The first report in a six-part series
Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images
A vendor carries a rack of bread in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla, Egypt, north of Cairo, on April 6, 2008. The country is in the grip of a serious bread crisis brought on by the rising cost of wheat.
A vendor carries a rack of bread in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla, Egypt, north of Cairo, on April 6, 2008. The country is in the grip of a serious bread crisis brought on by the rising cost of wheat. Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images
Lindsay Mangum, NPR
An index of global food prices jumped 83 percent in the 3 years ended in February, while wheat prices nearly tripled. Enlarge to see price projections for key food crops.
Global leaders are struggling with what may be cast as a moral issue — a worldwide increase in the cost of food. The high prices have set off protests from Haiti to Egypt. Poor people are spending even more of their income just to stay fed, if they can afford to pay at all.
There is no sign of a quick solution, but U.S. and international aid officials are trying to cope.
Josette Sheeran, the World Food Program's executive director, has spent much of her first year on the job talking about the perfect storm in the world food market — low food reserves, rising energy prices, and a high demand for biofuels.
'The Canary in the Cave'
"I think in a way we're the canary in the cave because very early on we begin to see vulnerability coming that is affecting people that make less than a dollar a day," she says. "So about a year ago, I began to talk about the perfect storm forming for the world's most vulnerable. I thought it would take a couple of years, but I think we are in the eye of the storm now."
The price of rice is up about 70 percent since last year and the price of wheat has more than doubled. Sheeran says the World Food Program just can't buy enough food.
"So now our cup in school for kids can be filled 40 percent less than it could in just eight, nine, 10 months ago," she says.
Earlier this year, she appealed for an extra $500 million but now says she needs $700 million.
Sheeran met late Friday with the director of U.S. foreign assistance, Henrietta Fore.
"The United States usually gives between 40 and 50 percent of the world food donations and we would anticipate that we would be in that range again," Fore says. "But the prices are skyrocketing for all of us."
Purchasing Food Locally
Fore sent a $350 million supplemental budget request to Congress before the food prices shot up.
"We've also asked for local purchase authority, which would allow our United States dollars to stretch further," she says. "When we can purchase on local markets, it also encourages local farmers to produce food. It allows the food to get their more quickly."
Experts project that prices will remain high for several years. Some countries are responding by capping food prices or limiting exports to keep enough food for their own people. Siwa Msangi of the International Food Policy Research Institute says he's worried these actions will distort the market. He says it's time for rich and poor nations to have a real discussion about how to fix all this.
"That's going to put the burden on policymakers and on the world community to look closely at trade policies, to look closely at technology policies and put everything on the table," Msangi says.
Biofuel Demand Pressures Crop Prices
Water and population policies should also be on the table — according to Lester Brown, author of the book Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.
"My principle concern about this is the effect it will have on social unrest and political stability in the low- and middle-income countries in the world that import a substantial share of their grain supply," Brown says. "These countries are in trouble now."
Unlike previous spikes in food prices, caused by crop failures, Brown says the world is dealing with systemic changes now — rising demand in Asia, for instance, for more grain-intensive livestock. But he says the straw that broke the camel's back is the demand for biofuel.
"The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year," Brown says. "And what we are seeing now is the emergence of direct competition between the 860 million people in the world who own automobiles and who want to maintain their mobility while the 2 billion poorest people in the world simply want to survive."
Brown says he's starting to hear a debate once again about the predictions by 18th century demographer Thomas Malthus — that the world's population will outgrow its food supply. But U.S. officials brush off such talk.
The World Food Program's Sheeran also remains optimistic.
"I have not yet met an expert who doesn't believe the world can produce more food," she says. "And so, I am a long-term optimist — i.e., over the next 5 or 10 years, we will figure this out."
In the meantime, her organization is scrambling to help those hardest hit by the price hikes.