For months we’ve been hearing about the global food crisis. The cost of food and fuel increased suddenly and sharply, making it harder for poor people around the world to feed their families. In dozens of cities, people took to the streets in protest.
Now the focus is on the collapse of the world economy. Food and fuel prices on global markets have fallen nearly as precipitously as they rose.
So, is the global food crisis over?
Unfortunately, no. It has merely entered a new phase. We are now confronted with an environment of price volatility and uncertainty. Who knows where prices will be a year from now?
In fact, although commodity prices have fallen globally, this is not necessarily reflected in local markets. For example, one of our CRS staff recently spoke with a 28-year-old woman from the Machakos diocese in Kenya who must feed a household of 12 people, including her five children and four orphaned child relatives. She says the price of maize is still nearly double what it was last year. After she emptied her last 200-pound bag of maize, she couldn’t afford to buy more. She recently received food vouchers from Catholic Relief Services to purchase maize, beans and cooking oil. Burkina Faso is another case, where despite a rice harvest over three times that of 2007, local rice prices remained 30 percent higher than last year.
This food crisis has also exposed a vulnerability in many of the developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which have for years grown accustomed to importing cheap food, principally from Asia. When the prices of those imports rose past the point at which the African countries could afford them, the failure over the past decade or more to invest in African agriculture was exposed. Countries were not able to turn to their local farmers for the quantity of food that was needed because the production potential and infrastructure were not there.
But farmers seeking to grow more food face challenges. Access to credit has never been easy in the developing world, and the financial crisis will just make it harder. Add to that the fact that the prices of essential supplies, especially fertilizer, remain high. Finally, farmers who do increase production face the prospect of lower prices for their crops. According to the latest forecast from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, these challenges could lead farmers to cut their plantings, which could precipitate another food crisis: “If, indeed, production falls sharply next year, episodes of riots and instability could again capture the headlines.”
It is clear that we must act now to avoid crisis in the future. A key part of a food security strategy must be an increased investment in farmers who cultivate small plots, particularly those who grow staple crops. We can help farmers obtain badly needed fertilizer to maximize their harvests. We can connect farmers to markets where they can receive a good, fair price for their crops. In the midst of the food crisis, CRS launched or expanded several initiatives with these goals in mind, including programs seeking to increase production of rice in West Africa, navy beans in Ethiopia, chickpeas in Tanzania and cassava across the continent.
And we must never forget the poorest of our brothers and sisters. We must provide those who are most vulnerable–such as orphans, the disabled, the elderly–with a safety net that would include food distribution, vouchers that could be exchanged for food and cash or food for work. These programs are particularly important in urban areas, where the desperately poor can’t grow food and so have no recourse when they exhaust their resources.
As we begin this new year, it is an auspicious time to recommit ourselves to this fight to end hunger around the world.
Thank you for your continued support and your prayers.