Food Insecurity and Social Unrest

  • Posted on: 3 April 2008
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

Haitians are no strangers to hunger.  Yet, the past six months of rising food and fuel costs has hit the country hard.  But Haiti is not alone.  Citizens of other countries are being squeezed as well.  Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mexico, Mozambique, Senegal, Argentina, Peru, and Indonesia have all seen protests over rising food costs.  Those who were struggling but making ends meet have found themselves spending more and more of their household income on food (and by extension less in other areas such as education.)  Will our children and grandchildren inherit a hungrier world?  If so, their world will be less democatic, more instable, and more dangerous.


According to Reuters "From the deserts of Mauritania to steamy Mozambique on Africa's Indian Ocean coast, people have taken to the streets. There have been "tortilla riots" in Mexico, villagers have clashed with police in eastern India and hundreds of Muslims have marched for lower food prices in Indonesia."  In other words, rising food costs have become a global problem.



As an illustration, let's look at the riots that took place in Cote D'Ivoire. According to IRIN, around 1,500 protestors chanted "we are hungry" and "life is too expensive, you are going to kill us."  Riot police intervened and numerous people were hurt.   The cost of a kilo of beef increased from US$1.68 to US$2.16 in just three days.  One litre of oil had increased from US$1.44 to $2.04 in the same time.  If you have an income that is increasing perhaps you can cope.  If your income is staying the same or even decreasing as is the case with many rural farmers in Haiti...



But why are food prices going up in the first place? According to The World Food Programme (WFP), high global fuel prices coupled with an increased demand for food in wealthier Asian and Latin American markets and an increased demand for bio-fuels (read: biofuels from food crops) are behind food price rises around the world. As usual, the issue is not having a sufficient quantity of food available - the issue is not being able to afford the food that is there.



In households surviving on one or two dollars a day, a small rise in the price of food that is only an inconvenience in the Western World can be devastating in the developing world.  The poorest of the poor often spend the majority of the income just for putting food on the table.   In the case of Cote D'Ivoire some protestors noted they were eating only once a day as a result of the cost hikes.  I would protest as well! Others questioned how they could afford to keep their children in school.  Even in South Africa, the most developed African economy consumers are being pinched. Inflation of agricultural products hit 8.8 percent in January.   



What should be done?  I am afraid there are no easy answers. First, we have a responsibility to meet the needs of the most vulnerable.  The WFP is facing a $500 million shortfall due to the costs of buying and distributing food.  Donors should increase funding to the WFP to prevent a humnanitarian catastrophe.  This is not a solution, but it is something we must do until we can develop sustainable strategies on a global scale.



Some countries such as Peru are taking temporary measures such as giving food to its poorest citizens.  Other have reduced or even eliminated import taxes.  Egypt and Indonesia have expanded subsidies.  China has borned export of the most important food commodities.   These steps may help but they won't bring long term change. The rennaisance of a country like Haiti (and others like it) depends on the rebirth of the agricultural sector.  Haiti is dependent for the outside world for fuel and for food.   In the world we live in, this is a recipe for continued poverty.



Dependency has caused great suffering in Haiti and self-reliance, to the extent possible, will be the antidote.   It may be possible that Eurasia, South America, and some African countries may be able to ramp up their agricultural exports and this could ease food costs worldwide.   Even so, Haiti has to be able to fuel and feed itself to survive let alone thrive.  Biofuels from non food crops such as jatropha can go a long way to preserving Haiti's environment and promoting energy independence.   Haiti will also need to pursue both standard (e.g., irrigation) and innovative (e.g, arid environment) techniques for growing rice, beans, and other staples its citizens rely on.


I am not an agricultural specialist by any means.   However, I do know that without food security there will not be security in general.   This is an issue we need to be discussing more and I would like to hear your thoughts on concrete steps that could be taken to ensure Haitians are able to feed themselves and their families.  A better Haiti depends on it.  



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