Monday, April 28, 2008

Food Riots and Food Insecurity

We have talked a lot in the Violence and Trauma group about how scarcity (real or perceived) can lead to violence, or can exacerbate the conditions that lead to violence. We see this being played out in many countries of the world right now, as food becomes a scarce and expensive commodity. The conditions that led to this world food crisis have been described as "the perfect storm."
Systemic causes for the world-wide food price increase have been currently identified as climate change (which has resulted in unseasonal droughts and floods), rising oil prices (which has heightened the costs of fertilizers, food transport, and industrial agriculture), the increasing use of biofuels in developed countries, and an increasing demand for a more varied diet (especially meat) across the expanding middle-class populations of Asia. These factors, coupled with falling world food stockpiles and instability brought about by the subprime mortgage crisis, have all contributed to the dramatic world-wide rise in food prices (wikipedia).

A survey released by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute found that the price of staple food has risen by 80 percent since 2005, including a 40 percent surge last year alone. The real price of rice is at a 19-year high and the price of wheat on world markets is at a 28-year high. (washington times)

Global food prices have risen dramatically, adding a new level of danger to the crisis of world hunger. In Africa, food riots have swept across the continent, with recent protests in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mauritania and Senegal. In most of West Africa, the price of food has risen by 50 percent—in Sierra Leone, 300 percent. In the United States there has been a 41 percent surge in prices for wheat, corn, rice and other cereals over the past six months.Read/Listen/Watch the full story on Democracy Now!

Food Insecurity and Riots Erupt in over 30 countries:

EGYPT — Violent protests this week over soaring food prices left one dead and 15 injured.

HAITI — Five people were killed and about 20 injured in a week of protests, including an attack on U.N. peacekeepers. TIME began one report with "The good news is that there hasn't been a coup d'etat in Haiti in the wake of violent protests over increased food prices." The government is very destabilized at this time.

CAMEROON — Violent food riots in February claimed 40 lives, and protests continue this month.

BURKINA FASO — A general strike is called this week over rising food prices, after protests earlier this year led to hundreds of arrests.

PHILIPPINES — The government beefs up security at rice warehouses to prevent theft and hoarding.

JORDAN — U.N. aid workers stage a one-day strike for more pay to cover food and fuel price increases.

BURMA — Cuts in fuel and food subsidies sparked massive anti-government protests last summer.

Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, was in Washington last month making an urgent appeal for funds to compensate for rising prices. "We're asking for the world to really think through how we meet the emergency needs of the hungry," Ms. Sheeran told The Washington Times.Ms. Sheeran told The Times that her agency was $500 million short for the current fiscal year in meeting needs to relieve the global food and fuel crises. "We don't have the buffering space" to cover such sharp increases in the cost of basic staples, she said. Various countries have pledged differing amounts of aid, and some of them have delivered on their promises, while others (especially the US!) have not (link to the full list of international food aid donations). 

You can download a letter to send to your government (there are links for lots of countries!) if you click here. You can help out by donating to the "Friends of the World Food Programme," a US-based non-profit that supports the world food program and other hunger relief efforts. (especially if you have an extra $500 million just kicking around somewhere--maybe hidden under your mattress?)

I found an incredible website about world poverty and hunger. The main page of lists the names of people who have died from hungar (it maintains a count of "hungar deaths this hour"), and it provides some solid background information about poverty and its influence on human lives throughout the world. The map below shows the percentage of populations living below their national poverty line (based on data from the CIA World Factbook). You can see that the places most affected by the food crisis are the poorest countries.

Martin Luther King said that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!" I believe that is true about food insecurity too: Food insecurity anywhere is a threat to justice and true security everywhere. In the US, restaurant owners are stocking up on rice "just in case." This action then causes chain stores like Costco to limit the amount of rice people can buy, further making people panic thinking there isn't enough food. Even I bought some extra rice. It was stupid. When we panic and hoard, the macro-level effect of our combined individual actions often cause what we were trying to prevent in the first place.

The Depression was very much worse because people panicked and took their money out of the banks, and that is what happened just a couple weeks ago with Bear Stearns too. I don't have the solution (clearly since I am guilty with my bag of jasmine rice in the freezer), but I know we can do better than this.

I know that we as human beings, as helping professionals, as kind and compassionate manifestations of the universe, can do better. There is no reason that people all over the world need to be rioting in the streets because they are starving. There is enough food to feed the world, there are enough resources for all of us. We need to reevaluate our priorities as human beings and take a long, deep look at ourselves and our tendency to hoard and to the view resources as scarce and impossible to share.

One little thing we can do (and it is FUN!) is to click on this link and play the game FREE RICE! It is an awesome website where you play a word game (identifying the definition of a word, for example: "skeptical = a. thoughtless, b. sole, c. doubting, d. revolting"). For every word you get right, they donate 20 grains of rice to the UN's World Food Programme!!

We create the world we live in, and we have a greater impact than we might think on the lives of people living half a world away. They are closer to us than we think: we are all part of this interconnected world together. It's time to start acting like it!

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