Why global food prices are spiking : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money Global food prices were rising even before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but the war in Eastern Europe is putting more pressure on supply. Today, the global impact of rising food prices and how countries are attempting to make up for missing supply.

The rising tide of global food prices

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

If you're like me, you wake up in the morning, and the first thing you want is carbs. And, you know, everybody has their favorite. It might be cereal or toast or a bagel.

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

Or porridge, in my case.

MA: Oh, the rice.

WOODS: Although I guess I'm in the United States, I should say oatmeal.

MA: Gotcha.

WOODS: And in Nairobi, Kenya, the carb delivery system of choice for a lot of people is mandazi. That's according to Asha Jaffar, who was born and raised there.

ASHA JAFFAR: In school, like elementary school and high school, I used to eat it every single day for breakfast.

JAFFAR: Yeah, I'm just looking at a picture of it now, and...

JAFFAR: (Laughter).

MA: ...It looks great.

JAFFAR: It's like a - is it a muffin? No.

MA: We decided it's more like a doughnut.

WOODS: Yeah, like these little triangles of puffy perfection.

MA: Yes, fried to a golden crisp. These things used to be ubiquitous. You could find them at any market or on the street. But in recent months, they've gotten harder to get. And when you do see them, they're suddenly weirdly expensive.

JAFFAR: It used to be very cheap, and kids will eat it in the morning as they're going to school. But now I think parents are, like, looking for other alternatives, like just boiling potatoes for the kids to eat instead of buying bread.

WOODS: Potatoes instead of bread. Now, this might seem like a small thing, but this shift in dietary habits in Nairobi is really a symptom of a much bigger and more ominous problem. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Darian Woods.

MA: And I'm Adrian Ma. According to the World Bank's food price index, food is about 37% more expensive than a year ago. And, yes, I mean, food prices have been rising for a couple of years now, even before Russia invaded Ukraine. But what that has done in the past couple of months is basically pour fuel on a fire that was already burning. And so prices for things like flour, sugar, oil, you know, the kinds of things that go into making mandazi, they've all spiked. And so today on the show, we're going to focus on the places where this price shock is being felt the most.

WOODS: And we ask how our country's responding to this global food price blowup.

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MA: So there's this big neighborhood in Nairobi called Kibera. If you Google it, it's often referred to as the largest slum in Africa. It is also where Asha Jaffar grew up.

JAFFAR: People live hand-to-mouth, and by hand-to-mouth, they work, like, in jobs that are in the informal economy as construction workers, house helps and, you know, gardeners.

MA: You know, the kinds of jobs that took a big hit early in the pandemic.

JAFFAR: I think for us, we were born and raised in Kibera, so we didn't want to see people actually having to fight for food or, you know, struggling to make ends meet.

WOODS: And so Asha and a few friends started this charity called Kibra Food Drive. It's a small operation that collects donations to buy groceries for families there. And lately, she's found that her money can't go as far as it used to.

JAFFAR: So, like previously, we used to use 1,500 Kenyan shillings. That's $15 U.S. Now it's 3,000 Kenyan shillings. So food that used to feed two families, we can only feed one family.

MA: With prices double what they were before, Asha says they'd had to stop buying products like wheat flour - that's a luxury now - and just focus on the very basics.

JAFFAR: And so we had just bought maize flour, porridge flour, rice and cooking oil because cooking oil now is, like, the most expensive commodity, like, we are buying now. Yeah. And people are making even, like, memes and funny videos of, like, how cooking oil has become expensive now. It's like they lock it in a safe. So if anyone wants it, like, another person has to go open it.

MA: Asha says stuff like this has been making the rounds on social media. She shared one video with us where this person is standing in their kitchen in front of a frying pan, and they're about to open a jug of cooking oil. And then suddenly this guy pops out of nowhere, and he's like, hold up. And he pulls out this little syringe to siphon out just, like, a droplet of oil before squirting it in the frying pan.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey.

WOODS: Liquid gold.

JAFFAR: It's funny, but also, like, it's shocking because we never thought, like, oil could be such a special commodity in a house. People can laugh about it, but then they're like - after they watch the video, they're like, we hope things are able to change or shift in the global space.

WOODS: Right. Because this is a global issue. Countries all over the world, including in the U.S., are seeing huge spikes in food prices. And one big reason can be traced to the war in Ukraine.

TJADA D'OYEN MCKENNA: So this conflict is rippling out very, very quickly.

WOODS: Tjada D'Oyen McKenna heads up the nonprofit Mercy Corps.

MCKENNA: Not only have we had farm fields in the Ukraine now turned into battlefields and people not being able to plant or harvest their crops, you've also seen the destruction of Mariupol, which was one of the big ports in Ukraine, where all that food was shipped out of Mariupol to the rest of the world.

MA: Yeah. As we've mentioned on the show before, Russia and Ukraine are huge producers of crops like wheat. And a lot of countries in East Africa and in the Middle East are especially reliant on those exports.

MCKENNA: In places like Lebanon, that means empty bread shelves or bread that's now so unaffordable that it's beyond reach for them.

WOODS: When Tjada recently visited Lebanon, she saw that this food crisis was compounding an already battered economy. And to survive, she said that some people are even moving out of the cities to try to grow their own food in the countryside. But to farm, you need fertilizer. And a lot of the key ingredients for fertilizer come from Russia.

MA: And the problems don't stop there. Tjada says in some places like Yemen, which has been consumed by civil war for nearly a decade now, the food crunch has made it hard to even provide families with emergency food rations.

MCKENNA: So what that practically means is that the mother - and this tends to fall to the woman - now is taking that food that really only feeds two people and further subdividing it to feed everyone in her family.

MA: When you zoom out, one of the really tragic things about this whole situation is that some of the hardest hit countries were already dealing with spiking food prices because of drought, hyperinflation and, of course, COVID. Madhur Gautam is an agricultural economist at the World Bank, and he's been tracking these climbing food prices.

MADHUR GAUTAM: They accelerated a little bit towards the end of 2021. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the prices have sort of shot up quite a bit.

WOODS: Some countries have responded to this global food crunch by trying to protect their own supply. Like, Indonesia said it would restrict its exports of palm oil, which is used in everything from bread to mayonnaise to ice cream. Madhur says that this sort of thing is probably not going to help in the big picture.

GAUTAM: That's actually creating a bigger shortfall in the global markets than exists today. Effectively, what they're doing is driving up prices even more and creating a bigger supply constraint. The thing that you want to do is remove the constraints that are holding back supply from filling the gap.

MA: The thing about high food prices is that obviously they cause hardship for a lot of people. But if the market is working, those high prices can also be a signal for producers. So wheat growers in countries like India see high prices, and they've started to sell more wheat to the world. And farmers in Brazil have responded by planting more wheat.

WOODS: At the same time, aid is a big part of the solution. This is the core business of the U.N.'s World Food Programme and other nongovernmental organizations. And at Madhur's organization, the World Bank, they try to help countries build their infrastructure so that they can produce more stuff in the future, including food. Of course, that doesn't do anything about one of the biggest supply constraints right now - the war in Ukraine.

MA: Yeah, this is something that Asha Jaffar in Nairobi has been thinking about. And in fact, when she thinks about it a little too much, it becomes a lot.

JAFFAR: If we raise money, we are not really helping most people. We're just helping very few. And then when you're going around, you know, distributing food, everyone is like, hey, you're forgetting us. So you feel very helpless because then, you know, everything falls on you. And I think people are feeling left out.

MA: But she says you can't really blame any one person or system. It is a global issue.

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MA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jess Kung, with engineering from Isaac Rodrigues. It was fact-checked by Corey Bridges. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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