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Food crisis
The rising human cost

 

The major food crisis that has taken hold in recent months is affecting millions of people across the globe and posing a threat to many more. Escalating prices of primary agricultural produce, together with an unprecedented increase in oil prices, are causing serious hardship, especially for the most vulnerable people. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is concerned about these developments and is gearing up for action.

 

No one knows just how high grain prices will go. The crisis has prompted food riots in more than 30 countries to date — in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Caribbean. Cyclone Nargis, which wreaked havoc in Myanmar, has compounded the misery. The Movement has many ongoing food and economic security programmes worldwide that address medium- to long-term food availability, accessibility and utilization. In Geneva, the ICRC and the International Federation have set up task forces to address the humanitarian consequences of increases in food prices, and also to monitor their effects (e.g., civil unrest, access to food and essential household needs, security). As far as possible, both organizations aim to sustain current food security programmes despite rising food prices.

The International Federation’s secretariat recently issued several reference documents on food price increases including Practical Guidance on Food Prices, which is aimed at National Societies and details specific action to be taken in addressing food price increases. In April 2008, the International Federation launched a food security initiative for Africa. It targets communities vulnerable to disasters and/or affected by HIV and AIDS. The objectives are to improve and scale up community-based food security programming in 15 African National Societies, increasing both awareness and capacity of long-term food security issues in the next five years. In this connection the International Federation will adopt the most appropriate responses to address both transient (acute) and longer-term (chronic) food insecurity, through recognizing and supporting household coping mechanisms.

In July, the International Federation's new secretary general, Bekele Geleta, called on industrialized nations to invest in long-term action to fight hunger. "I urge G8 countries to prevent the food crisis from further escalating by supporting long-term community-based food insecurity prevention programmes, so that people always have enough to eat no matter whether commodity or fuel prices go up or down."

ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger noted in May, "The recent rise in food and fuel prices is making life even harder for poor people already struggling to cope with the effects of war and internal violence." He added that the ICRC will provide additional food and other relief for the people worst affected by the combined impact of rising food prices and armed conflict.


Sorghum seeds were among the items distributed by the ICRC to vulnerable people living in the districts of Dar Sila and Assoungha in eastern Chad, June 2007.
©MICHAEL VON BERGEN / ICRC

 

 

 

 

Jean-François Berger
ICRC editor of Red Cross Red Crescent magazine.

 


Barbara Boyle Saidi.
©THIERRY GASSMANN / ICRC

"A vicious cycle"

Barbara Boyle Saidi, head of the ICRC’s Economic Security Unit, looks at the underlying causes of the food crisis and the strategies needed to address it.

The crisis is getting worse by the day. What are the main contributing factors?
What we are looking at is a broader structural crisis, of which the food crisis is just one of several symptoms. A range of interrelated factors are at play. Drought and climate change have led to a slowdown in the growth of agricultural production. In Australia, wheat production plummeted by 52 per cent between 2004 and 2006, while grain production dropped by 13 per cent in the United States and 14 per cent in the European Union in the same period. The use of biofuels — mainly corn-based — is also contributing significantly to the current shortages. Rapid urbanization and changes in eating habits in the West and in the so-called emerging markets, primarily in Asia, have driven up demand for food, putting further strain on supply. Speculation on food commodities is also a major destabilizing factor.

That said, this is not the first time we have faced such a crisis. During the oil crisis in the 1970s, the price of wheat reached current levels. Subsequently, the Green Revolution restored balance to the grain markets.

What are the main consequences of this crisis in the short and medium term?
As one aspect of the current economic crisis, the food crisis requires fundamental structural reform to stabilize the situation in the long term. In the short term, however, we are caught in a vicious cycle in which consumers are variously affected. Protests against the price increases are taking place daily, generating all sorts of tensions. Bear in mind that in developed countries, average consumers spend around 15 per cent of their income on food. In emerging countries, this proportion rises to 30 per cent, and in countries affected by armed conflict and drought or other disasters, more than half — even three-quarters — of a household’s income will go on food. Increases of the kind we are seeing inevitably undermine expenditure on other basic necessities, such as health or education. In many countries where the ICRC is active, there has been a gradual decline in living conditions, of which the main signs are the sale of jewellery and of land or other productive assets, the depletion of savings and lastly, a reduction in food consumption which could lead to famine.

Without major structural adjustments, the small-scale farmer will not be able to benefit from the current high prices, for lack of guaranteed access to key markets.

People struggling to cope with the effects of armed conflict or other situations of violence are facing an additional burden, as seen for example in Chad, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Haiti. Detainees are likely to be affected if the rise in food prices is not compensated for by prison budgets or if their families are no longer able to support them. The dependency of displaced populations and the sick or wounded on aid may also increase.

How can the ICRC help the most vulnerable people, those who are hit by both armed conflict and rising food prices?
In countries affected by armed conflict or other situations of violence, the ICRC stands ready to step up its humanitarian response to emerging needs caused or exacerbated by rising food prices. For instance, the ICRC expanded its operations in Yemen and Somalia.

The ICRC urges authorities, and law enforcement agents in particular, to protect populations from any possible outbreak of violence related to high food prices, and to take all necessary measures to prevent excessive use of force when confronted with mass protests and riots. Those wounded in the wake of riots must receive immediate medical attention. The ICRC is ready to help National Societies provide first aid to those who might need it.

Will the ICRC have to adapt its economic security strategy?
Not at first glance. The ICRC’s main concern is to pinpoint where there is a problem in the food chain and then halt the downward spiral while helping to revive the household economy. For example, if food is available but too expensive, as opposed to not available at all, it may be preferable to provide small-scale cash assistance or food vouchers rather than direct food aid. Such information also enables us to decide whether to take action at the level of the small producer (supply) or of the consumer (demand).

Broadly, what are the implications for the Movement?
In the countries hit by the crisis, national staff working for National Societies, the ICRC or International Federation are, or will be, affected as consumers. The most vulnerable are very often National Society volunteers. In terms of the response, National Societies are likely to be in greater demand from humanitarian agencies to address the immediate needs caused by the food crisis.

A dialogue is under way between the ICRC and the International Federation, which should lead to an overall Movement strategy in the near future.

Interview by Jean-François Berger

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