed, wheat is barely produced in Africa, but one can find bread in almost every African village, using imported cereal grains from Europe or North America. Meanwhile, local producers of millet or sorghum struggle to make a living.
This skewed competition from imported food has affected millions of farmers in developing countries and encouraged increased specialization in the production of exportable commodities, such as coffee, cocoa, cotton, or flowers--which may provide...