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What do higher food prices mean for the world's poor?

By David Morley
President and CEO, UNICEF Canada

Friday, October 7, 2011 - Lost amidst the noise of the economic crisis we are facing yet again is another crisis, one which is much more threatening and which promises to affect many more people: the nutrition crisis caused by rising food prices.  In the same three years that we have been enduring economic uncertainty – with economies falling, then rising then falling again – we have seen the opposite in food prices – rising, then falling, then rising again.  By the end of last year basic food prices were 60% higher than they had been in 2007, causing a life-or-death crisis for the world’s poorest people.

The problem is not yet a global food shortage.  Food production has been able to keep up with global demand; 200 years after Malthus’ dire predictions of imminent starvation in England, and with a global population far larger than the worthy Reverend could ever have imagined, we still manage to produce enough food to feed us all. 

But we don’t reap all that we sow when it comes to food.  Bad infrastructure in the developing world, with abysmal rural roads and inadequate storage facilities, means that 40% of many harvests is lost during storage and transport.  Here in Canada, there are also high losses, but most of these come not from storage and transport but rather from the food we throw out uneaten.

One particular crop is being diverted away from food use into bio-fuels.  While there are new hopes that bio-fuels may soon be produced from non-food or food waste, this still has contributed to rising prices.

Speculation in food commodity groups also increases food price volatility.  Food production has not only been industrialized, the financing of food and agriculture has also fallen to the same excesses we saw in the financial crisis, and the buying and selling of food futures.

Of course, there are changing weather patterns: drier droughts, wetter floods more severe storms. And these extremes do not make the situation for food producers any easier. But it is strange that here in Canada we feel the impact and complain about rising oil prices more than we do about rising food prices.  That is because we live in one of only four countries in the world where families spend less than 10% of their income on food.

Families in other parts of the world are not so fortunate.  In Kenya, for example, families spend half their income on food. In Somalia it is even more.  So when food prices go up for people who are already spending more than half their income to eat and getting fewer calories than we do, well, things become very serious indeed.

If you are poor, how do you manage when the price of food goes up?  In development speak, we talk about ‘coping mechanisms,’ but that is one of those antiseptic words which disguises the horrible choices that higher food prices mean for the world’s poor.

Your income is squeezed, so how do you cope?  You eat less, you spend less on health care, your children stop going to school so they can work for ever decreasing wages – and that work is often dangerous.

In simple terms that our stomachs can understand:
If you were eating 3 meals a day, you may now shift to 2.
If you were eating 2 meals a day, you will drop to 1.
If you were eating 1…well...

And nowhere in the world is this worse today than in the Horn of Africa in the midst of the famine.

I will be in Kenya this week, sharing stories of resilient children and families.  I hope that you share their stories too - letting them know that they are not forgotten.

David Morley is sharing updates from Kenya

Read David's blog posts:
Back in Kenya

The Dadaab refugee camps

The End of an Era

Camels in Riba

Wajir District Hospital

Somalia Briefing

Follow @DMorleyUNICEF