Saturday, April 05, 2008

Famine rides a black horse

Riots are a fascinating (and terrifying) manifestion of people power. I've never been in a riot, but I've several accounts from those who survived rioting and I think I'd rather pass on that experience. But riots appear to be on the horizon for much of the world.

In the US we complain about the rise in fuel prices, but the inflation that accompanies fuel increases has increased the price of food, combined with the drought caused by global warming, the rising cost of food is having a tremendous impact on the security of the poor and developing nations.

A global rice shortage that has seen prices of one of the world's most important staple foods increase by 50 per cent in the past two weeks alone is triggering an international crisis, with countries banning export and threatening serious punishment for hoarders.

With rice stocks at their lowest for 30 years, prices of the grain rose more than 10 per cent on Friday to record highs and are expected to soar further in the coming months.

Already China, India, Egypt, Vietnam and Cambodia have imposed tariffs or export bans, as it has become clear that world production of rice this year will decline in real terms by 3.5 per cent. The impact will be felt most keenly by the world's poorest populations...

Rice is the staple food for more than half the world's population. This is the second year running in which production - which increased in real terms last year - has failed to keep pace with population growth. The harvest has also been hit by drought, particularly in China and Australia...

The shortage has afflicted India, too... although China has said it is secure in its supplies of rice, the fact that the government has offered to pay farmers more to produce more rice and wheat suggests otherwise.

The sharp rise in rice prices has been driven by many factors, not least by a race between African and South-east Asian countries to secure sufficient stocks to head off the risk of food riots and social unrest.

Fears over the potential impact of the rice crisis has been heightened by estimates by both the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation... and comments from the World Bank president... estimating that '33 countries around the world face potential social unrest because of the acute hike in food and energy prices'...

Analysts have cited many factors for the rises, including rising fuel and fertiliser expenses, as well as climate change. But while drought is one factor, another is the switch from food to biofuel production in large areas of the world, in particular to fulfil the US energy demands. A continuing change in the global diet is also putting a further squeeze on rice. In China, for example, 100 million rural migrants to the country's big cities have switched from a staple of wheat to rice as they have become wealthier.

Rapid recent price increases are also likely to have a dangerous secondary effect of stoking further inflation in emerging countries...|Food Riots fear after rice price hits a high - Observer|

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