An Ethiopian Journal

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Posts Tagged ‘Food Crisis

Global warming rage lets global hunger grow

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By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, International Business Editor
22 Sep 2008

A demonstrator eats grass in front of a U.N. peacekeeping soldier during a protest against the high cost of living in Port-au-Prince

A demonstrator eats grass in front of a U.N. peacekeeping soldier during a protest against the high cost of living in Port-au-Prince


We drive, they starve. The mass diversion of the North American grain harvest into ethanol plants for fuel is reaching its political and moral limits.

“The reality is that people are dying already,” said Jacques Diouf, of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “Naturally people won’t be sitting dying of starvation, they will react,” he said.

The UN says it takes 232kg of corn to fill a 50-litre car tank with ethanol. That is enough to feed a child for a year. Last week, the UN predicted “massacres” unless the biofuel policy is halted.

We are all part of this drama whether we fill up with petrol or ethanol. The substitution effect across global markets makes the two morally identical.

Mr Diouf says world grain stocks have fallen to a quarter-century low of 5m tonnes, rations for eight to 12 weeks. America – the world’s food superpower – will divert 18pc of its grain output for ethanol this year, chiefly to break dependency on oil imports. It has a 45pc biofuel target for corn by 2015.

Argentina, Canada, and Eastern Europe are joining the race.

The EU has targeted a 5.75pc biofuel share by 2010, though that may change. Europe’s farm ministers are to debate a measure this week ensuring “absolute priority” for food output.

“The world food situation is very serious: we have seen riots in Egypt, Cameroon, Haiti and Burkina Faso,” said Mr Diouf. “There is a risk that this unrest will spread in countries where 50pc to 60pc of income goes to food,” he said.

Haiti’s government fell over the weekend following rice and bean riots. Five died.

The global food bill has risen 57pc in the last year. Soaring freight rates make it worse. The cost of food “on the table” has jumped by 74pc in poor countries that rely on imports, according to the FAO.

Roughly 100m people are tipping over the survival line. The import ratio for grains is: Eritrea (88pc), Sierra Leone (85pc), Niger (81pc), Liberia (75pc), Botswana (72pc), Haiti (67pc), and Bangladesh (65pc).

This Malthusian crunch has been building for a long time. We are adding 73m mouths a year. The global population will grow from 6.5bn to 9.5bn before peaking near mid-century.

Asia’s bourgeoisie is switching to an animal-based diet. If they follow the Japanese, protein-intake will rise by nine times. It takes 8.3 grams of corn feed to produce a 1g of beef, or 3.1g for pork.

China’s meat demand has risen to 50kg per capita from 20kg in 1980, but this has been gradual. The FAO insists that this dietary shift is “not the cause of the sudden food price spike that began in 2005”.

Hedge funds played their part in the violent rise in spot prices early this year. To that extent they can be held responsible for the death of African and Asian children. Tougher margin rules on the commodity exchanges might have stopped the racket. Capitalism must police itself, or be policed.

Even so, the funds closed their killer “long” trades in early March, causing a brief 20pc mini-crash in grains. The speculators are now neutral on the COMEX casino in New York.

What about the California state retirement fund (Calpers), the Norwegian Petroleum fund, the Dutch pension giants, et al, pushing a wall of money into the $200bn commodity index funds?

They have undoubtedly bid up the futures contracts, but the FAO says this has no durable effect on food prices. These index funds never take delivery of grains. All they do is distort the shape of the maturities curve years ahead, allowing farmers to lock in eye-watering prices. That should cause more planting.

Is there any more land? Yes, in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, where acreage planted has fallen 12pc since Soviet days. Existing grain yields are 2.4 tonnes per hectare in Ukraine, 1.8 in Russia, and 1.11 in Kazakhstan, com-pared with 6.39 in the US. Investment would do wonders here. But the structure is chaotic.

Brazil has the world’s biggest reserves of “potential arable land” with 483m hectares (it currently cultivates 67m), and Colombia has 62m – both offering biannual harvests.

The catch is obvious. “The idea that you cut down rainforest to actually grow biofuels seems profoundly stupid,” said Professor John Beddington, Britain’s chief scientific adviser.

Goldman Sachs says the cost of ethanol from corn is $81 a barrel (oil equivalent), with wheat at $145 and soybeans $232. It is built on subsidy.

New technology may open the way for the use of non-edible grain stalks to make ethanol, but for now the only biofuel crop that genuinely pays its way is sugar cane ($35). Sugar is carbohydrate: ideal for fuel. Grains contain proteins made of nitrogen: useless for fuel, but vital for people.

Whatever the arguments, politics is intruding. Food export controls have been imposed by Russia, China, India, Vietnam, Argentina, and Serbia. We are disturbingly close to a chain reaction that could shatter our assumptions about food security.

The Philippines – a country with ample foreign reserves of $36bn (Britain has $27bn) – last week had to enlist its embassies to hunt for grain supplies after China withheld shipments. Washington stepped in, pledging “absolutely” to cover Philippine grain needs. A new Cold War is taking shape, around energy and food.

The world intelligentsia has been asleep at the wheel. While we rage over global warming, global hunger has swept in under the radar screen.

Written by Tseday

October 2, 2008 at 2:55 pm

A man-made famine

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By Raj Patel,, Tuesday April 15 2008

There are many causes behind the world food crisis, but one chief villain: World Bank head, Robert Zoellick

For anyone who understands the current food crisis, it is hard to listen to the head of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, without gagging.

Earlier this week, Zoellick waxed apocalyptic about the consequences of the global surge in prices, arguing that free trade had become a humanitarian necessity, to ensure that poor people had enough to eat. The current wave of food riots has already claimed the prime minister of Haiti, and there have been protests around the world, from Mexico, to Egypt, to India.

The reason for the price rise is perfect storm of high oil prices, an increasing demand for meat in developing countries, poor harvests, population growth, financial speculation and biofuels. But prices have fluctuated before. The reason we’re seeing such misery as a result of this particular spike has everything to do with Zoellick and his friends.

Before he replaced Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank, Zoellick was the US trade representative, their man at the World Trade Organisation. While there, he won a reputation as a tough and guileful negotiator, savvy with details and pushy with the neoconservative economic agenda: a technocrat with a knuckleduster.

His mission was to accelerate two decades of trade liberalisation in key strategic commodities for the United States, among them agriculture. Practically, this meant the removal of developing countries’ ability to stockpile grain (food mountains interfere with the market), to create tariff barriers (ditto), and to support farmers (they ought to be able to compete on their own). This Zoellick did often, and enthusiastically.

Without agricultural support policies, though, there’s no buffer between the price shocks and the bellies of the poorest people on earth. No option to support sustainable smaller-scale farmers, because they’ve been driven off their land by cheap EU and US imports. No option to dip into grain reserves because they’ve been sold off to service debt. No way of increasing the income of the poorest, because social programmes have been cut to the bone.

The reason that today’s price increases hurt the poor so much is that all protection from price shocks has been flayed away, by organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank.

Even the World Bank’s own Independent Evaluation Group admits (pdf) that the bank has been doing a poor job in agriculture. Part of the bank’s vision was to clear away the government agricultural clutter so that the private sector could come in to make agriculture efficient. But, as the Independent Evaluation Group delicately puts it, “in most reforming countries, the private sector did not step in to fill the vacuum when the public sector withdrew.” After the liberalisation of agriculture, the invisible hand was nowhere to be seen.

But governments weren’t allowed to return to the business of supporting agriculture. Trade liberalisation agreements and World Bank loan conditions, such as those promoted by Zoellick, have made food sovereignty impossible.

This is why, when we see Dominique Strauss-Kahn of the IMF wailing about food prices, or Zoellick using the crisis to argue with breathless urgency for more liberalisation, the only reasonable response is nausea.

Written by Tseday

September 21, 2008 at 3:56 pm

On the ground with an Ethiopian farmer

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UN World Food Progamme – Ethiopia, August 2008

Daniel Gedisha holds up a fistful of the dry, yellow leaves he has been laboriously pulling from the ground. “This is my maize,” he says bleakly, then casts a glance around the field where he is standing. “Look at it.”

The field is blanketed with knee-high plants of withered, yellowing maize, all as desiccated as those in the 52-year-old farmer’s hand. “No crop this time,” he mutters, “nothing…nothing at all.”

Daniel is not alone. Virtually all of his neighbours who farm the hard, rocky slopes of Konso in the Great Rift Valley in southern Ethiopia face the same plight. Little rain has fallen in the district for a year, and that has spelled disaster for those whose crops depend entirely on the water that falls from the skies.

That includes just about everybody who dwells in the stone-walled villages that perch on Konso’s many hilltops, 600 kilometers south of Addis Ababa. Close to 98 percent of the district’s 250,000 people live off the land, tilling small, often tiny, plots of terraced land sculpted out of Konso’s hillsides.

In good years, Konso’s farmers produce two crops a season, one planted during the February-to-April “belg” rains, another during the August-to-November “meher” rains. The belg rains are the most important in Konso, a distinction from other parts of Ethiopia. Accounting for 80 percent of the district’s annual agricultural production, the short, springtime belg rainfall supports mostly maize, sorghum, barley, wheat, green beans and teff, the grain used to manufacture the ubiquitous flat, spongy, Ethiopian bread known as injera..

But this past year has not been good for any of Konso’s farmers, Daniel says. “The belg rains failed and it looks like the meher may fail too,” he says. “I would normally get around 10 quintals (around 1000 kgs) of maize from my fields. Now I have nothing but fodder. Maybe it will keep the goats alive.”

The goats, perhaps, but not Daniel’s wife, nor any of his eight children. Their survival will depend on outside assistance, much of it supplied by WFP. The Konso farmer and his family are among the more than 7 million people in Ethiopia whom WFP is currently helping with emergency food rations.

All have fallen victim to twin threats – the prolonged drought that is ravaging large swathes of Ethiopia compounded by the global phenomenon of soaring food prices.

Successive failures of seasonal rains

Daniel’s case is typical. Successive failures of seasonal rains have destroyed his crops, endangering his livelihood. At the same time, skyrocketing market prices for food have outstripped his ability to come up with the cash to buy alternative supplies.

Like 7.5 million other Ethiopians, Daniel is a participant in the Ethiopian government’s innovative Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), a scheme designed to lift poor families out of chronic food insecurity by creating community assets – roads, bridges, terraces, wells, watering ponds etc. – and minimizing the loss of household assets like farm tools, laying hens, milking cows, ploughing oxen and other livestock.

Recipients receive either a monthly cash grant of 30 Ethiopian birr (roughly US$3) or a monthly food grant, supplied by WFP, of 17 kg of cereals, usually maize or wheat, in return for participating in various public works.

Rising food prices

But Daniel’s 30 birr is not going to buy much on the local markets in Konso: where a quintal of maize, which cost 150 birr a year ago, now costs 600; where a quintal of teff has doubled to 900 birr over the same period.

To come to the aid of Ethiopians trapped in plights similar to that facing Daniel, WFP is planning to deliver US$384 million worth of food relief assistance to more than 4 million people affected by the drought. WFP will also extend food assistance to another 3 million people enrolled in the PSNP in drought-stricken areas.

Food supplies to support this effort have proven difficult to obtain. The relief effort is currently short some 123,000 metric tons of mixed commodities, valued at more than US$99 million, while supplies for PSNP beneficiaries lag 38,000 metric tons, worth US$30 million.

The shortfalls have forced WFP, in consultation with the Ethiopian government, to cut the monthly rations for beneficiaries by one-third, reducing the cereal ration from 15 kgs to 10 and trimming the non-cereal ration to three kg of blended food, one kg of pulses and 0.3 kgs of vegetable oil.

In places like Konso, where more than one-third of the population is in need of food assistance, the ration cuts have had a severe impact. Among those most affected have been the children.

Malnutrition among children under 5 is on the rise in Konso, as in some other areas of Ethiopia hardest hit by the drought. Close to 700 children are currently being treated at Konso’s stabilization centre, a health clinic set up to deal with the most severe cases, or in the district’s nine therapeutic feeding centres.

Targeting pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children

To help deal with this problem, WFP is working with government health officials as well as UNICEF and NGOs to provide targeted supplementary feeding in drought areas across Ethiopia to 737,000 pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under five years of age who are suffering from moderate acute malnutrition.

One of those centres operates not far from Daniel’s ravaged maize crop, in the village of Fasher. Several hundred women are gathered on the grounds of an elementary school, receiving lessons in basic nutrition while they await delivery of food rations designed specifically to combat malnutrition.

Every three months, the women receive 25 kg of blended food fortified with 23 vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients as well as three litres of vegetable oil fortified with vitamins A and D.

“Only the women receive the ration,” explains Dawit Belete, an official with the Ethiopian government’s Disaster Preparedness and Prevention Agency. “If we gave it to the men, they’d sell it right away.”

In addition to the thrice-monthly ration, the women also receive nutrition lessons, learning about correct food proportions, proper breast feeding and the need to provide complementary foods to young children.

“We have two aims here,” says Dawit. “We want to rehabilitate women and children suffering from malnutrition and we also want to provide the women with basic knowledge about nutrition that they will share with the rest of the community.”

Written by Tseday

September 21, 2008 at 12:28 am

Hunger levels soar in East Africa

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“There is a sufficiency in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed.”

Story from BBC NEWS:

Nearly 17 million people in the Horn of Africa are in urgent need of food and other aid – almost twice as many as earlier this year, the UN has said.

Some $700m (£382m) in emergency aid is needed to prevent the region descending into full-scale famine, it said.

Top UN humanitarian official John Holmes said food stocks were critically low in parts of Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, northern Kenya and Uganda.

The area has suffered from drought, conflict and rocketing food prices.

The number of those at risk could rise still further “as the drought deepens and the hunger season continues”, Mr Holmes said.

“What we need essentially is more funds, and more funds now, otherwise the situation is going to become even more catastrophic than it is today.”

The estimated total for the rest of this year for those in need is $1.4bn. Almost half of that has been raised, Mr Holmes said, but there remains a shortfall of $716m.

“We may need significant funds after that period – this is not the end of the story,” he said.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation blames worldwide rises in food prices for helping to push 75 million more people into the ranks of the world’s hungry last year – bringing the total to 925 million.

Written by Tseday

September 20, 2008 at 9:26 pm

Haiti – The politics of rice – 04 Jul 08

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Inside USA travels to Haiti to look at how the stories of politics, rice and the US are deeply interwoven.

Written by Tseday

September 10, 2008 at 4:31 am