Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of Month Date, 2008
Bishops urge help for the poor
Food prices will keep on rising - experts
By BARBARA FRASER
“Society and the Church have to support social development programs so the poor can be self-sufficient .”
- Bishop Felipe
Drought last year in Australia and Canada pushed wheat prices up, while flooding destroyed crops in various countries. High oil prices have increased the price of petroleum-based fertilizers and increased transportation costs.
Another factor is the rising standard of living in China and India, which has led to increased demand for foods such as meat and milk. Because it takes seven or eight pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat, increased meat consumption drives up demand for grain and, therefore, the price.
In China, per-capita milk consumption quadrupled between 1990 and 2000, while poultry consumption doubled.
Price increases hit poor countries - and their poorest citizens - hardest.
In Guatemala, the price of tortillas, a staple food, has risen 30 per cent in the past few months.
Poor Mexicans, who eat nearly a pound of tortillas a day per person, have seen the price double in the past two years. Workers earning the minimum wage of about $4 a day now spend up to one-third of their earnings on tortillas for the family.
"There has been an uncontrollable rise in the price of tortillas and other basic elements," Mexican Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel of San Cristobal de Las Casas said last year.
"Society and the Church have to support social development programs so the poor can be self-sufficient and not have to depend eternally on government and private help."
Inflation last year in Ethiopia was 20 per cent, and Church workers report more people, especially women, children and the elderly, living on the streets and knocking on church doors for help, Kuennen told Catholic News Service.
CNS photo/David Maung
A worker at a local tortilla shop watches as a tortilla making machine doles out corn meal into disks that will pass through an oven and be made into tortillas in Tijuana, Mexico.
In Burkina Faso, prices of staple foods rose between 14 per cent and 67 per cent, she said, and families now spend as much as 75 per cent of their income on food. Unlike past years, this year these price increases are appearing at harvest time, when products are most abundant and prices should be low, Kuennen said.
High prices can be good news for farmers who have a crop surplus to sell, but for those who must purchase food to supplement a subsistence harvest - and for people in urban areas who do not grow their own food - higher food prices mean there is less money to spend on other essentials, such as health care or children's education.
The scope of the food crisis puts an extra strain on aid organizations, Kuennen said. In the past, food shortages were local and foreseeable, making it easier for humanitarian groups to respond.
The current crisis is striking all around the world, however, and high oil prices make it more expensive to ship food to those who need it most.
The UN World Food Program had budgeted $2.9 billion to aid some 70 million people this year. In April, however, officials estimated that they needed another $755 million to meet that target.
“People need to be kept from starving and from rioting.”
- Lisa Kuennen
Food assistance is only a stopgap measure, Kuennen said, but such aid, along with programs to provide cash or vouchers to poor families, is a crucial response to the immediate crisis.
"People need to be kept from starving and from rioting," she said.
After violent protests in Haiti in early April, the country's Catholic bishops urged the government to implement both emergency and long-term policies to tackle hunger.
In an April 12 statement, the Haitian bishops' conference condemned the violence that left at least five people dead.
If oil prices remain high and the demand for staple foods continues to grow, countries will need long-term policies to deal with the effects of food-price increases and quell discontent.
Some countries have begun providing food subsidies, have lowered import tariffs on food or have halted exports of grains and vegetable oils.
Many countries have limited exports of certain staples. China has blocked rice and maize exports, while India has stopped exporting milk powder and Bolivia has banned the export of vegetable oil to its South American neighbours.
John Hoddinott, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, said those measures are misguided. Such bans exacerbate shortages, driving prices up further.
Long-term policies must include increased investment in agriculture and development and consistent trade policies, he said.
Kuennen said developing nations also must link small farmers with markets, help people diversify their sources of income, and implement land reform.
Land reform is a pressing issue in Kenya, where only 20 per cent of the land is suitable for growing crops.
An estimated 1,000 people were reported killed and more than 300,000 people were displaced in recent violent protests in Kenya, where absentee landlords own huge expanses of land.
Ultimately, experts say that effective long-term policies are crucial to keeping large numbers of people from slipping back into hunger and poverty.
"We really need to help poor people become better off," Hoddinott said. "That is the long-term solution."
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