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Food and security - Q&A

NATO Review provides an 'at-a-glance' guide to how food prices could lead to increased unrest and threaten political stability.

© AP / Reporters

In the last year, rice has risen by over 70 per cent. Wheat has more than doubled in cost, having a major knock-on effect on staples like bread. Soya, another major staple, is up by 87 per cent. And corn has risen by 31 per cent.

There is no single reason, but rather a series of interrelated factors. A non-exhaustive list of possible contributors includes:

  • population growth. There are more mouths to feed and this trend is set to continue. By 2025, there will be 1.6 billion more people on Earth.
  • the diets of this growing population. Many people’s diets are becoming richer. As wealth grows in places like China and India, more people are eating foods such as meat, which requires land to be used for grazing rather than growing – and this has had a knock-on effect. It also means that there has been an increased demand for cereal, both for consumers and livestock.
  • the issue of whether land is being used for fuel or food. As energy security has become an increasing worry, more land has been dedicated to biofuels. The US has already increased its production of bio ethanol from around 5 billion litres in 1998 to 35 billion last year – and it is set to continue rising. This has also reduced food supply and increased prices in some areas.
  • agricultural production being hit by unfavourable weather – for example, Australian harvests were badly hit by drought. The predictions by the World Food Programme is that this kind of weather related effect will lead to crop yield losses in more than 40 developing countries.
  • other energy-related factors, such as the rising costs of key agricultural products like fertilizer and oil have also made growing crops more expensive.
  • distorted pricing systems in the West (such as the heavy subsidies paid to farmers in Europe and the US) have also been alleged to have contributed to the situation.

  • First, is the concern about the effect that these prices will have on stability within both countries and volatile regions. For example, a report issued in March by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization stated that agriculture in the Middle East is likely to suffer losses due to high temperatures, droughts, floods and soil degradation.
  • Second, is the concern that the people who are suffering most from these rises are millions of the urban poor – now the world’s largest population. And this is a new kind of food problem. For the urban poor, it is not like a famine, where there is no food. The food is there - but they cannot afford it.

There have already been some high profile riots over food prices in many countries, notably Haiti (which ended in several deaths) and the Ivory Coast (see the photostory for a fuller list).

The food prices have had an effect all over the world: by April 2008, there had been mass protests in more than 30 countries.

Wherever the world’s poorest are located – but especially those countries or regions which are net importers of food. Africa has been particularly hard hit, along with parts of Asia and Central and South America. By contrast, some exporting nations, such as Argentina, Canada and Australia, have actually seen the food situation improve their trade balances.

See separate piece on the food crisis’ effect on Afghanistan

There are several other areas affected by these food prices which could impact on security, eg energy, trade and migration.

  • The leaders of Peru and Bolivia’s governments, Alan Garcia and Eva Morales respectively, have already linked the issue to energy security. They have claimed that the need for a more stable supply of energy from biofuels has taken land and resources away from food which is needed in developing countries. They have called on Western governments to put food before fuel.
  • In trade, many countries are already have already put export bans on certain foodstuffs – which risks spreading greater food insecurity to dependent countries and areas. The EU’s Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson, has already warned against this kind of response, saying it does not make ‘economic or development sense’ and provides only ‘an illusion of food security’.

    Trade restrictions have also had a security impact. In Sri Lanka, for example, some traders have hoarded their stock because they do not want to sell at the lower, official prices determined by the government. A special court has been set up to punish traders who sell above these prices – even if the traders may have bought their stock at higher prices before. This situation is already a consequence of another country – India – deciding to stop exporting non-basmati rice.

  • In migration, fears over mass migration becoming a security issue had already been highlighted by European governments even before the food crisis broke. At that stage, the worry was over migration due to climate change reasons. Now, this migration fear has been increased due to people moving in search of food – and the intensity of the hostility this can cause has already been seen in countries like South Africa, where migrants have become a major target over recent months, with over 40 killed and thousands chased out of their homes and businesses.

Josette Sheeran, head of the World Food Programme, says that food markets should correct in about three to four years time, due to increased production and market corrections. However, before that, millions will continue to suffer from continuing price rises.

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