'Perfect storm' food crisis grips globe

A Haitian girl carries food and clothes distributed by Brazilian UN Peacekeepers in Port-au-Prince. Photograph: AFP/Getty

View GalleryBy Marc Lacey in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

HUNGER smashed in the front gate of Haiti's presidential palace. Hunger poured on to the streets, burning tyres and taking on soldiers and the police. Hunger sent the country's prime minister packing.
Haiti's hunger, that has become fiercer than ever in recent days as global food prices spiral out of reach, rising by as much as 45% since the end of 2006 and turning staples such as beans, corn and rice into closely guarded treasures.

Saint Louis Meriska's children ate two spoonfuls of rice apiece as their only meal and then went without any food the following day. His eyes downcast, his own stomach empty, the unemployed father said: "They look at me and say 'Papa, I'm hungry', and I have to look away. It's humiliating and it makes you angry."

That anger is palpable across the globe. The food crisis is not only being felt among the poor but is also eroding the gains of the working and middle classes, sowing volatile levels of discontent and putting new pressures on fragile governments.

In Cairo, Egypt, the military is being put to work baking bread as rising food prices threaten to become the spark that ignites wider anger at a repressive government. In Burkina Faso and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, food riots are breaking out as never before. In reasonably prosperous Malaysia, the ruling coalition was nearly ousted by voters who cited food and fuel price increases as their main concerns.

"It's the worst crisis of its kind in more than 30 years," said Jeffrey D Sachs, the economist and special adviser to the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. "It's a big deal and it's obviously threatening a lot of governments. There are a number of governments on the ropes, and I think there's more political fallout to come."

Indeed, as it hits developing nations, the spike in commodity prices has pitted the world's poorer south against the relatively wealthy north, adding to demands for reform of rich nations' farm and environmental policies. But experts say there are few quick fixes to a crisis tied to so many factors, from strong demand for food from emerging economies such as China's to rising oil prices to the diversion of food resources to make biofuels.

There are no scripts on how to handle the crisis either. In Asia, governments are putting in place measures to limit hoarding of rice after some shoppers panicked at price increases and bought up everything they could.

Even in Thailand, which produces 10 million more tons of rice than it consumes and is the world's largest rice exporter, supermarkets have put up signs limiting the amount of rice shoppers are allowed to buy.

But there is also plenty of nervousness and confusion about how best to proceed and how bad the impact may be, particularly as already strapped governments struggle to keep up their food subsidies.

"This is a perfect storm," President Elias Antonio Saca of El Salvador said last week at the World Economic Forum on Latin America in Cancun, Mexico.

"How long can we withstand the situation? We have to feed our people, and commodities are becoming scarce. This scandalous storm might become a hurricane that could upset not only our economies but also the stability of our countries."

In Asia, if Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of Malaysia steps down, which is looking increasingly likely amid postelection turmoil within his party, he may be that region's first high-profile political casualty of fuel and food price inflation.

In Indonesia, fearing protests, the government has revised its 2008 budget, increasing the amount it will spend on food subsidies by about $280m.

"The biggest concern is food riots," said HS Dillon, a former adviser to Indonesia's Ministry of Agriculture. Referring to small but widespread protests touched off by a rise in soybean prices in January, he said: "It has happened in the past and can happen again."

The Philippine government has started selling subsidised rice at military bases to ensure soldiers and their families have a sufficient supply of cheap grain, while other supplies are being stockpiled for the poorest members of society.

Last month in Senegal, one of Africa's oldest and most stable democracies, police in riot gear beat and used tear gas against people protesting over high food prices and later raided a television station that broadcast images of the event.

Many Senegalese have expressed anger at President Abdoulaye Wade for spending lavishly on roads and hotels for an Islamic summit meeting last month while many people are unable to afford rice or fish.

The rising prices are altering menus, and not for the better. In India, people are scrimping on milk for their children. Daily bowls of dahl are getting thinner, as a bag of lentils is stretched across a few more meals.

In Cairo's Hafziyah Street, peddlers selling food from behind wood carts bark out their prices. But few customers can afford their fish or chicken. Food prices have doubled in two months.

Ahmed Abul Gheit, 25, sat on a wooden chair by his own pile of rotting tomatoes. "We can't even find food," he said, looking over at his friend Sobhy Abdullah, 50. Then, raising his hands toward the sky as if in prayer, he said: "May God take the guy I have in mind."

Abdullah nodded, knowing full well that the "guy" was President Hosni Mubarak.

It is the kind of talk that has prompted the government to treat its economic woes as a security threat, dispatching riot forces with a strict warning that anyone who takes to the streets will be dealt with harshly.

Niger does not need to be reminded that hungry citizens overthrow governments. Its first postcolonial president, Hamani Diori, was toppled amid allegations of rampant corruption in 1974 as millions starved during a drought.

More recently, in 2005, it was mass protests in Niamey, the Nigerian capital, that made the government sit up and take notice of that year's food crisis, which was caused by a complex mix of poor rains, locust infestation and market manipulation by traders.

"As a result of that experience the government created a Cabinet-level ministry to deal with the high cost of living," said Moustapha Kadi, an activist who helped organise marches in 2005. "So when prices went up this year, the government acted quickly to remove tariffs on rice, which everyone eats. That quick action has kept people from taking to the streets."

In Haiti, where three-quarters of the population earns less than $2 a day and one in five children is chronically malnourished, the one business booming amid all the gloom is the selling of patties made of mud, oil and sugar, typically only consumed by the most destitute.

"It's salty and it has butter and you don't know you're eating dirt," said Olwich Louis Jeune, 24, who has taken to eating them more often in recent months. "It makes your stomach quiet down."

But the grumbling in Haiti these days is no longer confined to the stomach. It is now spray-painted on walls of the capital and shouted by demonstrators.

In recent days, President Rene Preval of Haiti – who has already seen his prime minister voted out – has patched together a response, using international aid money and price reductions by importers to cut the price of a sack of sugar by about 15%. He has also trimmed the salaries of some top officials. But those are considered temporary measures.

Meanwhile, most of the poorest of the poor suffer silently. In the sprawling slum of Haiti's Cite Soleil, Placide Simone, 29, offered one of her five offspring to a stranger. "Take one," she said, cradling a listless baby and motioning toward four rail-thin toddlers, none of whom had eaten that day. "You pick. Just feed them."

• Lydia Polgreen in Niamey, Niger; Michael Slackman in Cairo, Egypt; Somini Sengupta in New Delhi; Thomas Fuller in Bangkok, Thailand; and Peter Gelling in Jakarta, Indonesia contributed to this report

The full article contains 1340 words and appears in Scotland On Sunday newspaper.Last Updated: 19 April 2008 7:57 PM

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