- NEW YORK -- When a faltering
UNP government removed the rice subsidy back in August 1953, the resulting
steep increase in the price of the country's staple food triggered demonstrations
and mass work stoppages in Colombo forcing then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake
- Rice was politics in Sri Lanka (even when the country
was known as Ceylon), and perhaps continues to be so even now. The moral
of the story is that if you hit people where it hurts them most -- in their
empty stomachs -- they can react violently.
- A replay of those 1953 demonstrations and street riots,
this time on a global scale, is threatening the political stability of
several low and middle-income countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America
and the Caribbean -- all of them experiencing a shortage of food or a precipitous
rise in prices.
- The steep rise in the price of wheat, corn, rice, maize
and bread has already sparked demonstrations and/or riots in Egypt, Cameroon,
Haiti and Burkina Faso. The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation
(FAO) has warned of impending political and social unrest, specifically
in countries where 50 to 60 percent of a family's income is spent on food.
- A rise in both fuel and food prices has also triggered
unrest in Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique and Senegal. And
the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) has identified 11 countries as "hunger's
- Sri Lanka is one of the 11 hunger-prone countries heading
towards a "food emergency", the others being Afghanistan, Chad,
Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan
- The President of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, last
week made an even ominous prediction when he said that 33 nations -- not
11-- are in danger of social unrest caused by rising food prices. "For
countries where food comprises from half to three-quarters of consumption,
there is no margin for survival," he warned.
- The price increase has been attributed to several factors,
including the use of arable land for the cultivation of biofuels; the negative
fallout from the increase in the price of petroleum thereby boosting transportation
costs; restrictions on the export of food by some of the producing countries;
and an overwhelming demand for food from India and China (with a combined
population of over 2.0 billion people).
- The increase in the price of corn, which has almost doubled
over the last two years, has been blamed on the conversion of land from
agriculture to corn ethanol production for biofuel. The long term effects
of global warming, including droughts and floods, are also expected to
cause further damage to agricultural production thereby keeping prices
high or boosting them even higher.
- The spreading global food crisis is also having a negative
impact on the UN's much-publicised Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),
which included a 50 percent reduction in global poverty and hunger by the
year 2015. All the gains made in the fight against poverty and hunger since
2000 are now in danger of being wiped out.
- Josette Sheeran, WFP executive director, warns there
are already signs that "we are entering a new era of hunger"
while, at the same time, the absolute number of hungry people remains high
at 854 million worldwide. Many nations -- particularly in Africa -- are
not on track to meet the very first MDG: reducing the proportion of hungry
in half by 2015.
- The WFP, which last month appealed for at least $500
million in emergency funds to meet the needs of the hungry in 2008, has
expressed "concern" over the rising food and fuel prices. Adding
to the current woes is the crisis in financial markets, including an economic
recession in the US, and a decline in development aid from rich to poor
nations. Between 2006 and 2007, European aid alone declined from $76 billion
to $73 billion.
- Jacques Diouf, the director-general of FAO, is also blaming
the crisis on the steady migration of rural populations to cities, which
in turn, has affected agricultural production. Diouf has proposed a summit
meeting of world leaders in Rome in early June to address the current crisis.
In an editorial last week, the New York Times rightly pointed out that
most Americans take food for granted. Even the poorest fifth of households
in the US spend only about 16 percent of their income on food.
- But not so in most developing nations, said the Times.
The Nigerians spend about 73 percent of their income on food, the Vietnamese
about 65 percent and Indonesians about 50 percent."They are all in
trouble," the editorial predicted, perhaps in deep trouble.