Responding to the global food crisis

June 18, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    By the summer of 2008, the price of rice had increased five times from the average price in 2005. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Today almost a billion people worldwide are unable to buy or grow enough food to avoid malnutrition. That's 120 million more than were hungry in 2006.

What happened? Basically, the world saw dramatic spikes in food prices. But there were many underlying causes of what's known as the global food crisis:

  • Drought and other climate-related problems that resulted in smaller 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
  • High fuel prices during 2008 — 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
  • Export bans and restrictions last year in several major grain-producing countries like China as governments sought to lower food prices for their own citizens, with the result of reducing the global supply on hand.

While food prices have come down from their highs of 2008, they remain substantially above historic levels. Many economists feel this trend, which most severely affects those who can least afford it, is likely to continue for some time.

The economic, health and societal costs of the global food crisis have been severe. One of the first things Mercy Corps did to figure out how and where to direct our efforts was to survey the communities where we work. We discovered that within communities Mercy Corps serves, roughly 70 percent of income is spent on food, and 80 percent of the population had been affected by rising food prices over the past year. The survey also confirmed something we already suspected: that families were coping with higher prices by eating fewer meals, selling off household belongings, going into debt and removing children from school so that they can work.

In addition to being a record year for food prices, it's also been a record year for our food security team, allowing Mercy Corps to aggressively respond to this crisis. We now have 17 programs in 13 countries designed specifically to respond to this on-going problem. Through support from donors including USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Gap Foundation, the Hunger Site, and private individuals, our Food Crisis Response employs a strategy designed to ensure that the groundwork for increased prosperity in the future is laid — even while addressing the immediate problem of accessing sufficient food.

Food distributions, much of which are specifically targeted to improve child nutrition, are taking place in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, in the Central African Republic, India, Indonesia, Liberia, Nepal, Niger, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Uganda and again Zimbabwe, Mercy Corps is helping hungry households to access food by providing employment opportunities, agricultural training and inputs (such as seeds and tools), and helping people establish and grow small businesses.

Combined, these programs are reaching almost 1.5 million individuals who have been directly impacted by higher food prices. Overall, Mercy Corps’ Crisis Response will lead to a sustainable increase in income for these people, leading in turn to greater food security over the long-term.