In March, the price of rice in the West African nation of Ivory Coast was more than double that of the same time last year. The situation was similar in Sri Lanka and worse in Bangladesh where they had increased by two thirds during the same period. 

From Uganda to Tajikstan, rising food prices are plunging the world’s poor into even greater desperation and have already resulted in riots in at least 10 countries in the past month - the most recent being in Haiti where five people have died and the prime minister was ousted.

ON THE RISE: According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the price of rise at the end of March was about double its price 12 months earlier. PICTURE: Brandon W. Mosley (www.sxc.hu) 

 

“This is about ensuring that future generations don’t pay a price too."

- Robert Zoellick, World Bank president

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization have called for urgent measures to address the escalating situation, noting that there are now food crises in as many as 37 nations around the world. 

Its figures show that international cereal prices - staple foods for many - have continued to rise sharply over the past two months with world food prices as a whole rising as much as 45 per cent over the last nine months.

Henri Josserand, who works with the organisation’s global information and early warning system, said that food price inflation “hits the poor hardest as the share of food in their total expenditures is much higher than that of wealthier populations”.

“Food represents about 10 to 20 per cent of consumer spending in industrialised nations but as much as 60 to 80 per cent in developing countries, many of which are net food importers."

Experts put the surge in food prices down to a range of factors including a reduction in production due to climate change, historically low levels of stocks, higher consumption of meat and dairy products in emerging economies, an increased demand for biofuels production and higher costs of energy and transport.

While the FAO has forecast world cereal production in 2008 will increase by 2.6 per cent to a record 2,164 million tonnes, they caution that much will depend on the weather with unfavourable climatic conditions in nations like Australia - which has suffered a six year drought - devastating crop production.

Speaking this week, World Bank president Robert Zoellick said soaring food costs could push as many as 100 million people deeper into poverty and called for a long-term response.

“This is about ensuring that future generations don’t pay a price too,” he said.

In Australia, World Vision Australia’s chief executive, Tim Costello, has described the situation as an ‘apocalyptic warning’.

“The truth is because of rising oil prices, global warming and the loss of arable land, all countries that can produce food now desperately need to produce more,” he told the ABC this week.

Paul Ronalds, director of policy and programs at World Vision, likened the current situation to the movie, The Perfect Storm.

“What we’re seeing is a whole bunch of factors coming together and all having pretty much the same impact to create a perfect wave,” Mr Ronalds said, speaking to Sight

“Those factors (including) increasing food prices, low food stocks, climate change, the loss of arable land, population growth and the development of middle classes in China and India...(have) come together all at about the same time, and having this really significant impact on the level of food security of people around the world.”

Mr Ronalds said increases in oil prices have been particularly key.

“Is the world willing to make some of the tough choices that are actually required or does it actually have to come worse before those choices are forced upon us? Hopefully we have leaders with enough foresight and courage to be able to make those decisions early.”

- Paul Ronalds, World Vision Australia

“Oil is a key ingredient in the manufacture of fertiliser, it’s used to run agricultural machinery (and) it drives food distribution. With its increase in price, you’ve got, in the first instance, much more cost going into food production, and secondly, you’ve got this switch to ethanol and biodiesel production that uses very large amounts of dual-use feed stocks - corn, soya beans, canola, coconut palm oil and those sorts of things.”

Mr Ronalds described the changes taking place in world food markets as structural rather than cyclical. 

“If it was just cyclical, we might just say ‘Right, we’ve got drought in key markets like Australia and other places (but) we’ll have some good years and we’ll see things get better’,” he said. 

“But I think what we’re seeing with a lot of these factors is actually quite significant structural change which means that we need to put in place both short term solutions which help us to deal with the food crisis at the moment but (also) we need to have another look at how we’re responding to some of the underlying causes in the long term.”

In addressing the immediate food shortage, the World Food Programme has already called for an extra $US500 million for emergency food aid. 

Mr Ronalds said that to bring about longer term change there needs to be much more pressure put on participants in the World Trade Organization's upcoming Doha round of trade negotiations to address “trade distorting barriers” particularly in Europe and the US.

“Any disincentive for production - which is what effectively they are on the global market - we’ve got to get rid of those. I mean, it’s just stupid in one sense that you would have a disincentive in your trade system and at the same time be doing emergency feeding of people and not realising that there’s a strong connection between the two things.”

According to Mr Ronalds, agricultural techniques and crop choices - particularly in areas most heavily affected by climate change - also need to come under examination and further work needs to be done in preventing degradation of lands and restoring those lands already degraded.

Mr Ronalds said there will be no easy fixes to the global food problem.

“Is the world willing to make some of the tough choices that are actually required or does it actually have to come worse before those choices are forced upon us? Hopefully, we have leaders with enough foresight and courage to be able to make those decisions early.”