Global Food Crisis a 'Silent Tsunami' High food prices have set off protests from Haiti to Egypt, leaving aid officials struggling to cope with increasing desperation and hunger. The head of the World Food Program recently described the food shortages as a "silent tsunami."
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Global Food Crisis a 'Silent Tsunami'

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Protests, some violent, have broken out in countries like Haiti, Italy and Yemen. Panicked shoppers are hording goods in Hong Kong and the Philippines. And in the U.S., stores like Costco and Sam's Club have put a limit on the amount of rice customers can buy. It's all part of what's being called a "global food crisis." Top development agencies within the UN are meeting today and tomorrow to chart out possible solutions. Many people are angry and desperate and at the very least, scared and confused. But how did this happen? And how did it get so bad so quickly? Economist Jeffrey Sachs joins us today to answer these questions and to field yours.

So tell us, how has the high cost of food affected your life? Have you had to give up some things you would normally buy? Or are you literally having trouble putting food on the table? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Later, how a zoo managed to survive in the West Bank. But first, the global food crisis. And our first stop is Haiti. Tyler Hicks is a staff photographer for The New York Times. He recently got back from Port-au-Prince in Haiti where he photographed the local conditions surrounding the food shortage. And he joins us now from our bureau in New York. Thanks for being with us, Tyler.

Mr. TYLER HICKS (Staff Photographer, New York Times): Thank you for having me on the show.

NEARY: Now I know you've been to Haiti a number of times and, of course, this is a country where poverty is very deep, very rampant. So I was wondering if you really saw some difference this time. Now that we're hearing about the food crisis, has it really made a change? And what is it like?

Mr. HICKS: Well, I arrived under two weeks ago in Port-au-Prince, just at the tail end of rioting that took place in the streets because of the rising food crisis in Haiti. Of course, the situation there is always very bad, but things have become even worse and this is - even in the best of times, Haiti, it's shocking to go there. I mean, you can get on a direct flight from New York and arrive in just over three hours in Port-au-Prince, and you could just as easily be in the worst, poorest parts of Africa or other countries that seem much further away.

I visited some of the poorest parts of the - of Port-au-Prince. Cite Soleil is a massive, densely-populated shanty town, which is also one of the largest slums in the northern hemisphere. It's just a massive, virtual garbage dump that people live on top of, mixed in with occasional animals, such as pigs. People are living side by side with these - with animals and open sewage. And it's really a desperate situation there.

NEARY: I mean, there's one photograph where a woman was - I think she was sitting on top of it - this huge mound of coffee beans, trying to find coffee.

Mr. HICKS: Correct. Those are actually the, kind of, the shells that are left over from coffee beans. This is at a dump called Trutee(ph), which is a part of Cite Soleil. This is where people wait for trucks to come with city trash. And they literally wait as the trucks dump the trash out into heaps. And people descend upon them to try to get something edible before it is all picked through. These particular women were looking through the shells of coffee beans that were already removed and hoping to find - I think over the period of an hour, I saw what the woman had collected in her hand, and it was maybe just a small handful of raw coffee beans. And this is just one example of how little food the people have there.

NEARY: Now, did you talk with people as you were taking their photos? And, if so, what kinds things were you hearing from people as you were working there?

Mr. HICKS: Well, I was working by myself, wandering around this area. I don't speak French or - most of the people in these areas actually speak just Creole. The - and so I was more able to just visually see what people were going through. And I think, you know, the attitude towards my presence was not always welcoming. This is, you know, the poorest of the poor of Haiti, which is already one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere. So this is really the most desperate people.

I think some of them felt a certain amount of shame or embarrassment of having their picture taken in this condition of literally going through garbage in this way. But of all the times that I've been to Haiti, this was certainly - had the most impact on me as the most desperate situation that people are experiencing.

NEARY: Had you ever seen people going through the garbage like this before, or was it a question of more people being there? Or...

Mr. HICKS: I believe it's more numbers. I had been to this site before, about two years ago, and it wasn't like this. And it's not just in this trash area. I mean, this - Cite Soleil is a massive slum where people live, and the area that people are living on top of is virtually sewage and trash and there's flooding and all kinds of disease that happens, that accompanies the lack of food. And of course, there's no jobs, there's a lot of violence, gang violence, in this area. So most of the people there are quite young. Most don't live past the age of 50. So you have a lot of children and young adults there, and really, they have nothing to lose.

NEARY: If you have money, can you get food in Haiti? I mean, is there a difference - what is the class difference going on there? Or did you examine that at all?

Mr. HICKS: Yes. If you have money, there is food. And in the downtown area there are markets where there are fruit and vegetables and meat and these kind of things. But this is available to those who are lucky enough to have jobs. Outside of Port-au-Prince, in the northern part of the city, there are some areas where the more wealthy Haitians live and where the diplomats live and that kind of neighborhood, and there are some - a couple of nice restaurants and hotels that cater to those people. But most of Haiti is not exposed to those areas, but really desperate for food.

And I have to say, even, you know, going back to the trash area where people were sifting through and trying to find things to eat, they - the trash that has collected around Haiti to begin with is almost completely depleted of anything edible. I mean, the amount of disease and sickness and dysentery that you would get from eating that trash is very extreme.

NEARY: Yeah. And you said you got there after the food raids, is that correct? I just want to - I think you said that at the beginning...

Mr. HICKS: Yes. They were going on just as I headed that way. It was kind of winding down as I got there. But really, to go anytime to Haiti, you really can't believe the conditions that people are living under.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. HICKS: And considering that the other islands that surround Haiti and the Caribbean and how relatively wealthy those places are with a tourist industry and, of course, you know, Haiti is completely deprived of trees and foliage. There's very little infrastructure there that supports bringing that back. And without that, there's just nothing. One scene that I came across, also in Cite Soleil, is where people collect shellfish, like mussels.

NEARY: Right, I was going to ask you about that.

Mr. HICKS: Things like that and the water. And they don't even have wood to build a fire to cook these. They use old tennis shoes, plastic bags, anything that they can burn to cook this food. So you get this dense, black, acidic smoke...

NEARY: And they're collecting the mussels also from the garbage piles?

Mr. HICKS: This is in kind of titled areas next to this slum where the water, I mean, just the smell of the water there is pretty horrible. I mean, to imagine eating shellfish out of there is not a very good thought.

NEARY: Is there one image that you captured that sort of summed it up for you, or not?

Mr. HICKS: Well, I think that really, there are a couple of photographs that show a lot of people all kind of descending on this trash and picking through it. And that kind of, you know, when you have one person in the photograph, that's one thing. But when you have that many people and that desperation going through that trash, it really, to me, that had the biggest impact. And that was what I was trying to capture in my photographs.

There's also a photograph of a young girl wearing a kind of a colorful floral dress standing in her neighborhood, in Cite Soleil, just among kind of the general trash of the place. And as you walk around, because I'm obviously not Haitian and walking around there by myself with my cameras, you know, people come up to me and they just lift their shirts and point to their stomachs. And...

NEARY: That's an image. God, that's an image.

Mr. HICKS: It's really, really, just very sad.

NEARY: Tyler, thanks so much for joining us today.

Mr. HICKS: Thank you very much.

NEARY: Tyler Hicks is a staff photographer for the New York Times. There's a link to his photographs at our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. He joined us from our bureau in New York. And we're going to try to take a call now before the break. We're going to Sarah, who's calling us, I believe, from a grocery store in Ohio. Is that right, Sarah?

SARAH (Caller): Yeah. I'm calling from Cleveland.

NEARY: Yeah.

SARAH: And I'm actually just walking in the grocery store with my three kids. And as I was talking to your screener, I was just telling her that my husband and I are considered, you know, middle class. We live in a nice neighborhood. My husband works full time. I stay home with the kids. And especially recently, I would say within the past two to three months, the cost of our food has almost doubled to the point of - when I go to the grocery store, like I did today, I'm thinking of what I'm going to feed my kids and then whatever's leftover we eat. So I'll make a meal and it may not be for a family of five. We put all the food on the kids' plates, see what they eat, and then we'll eat whatever is leftover because...

NEARY: Sarah, we're going to have to take a break and I thank you for calling and giving us your story because we're going to try and find out what this food crisis means for all of us, the poorest in Haiti, as well as those of us here in the United States with our next guest, Jeffrey Sachs. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Global food prices are soaring. It's part of what's being called a "global food crisis" and it's causing protests and panic across the world. We're joined now by Jeffrey Sachs. He's going to talk with us about how it happened and what can be done about it. He's the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special adviser to the UN Secretary General. And we want to hear from you. How has the high price of food affected your family?

Tell us your story. And if you have any questions about how this crisis suddenly came to be or if you just learned about it and you're wondering how it built up - clearly, it must have built up overtime and yet, suddenly, we're hearing a lot about it - maybe you're confused. How did it get to this point so quickly? Give us a call. The number 800-989-8255, or send us an email to talk@npr.org. And check out our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. And joining us is Jeffrey Sachs. Thanks so much for being with us today.

Mr. JEFFREY SACHS (Director, Earth Institute, Columbia University): It's a pleasure, Lynn. Thank you.

NEARY: I don't know if you've been listening, but we were talking with Tyler Hicks about his experience in Haiti. The absolute extreme poverty he witnessed there made even worse now by this food crisis. And then we also heard from an American woman who just came back from the grocery store, very comfortable, apparently middle-class woman saying she and her husband are eating less so their kids can eat more because it's costing them so much. How are these...

Mr. SACHS: Yeah, really shocking.

NEARY: How's it all connected? How did it get to this point? I feel like I just started hearing about it a couple of weeks ago. It has to have taken a while to get here, though.

Mr. SACHS: We have had a growing world economy, which means growing demand for food. And we've had a stagnant, at best, food supply for the last few years. That's run down inventory stocks so that the stock on hand of rice or wheat or maize was whittled down to the lowest levels, in fact, in more than 30 years. And when you take the rising demand, the climate shocks which meant that there were crop failures in major grain-producing areas, and then the really ill thought-out policy of taking a substantial part of our own food crop, particularly our corn, and turning it into ethanol for the gas tank. We've made quite a brew and this is a worldwide phenomenon.

This problem of a shortage now that is exacerbated by a diversion of food into biofuels and this growing number of adverse shocks, climate shocks and other disturbances to the food supply. Finally, I would add the one more thing that we feel here in the United States and that is that because of the more general financial crisis that we have, the dollar has fallen a lot in value and that pushes up all of the prices of internationally traded goods, fuels, of course. Oil prices are at shocking levels. Food prices are a part of that, as well.

NEARY: How do the high oil prices contribute to the crisis? How does it all fit in?

Mr. SACHS: Well, there are a couple of ways. One is, of course, that oil is an input to production, transport and actually all of the physical activities to make the grains, including the fertilizers that go on the grains, which fertilizer prices have themselves doubled in the past year to unbelievable levels, a sticker shock for the farmers. And at the same time, because of the biofuel program, these soaring prices of gasoline at the pump.

More and more of our corn supply through this very poorly thought-out subsidy program that we have for corn farmers who turn over their corn to turn it into ethanol is diverting a greater and greater share of our food production into ethanol, and therefore taking it away from the food chain. So the high-energy prices are working on both sides of the equation, as it were.

NEARY: Right. And wasn't ethanol supposed to be an alternative fuel that would - I mean, it's hard to find solutions here because for all of the different things that are coming together in terms of these...

Mr. SACHS: Well, that's a very good point. You know, I think that there is something even deeper going on, which is that we have a very crowded planet of 6.7 billion people. We have rapid economic growth, particularly in Asia. And it's been, up until recently, rapid in the United States and Europe, as well. And we're pressing against certain limits right now. Food production is one, water crisis, climate shocks to our harvests, and also very tight conditions for petroleum and natural gas. Even coal, which is much more plentiful, has about doubled in price in the past year.

So I think that there is a real squeeze right now where demand has outstripped the supply of primary commodities. We've been through this 30 years ago when we had our last bout of what came to be called "stagflation," that is,a slowing of our economy and higher prices at the same time because of soaring costs of critical inputs were added again. But I think this time is going to be even more persistent than it was last time.

NEARY: Yeah. What about emerging economies? You mentioned this, but if you could go into a little bit more detail. Some of the emerging economies like China and India, you know, and I've read that the way that they are eating is changing. And that, in fact, is playing a role in this, as well.

Mr. SACHS: Of course. Think about the scale of China and India together. China has 1.3 billion people. India has 1.1 billion people. The 2.4 billion people together constitute about 38 percent of the world's population, just those two countries. Both have been growing from conditions of great poverty. Their growth is quite heartening, in fact, in the sense that people are living better off. But they are both resource-scarce countries and they've put tremendous strains on their own food production.

China, in particular, buys up a lot of feed grains and other food stuffs from the rest of the world. For many years, that's been noted to contribute even to the margin of deforestation, say, in the Amazon where trees are cleared to plant more soybeans which are used as the feed grain for the growing number of livestock in China. But now, with the very tight supplies, the inventories, the low levels not seen for 30 years compared to the level of total demand, now this growing demand has meant these soaring prices. And again, because of financial conditions, that excess demand has really been able to spill into these prices, really set them rising at an amazing rate that almost nobody predicted.

NEARY: We're talking with Jeffrey Sachs about the worldwide food crisis and how we got to this place. If you'd like to give us a call, the number is 800-989-8255. We're going to take a call from Tom who's calling from Virginia. Hi, Tom.

TOM (Caller): Hello, good day. Good day. Mr. Sachs has laid it out very well and he's absolutely accurate. But somehow, I think we're missing, or at least everybody's been avoiding, the no clothes on the emperor, which is the fact that all of this came together very well in the last six, eight months, as soon as all of the money that was able to be freed up from the housing went over into the commodities.

NEARY: Oh, yeah. We are going to take that up...

TOM: That - I think if you take that up, and Congress had an opportunity to do a little bit of regulating a couple of weeks ago and they passed it by, you might find that all of these places - I don't believe that the people who are short of food at this instant are just going to be designated to die because of lack of food. I don't believe that.

NEARY: All right, Tom, thanks for raising that. I want to ask Jeffrey Sachs to address that. He's talking about the manipulation of the commodities market, I think, and how that has added to the food shortage. I wonder if he can explain that.

Mr. SACHS: I don't think that there's a deliberate manipulation. But what there has been, as the Federal Reserve has continued to lower interest rates and expand the money supply as the housing crisis and financial crisis have deepened, that increased liquidity or money put into circulation definitely has driven down the dollar and further ratcheted-up globally traded commodities' prices, which are bought for inventory or which are bought also abroad. And with a weaker dollar, that means more demand at any dollar price abroad and that ratchets up the price that we face for dollars for these commodities. In other words, to cut through all of that...

NEARY: Yes, yes.

Mr. SACHS: Sorry about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SACHS: When the Fed turns on the money tap, as it's been doing, to try to fight the recession that started in the housing market, that drives up commodities prices like energy, metals and food. I don't think that that was the primary reason for these high food prices right now, although it has been a contributing factor.

NEARY: But it has contributed to it.

Mr. SACHS: It is definitely a contributing factor. The Wall Street Journal actually argues this morning in an editorial that it's the main factor on energy prices. I think the editorial has it wrong, but it is a contributing factor.

NEARY: But some would argue that the market has the power to fix itself in a couple of seasons. That that can be corrected, or as the caller suggested, perhaps it calls for regulation.

Mr. SACHS: Well, I don't think regulation is going to work because there is an imbalance of demand and supply. And the key is to increase food production or to stop the diversion of food into these alternative, low-priority uses. So I definitely think the ethanol policy, which is so political and really directed at vested interests in the American Midwest, needs to be revisited. That's for sure.

I also think that we need to take many more steps to help especially the poor countries grow more food. That's actually good for us, as well, because it eases the global food imbalance. We've hardly done that at all. Just like we've spent no time during the last seven years of the Bush administration looking at alternative energy sources. We've essentially done nothing to help poor countries become more productive in their own food supplies.

And it's just a general example of how we're essentially asleep at the switch right now in this country. And thinking about what it means to be on a crowded planet - rising demand, scarce natural resources, more climate change. These are precisely the issues that the Bush administration has ducked from day one and continues to ignore, and I think with high probability will ignore until the end of its term.

It didn't want to think about anything other than oil, and when it thought about oil, it thought about the Middle East. So it took such a tiny part of the overall equation. I think made a bad strategy and neglected things that over the longer term would ease supply constraints that we now face on energy and that we face on food.

NEARY: All right. We're talking about the global food crisis. If you'd like to join the discussion, the number is 800-989-8255. We're going to go to Frank who's calling from Hastings, Michigan, I believe it is.

FRANK (Caller): Hello!

NEARY: Hi Frank, go ahead.

FRANK: Yes, my question is, how much does ethanol really save us? I know it costs money to produce it in fossil fuels. I mean, I've heard that it's really not cost-effective.

Mr. SACHS: Frank, the best evidence in a contested debate is that we save nothing in terms of reduced carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, instead of using the fossil fuel, using the biofuel, when you get done with the amount of fertilizer that goes in, the transport, the heat that's used for the conversion to ethanol itself, we probably have no net saving at all.

It's more costly, that's why we put on a 51-cent subsidy for each gallon that is blended with petroleum. And then when you add on other fossil fuels - I'm sorry, other greenhouse gases, I should say, like nitrous oxide that are side-effects of this production process, we're probably coming out behind net in terms of the environmental effects. And we're certainly coming out behind net in terms of the economic costs. This is just a policy that makes no sense.

NEARY: All right, thanks very much for your call, Frank. And I want to remind our audience that you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

Next we're going to go to Benjamin. And he's calling from Greenville, North Carolina. Hi, Benjamin.

BENJAMIN (Caller): Hello!

NEARY: Go ahead.

BENJAMIN: I'm wondering if there's going to be any greater hope for farmers to make money with these higher food prices. Historically, farmers worldwide have had to struggle making ends meet while middlemen make most of the money. Is there any hope for the actual producers with prices going up? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

NEARY: Thanks very much. Jeffrey Sachs, I think the farmers actually are having a good year, I think, aren't they?

Mr. SACHS: Yeah, I mean, Benjamin, great question. American farmers are doing very, very well. They're seeing these huge price increases and they're making a lot of money. They're getting this exorbitant ethanol subsidy on top of it, which I'm suggesting should in fact not exist at all and should now be removed. Farmers in some other highly-productive countries, say Brazil or Chile or Argentina, also are making good money. Sometimes the governments then interfering to take some of that back through export taxes or limits on exports.

Ironically, in the places where we have the worst crises like Haiti, which opened the show, or in Africa, even the farmers are so unproductive because they don't have access to better technologies, that often they are only scraping by to survive. They're not actually selling much if anything to the market. And with the higher fertilizer prices that have soared, doubled or tripled in the last year in various parts of the world, they may be even further away on their own from being able to get into commercial activity.

One of the things that I've been recommending, which I confess has been falling on deaf ears among the high-income country governments, is that we ought to be helping the poorest farmers in these countries to grow more food by helping to provide the credit so that they can get this fertilizer and thereby grow more food and be productive enough that they can actually earn a surplus, sell to their local markets, drive down the prices and ease the hunger crisis.

Our governments are unfortunately focused only - if they're focused at all, on the shortest of the short term. Some food aid relief. But this is not the point in our world. The point is to enable low-income countries to grow more food so that they're not hit by these shocks, and to ease the overall supply constraint on global markets. And for that -

NEARY: So is this going to get worse before - I mean, are we going to see a worse situation developing here, or can we turn it around at this point?

Mr. SACHS: Well, one thing that could happen is a little bit of a rebound of global production from the main producers if supply holds up, if there aren't bad climate shocks.

Interestingly, this year the U.S. is experiencing more or less average temperatures so far, not the torrid temperatures we've had in recent years. But the rest of the world is having the hottest year on record. So who knows what going to happen to the total grain supply worldwide? We are at such low inventories. We have such a fraught financial market. The dollar is so weak, the number of people demanding food is so large that another bad accident of climate shock could really be devastating. On the other hand, I'm not forecasting that because a good harvest could somewhat ease these conditions.

NEARY: All right. Jeffrey, I'm afraid - let's leave on that more hopeful note...

Mr. SACHS: OK.

NEARY: That there will be a good harvest.

Mr. SACHS: Let's hope so.

NEARY: Although right before that it wasn't sounding too hopeful to me, and unfortunately we've run out of time. But thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. SACHS: Pleasure to be with you, Lynn.

NEARY: Jeffrey Sachs is the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a special adviser to the UN Secretary-General. He joined us from the studios at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. And you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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