Food Crisis Felt Most Acutely By the Poor
LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
High prices, riots and bans on exporting rice and other staples are forcing governments worldwide to find a way to alleviate the global food crisis.
Mr. RAJ PATEL (Political Economist, Fellow, Institute for Food and Development Policy): The World Food Programme has called the current crisis a silent tsunami.
HANSEN: That Raj Patel, a political economist and fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland, California. He testified this past week on the global food crisis before the House Financial Services Committee. Raj Patel joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Welcome back to the program.
Mr. PATEL: Good to be here again, Liane.
HANSEN: What is the current status with the food crisis?
Mr. PATEL: There's been a slight decline in price levels recently, but they're still at historical highs. And in fact in the testimony a range of witnesses kind of agreed on the basic reasons why it was happening. You have the high price of oil, biofuels, the sort of increase of demand, particularly in Asia, poor harvests and financial speculation.
All of these reasons are ones that, across the political spectrum, people believe to be the reasons behind these high prices. Few people see any of these reasons particularly going away in the short to medium term. So we are in the era of expensive food but part of the point of the testimony was to be able to think how to manage this new social fact.
HANSEN: You said in your testimony this past Wednesday that out of the 854 million people starving in the world, 35 million are American citizens and yet - I mean, there are people that are throwing food away every day. How, why is this happening?
Mr. PATEL: This is a consequence of political choices because of what we're effectively endorsing in the way we distribute food today is a market-based approach. Which means that if people are too poor to be able to afford food, then they're going to find it hard to eat. And although food stamp programs in the United States go some way to meeting that need, there's still a gulf.
And particularly you're hearing reports all over the place of working American families now doing things like skipping meals - women in particular - skipping meals so that their kids can have something to eat on the table, people growing their own fresh foods and vegetables because they can't afford to buy them. These are the kinds of survival tactics that you see in developing countries.
And it is a mark of how desperately the food crisis has become that it's starting to be seen here in the U.S. too.
HANSEN: What do you think the United States can do about its own hungry people?
Mr. PATEL: What's happening in the United States around hunger is the same that's happening around the world. People go hungry not because of a lack of food but because of poverty. Policies like welfare like, you know, a decent social security system, a safety net for working Americans. Those are the kinds of things that prevent poverty and therefore that prevent food and security.
So I certainly think that there are lessons from the past that we might apply in the future and that they involve providing safety nets so that no one in this country has to go to bed hungry at any night.
HANSEN: Raj Patel is a political economist and fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland, California. His new book is called "Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System." He joined us from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco. Thank you.
Mr. PATEL: Thank you, Liane.
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