Food Inflation, Riots Spark Worries for World Leaders
Monday, April 14, 2008
By Bob Davis and Douglas Belkin
WASHINGTON — Finance ministers gathered this weekend to grapple with the global financial crisis also struggled with a problem that has plagued the world periodically since before the time of the Pharaohs: food shortages.Surging commodity prices have pushed up global food prices 83% in the past three years, according to the World Bank — putting huge stress on some of the world’s poorest nations. Even as the ministers met, Haiti’s Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis was resigning after a week in which that tiny country’s capital was racked by rioting over higher prices for staples like rice and beans.
Rioting in response to soaring food prices recently has broken out in Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Ethiopia. In Pakistan and Thailand, army troops have been deployed to deter food theft from fields and warehouses. World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned in a recent speech that 33 countries are at risk of social upheaval because of rising food prices. Those could include Indonesia, Yemen, Ghana, Uzbekistan and the Philippines. In countries where buying food requires half to three-quarters of a poor person’s income, “there is no margin for survival,” he said.
Many policy makers at the weekend meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank agreed that the problem is severe. Among other targets, they singled out U.S. policies pushing corn-based ethanol and other biofuels as deepening the woes.
“When millions of people are going hungry, it’s a crime against humanity that food should be diverted to biofuels,” said India’s finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, in an interview. Turkey’s finance minister, Mehmet Simsek, said the use of food for biofuels is “appalling.”
James Connaughton, chairman of the White House’s council on environmental quality, said biofuels are only one contributor to rising food prices. Rising prices for energy and electricity also contribute, as does strong demand for food from big developing countries like China.
But beyond taking shots at the U.S., there was little agreement this weekend on what should be done. Mr. Zoellick pushed the ministers to focus on the food issue in a dramatic Thursday news conference at which he held up a 2-kilogram (4.4-pound) bag of rice, which he said would now cost poor families in Bangladesh half their daily income. He kept up the pressure over the weekend. In a Sunday news briefing, he said, “We have to put our money where our mouth is now — so that we can put food into hungry mouths.”
But the weekend’s meeting produced few concrete results. Mr. Zoellick recently urged rich nations to contribute another $500 million to the United Nation’s World Food Program, but he said that the U.N. has received commitments for only about half the money.