Soaring Food Prices Threaten Progress Food prices around the world have hit record highs — and that's starting to take a toll. For example, some experts worry those left hungry in Ethiopia will suffer permanent physical and mental disabilities, such as chronic illness and lower IQ.
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Soaring Food Prices Threaten Progress

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Soaring Food Prices Threaten Progress

Soaring Food Prices Threaten Progress

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This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Alex Cohen.

CHADWICK: All right, some badly needed good news on the economy and food. It looks as though the U.S. corn crop is going to be much bigger than the food industry had thought. That, plus the dip in oil prices and other factors, has brought world food prices down a little bit since record highs of a few months ago.

COHEN: But aside from that small blessing, the cost of food is way higher than it's ever been. People around the globe have to spend at least 60 percent more to buy grains and cooking oil than they did just a couple of years ago. Some prices are double or triple.

CHADWICK: And there have been widespread riots in different places around the world earlier this year.

(Soundbite of riot)

Unidentified Woman: Egyptian police fired tear gas to try to disperse crowds after two days of demonstrations. The anger here at...

CHADWICK: World leaders also warned at their summit last month that high food prices still threaten global food security. Some analysts say prices are going to drop before too long. Others say the food crisis is already so serious that, for many people, life will never go back to normal, or whatever normal was. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling joins us. Danny, hello again. Who is most affected by this?

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Let's start with the people who are living near the edge. You know, the United Nations says that roughly 800 million people around the world chronically don't get enough food.

CHADWICK: 800 - nearly one billion people. But you don't actually mean that they are starving?

ZWERDLING: No, no, most of them are not starving, but they never eat enough to be really healthy. And the thing is that food prices this year are pushing some of those people over the brink. And listen to this conversation I had with a top relief official in Ethiopia. His name is Marc Nosbach.

Ethiopia, of course, has seen its share of horrible food problems over the decade. You're saying you have never seen this combination of problems?

Mr. MARK NOSBACH (Assistant Director, Save The Children, Ethiopia): No, no and I think that that is what is taking us perhaps all by surprise. This makes it a very difficult situation that we haven't witnessed before.

ZWERDLING: Mark Nosbach is the assistant director in Ethiopia for Save the Children. That's the international aid group. A lot of people assume that things have always been desperate in Ethiopia, and that they always will be. But the fact is, Ethiopia and some other poor countries have made a lot of economic progress in recent years.

And the tragedy is, this progress is unraveling because of food prices. In Ethiopia, for instance, relief workers tell me that a sack of dried corn - and that's one of the main foods - costs 10 times as much in the local markets as it did a year ago. So Nosbach says they're seeing more and more children who have the kind of malnutrition that causes permanent physical and mental side effects.

Mr. NOSBACH: They will not be able to be as good at school as they would have if they would have proper nutritional intake. So that's one aspect that, in the long run, will impact them. And I think a lot of the efforts that we normally do in the development work, of providing schools and education, are being undermined.

ZWERDLING: So you're saying, if these international problems and the problems in Ethiopia persist, even for months more, we're not even talking about years, that there could be tens of thousands of children who grow up permanently impaired in Ethiopia alone?


ZWERDLING: Specialists in development groups say they're seeing these danger signs in other counties, too. And there's an even more important reason why some analysts are concerned. They say, even if prices do drop in the short term, say in the next few months or years, they say the world is changing in profound ways that could disrupt the food supply for generations. For instance.

Mr. ALEX EVANS (Former Advisor, International Development Agency, UK; Researcher, New York University): One of the things that worries a lot of people is depletion of ground water.

ZWERDLING: Alex Evans use to be a top advisor in Britain's International Development Agency. Now he's studying food trends for a British think tank and for New York University. Evans says, back in the 1960s and 70s, the green revolution created a kind of miracle. Farmers in countries like India started growing three times as much rice on every field. And, as you probably know, they did it by using hybrid seeds and fertilizers and pesticides, and they pumped huge amounts of ground water to irrigate their crops.

Mr. EVANS: But a lot of times that was using wells dug into aquifers. It's like mining water that doesn't get replenished. And one of the big worries is that that kind of debt, if you like, is about to start coming due. That, you know, already, for instance, in parts of India, you see farmers having to drill deeper and deeper to keep getting water, and it's not something they can continue doing indefinitely.

ZWERDLING: Meanwhile, just about everybody predicts that the world will keep demanding more oil, so people should get used to high energy prices. The population will keep rising, so countries will compete even more for food. And don't forget, the world's climate is changing. In fact, the weather in some areas is already getting unpredictable.

Mr. EVANS: It's always hard to look at a particular weather impact and say definitively, this is because of climate change. But it's absolutely the case that, looking around the world, you can see many of the impacts that are consistent with this sort of effect you'd expect to see more of with climate change already causing problems for farmers.

ZWERDLING: So analysts like Evans say there's a good chance that food prices will keep going higher over the next few decades, even if there are temporary dips. But they say there is a way out. The world's leaders could launch sweeping programs to revamp the food system. They could develop new kinds of energy. They could invest massive amounts of money to help poor farmers, and they could reform world trade to make it more fair.

Mr. EVANS: I do think that it's entirely possible to feed a population that will rise to about 10 billion people by mid century but above all, with collective action.

ZWERDLING: But what signs are you seeing that the world's leaders have the bold vision you say the world needs to head off a bigger food crisis? You just laughed when I asked that question.

Mr. EVANS: I do not think that world leaders have the bold vision that ultimately will be needed. But, in fairness, I don't think other people do, either. I mean, I think there are parts of the agenda that, you know, we haven't started really figuring out yet.

ZWERDLING: And that was Alex Evans. He's a food researcher based in the UK. And you, Alex, as both of you in Los Angeles, as you know, President Bush and other world leaders talked about the food crisis at their annual summit meeting just last month.

CHADWICK: This is the G8 meeting in Japan. What did they actually do about the food crisis there?

ZWERDLING: They mainly put out a statement. It says, and I'm quoting here, "We are determined to take all possible measures in a coordinated manner to solve the food crisis." And here's what's so striking about that rhetoric. That is pretty much the same thing that U.S. presidents and other leaders have been saying for 50 years.

Former President JOHN F. KENNEDY: We have the ability, as members of the human race, we have the means, we have the capacity to eliminate hunger from the face of the earth in our lifetime. We need only the will.

CHADWICK: That is President John F. Kennedy. I know that voice.

ZWERDLING: You got it. And Kennedy was speaking at the World Food Congress in 1963. And, by the way, the latest round of world trade talks collapsed a few weeks ago, partly because leaders cannot agree on how to reform the way they trade food.

CHADWICK: NPR's Daniel Zwerdling. Danny, thank you.

ZWERDLING: Thank you.

COST: $00.00

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