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The Food Crisis: A Long-Term Focus

August 11, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jason Sangster for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Jason Sangster for Mercy Corps

This commentary was adapted from introductory remarks by Joy Portella, Mercy Corps' Director of Communications, during a recent event in Seattle featuring Mercy Corps' Guatemala country director.

The global food crisis was recently labeled a "silent tsunami" by The Economist magazine because of its deadly potential. The most obvious problem is a dramatic rise in food prices, and a resulting increase in hunger and malnutrition, the spread of political instability, and the very real threat of setting back of years of advances in areas like health and education.

The food crisis is the result of what experts are calling a "perfect storm" of factors:

  • Drought and other climate-related problems that have whittled down harvests.
  • Changing diets — rise of the middle class in India and China and an increased demand for food, especially meat, which requires large amounts of grain to raise; diversion of crops from food production to the production of biofuels.
  • Higher fuel prices — if it costs more to transport food, prices go up.
  • Declining investments in agricultural productivity — total agriculture development aid to poor countries plunged from $8 billion in 1984 to $3.4 billion in 2004. At the same time, the developing world's cities have been ballooning with people who do not grow any of their food.
  • Recent export bans and restrictions in major grain-producing countries like China. These countries are worried they won't be able to feed their own people so they're reluctant to export food.

The resulting increases in food prices have been extreme. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the prices of basic foods like cereals, meat and dairy rose by an average of 53 percent from 2007 to 2008.

It is the poor who are hit the hardest and are most vulnerable to these massive changes. According to the World Food Programme, the world's poor spend 60 percent, and sometimes as much as 80 percent, of their budgets on food. It can mean the need to cut down on the number of meals per day, the quality of food they consume, or they have to make tough choices between basics like food, healthcare and education for their kids.

This is not a short-term crisis; it's likely to last several years. It's also truly global in scale — not confined to a particular region, which makes it more complicated. Already several dozen countries face food crises and consequences like malnourishment, starvation and civil unrest. Riots have already broken out in Haiti, Egypt, Senegal, Somalia and other countries.

Reports from Mercy Corps staff around the world confirm that the situation is dire — and has the potential to grow much worse.

  • In Afghanistan, wheat prices in March were 84 percent higher than just one year before. Coming on top of a harsh winter, the price hike has pinched the meager resources of Afghanistan's poor and exacerbated the country's instability.
  • In Sri Lanka dietary staples like rice and dhal have more than doubled in price over the last year. As a result, middle-class people are buying lower-quality food, and lower-income Sri Lankans are sacrificing meals.
  • In Tajikistan, more than 60 percent of households are down to only one warm meal a day. An extreme winter damaged harvests and neighboring Kazakhstan has suspended wheat exports — shutting off Tajikistan's primary supply of grain.

Mercy Corps is responding to these massive changes in the short-term, helping people to get the food and immediate resources they need. For example, in drought-prone Niger, we're working with community health centers to make sure that mothers and young children are healthier and have better nutrition. In a troubled place like North Korea, we are leading a group of five non-governmental organizations that's providing US-donated food to more than a half million hungry North Koreans.

While this work to meet immediate needs is very important, short-term measures alone do not constitute a solution to the current crisis. Unlike the World Food Programme, which does vital and exceptional work, Mercy Corps is not primarily focused on getting food to desperately hungry people. We want to stop people from becoming hungry in the first place.

Institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have finally, after decades, started to espouse the importance of agricultural development. Mercy Corps, on the other hand, has recognized the importance of agricultural development for years. We currently invest $72 million in food and agriculture programs in 19 countries. Most of this money helps expand food production and lift household incomes in settings as diverse as Colombia, Tajikistan, Sudan and Mongolia.

This work looks very different depending on the needs of specific communities. Some programs create backyard gardens, some involve teaching canning classes; sometimes we help form farmer cooperatives or introduce new marketing strategies; and sometimes we open the door for farmers to sell to lucrative new markets both at home and abroad. But the goal is always the same: strengthening food security and supporting agricultural systems.

We're also exploring how to implement a combination of short- and long-term measures in several countries like Ethiopia, Nepal and Sri Lanka. This would include immediate interventions like cash for work and getting people vouchers, as well as helping people get better seed, connecting farmers to markets and increasing their access to credit.

Last but certainly not least, Mercy Corps is helping people in the US to learn about and take action against global hunger and poverty. We believe that these problems can only be solved when people understand them, feel invested, and realize what role they can play in solving them.

The centerpiece of these efforts is our Action Center to End World Hunger, a first-of-its-kind interactive learning space that will open in New York City this coming fall. Another Center will open in Portland in 2009.

One of our most remarkable and successful agricultural development programs is the work we have done in the Alta Verapaz region in Guatemala to improve the lives of impoverished, small-scale farmers. With the help of local partners, we are helping them with crop diversification, land management and marketing. The results increase their own personal yields as well as their personal incomes through connections with local supermarket chains.

Watch how our Guatemala programs provide "land and opportunity" then donate to our Global Food Crisis fund.