Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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Church calls for action as global hunger crisis escalates
by Scott Cooper, for the Inland Register
(From the July 3, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
Since January of this year, 20 different countries, from Haiti to Egypt to Senegal, have seen large-scale food price riots and protests as costs for many staple foods have doubled or even tripled in the past year.
Both Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have noted that while particular countries may experience periodic food insecurity, “what we are seeing now is unprecedented” according to Lisa Kuennen-Asfaw, a food aid expert with CRS, the U.S. bishops’ overseas development and emergency relief organization. This pressure on food is also seen in rising prices in the U.S., where costs have increased over 5 percent each month for the last three months. Many local Catholic Charities agencies are noting higher demand for food services.
In Bosnia, prices for a loaf of bread and a liter of milk have more than doubled since last summer. A 110-pound sack of wheat cost around $8 two years ago in Egypt – today it costs more than $25. Many Egyptians must resort to government-subsidized bread, standing in long lines and missing work and school just to have food to eat.
Some 3 billion people around the world rely on rice as their staple food, but the price of rice has tripled in the past 18 months.
The Missionaries of Charity in Ethiopia say they have seen a 20 percent increase in demand for services recently, remarking on increasing numbers of women, children, elderly and disabled people living in the streets. The World Food Program of the United Nations has listed 30 countries most at risk of increased food insecurity, many in Africa.
There are a number of factors combining to increase global food prices, some of which, paradoxically, reflect a decrease in poverty in parts of the world. As incomes rise in countries like India, China, Brazil and Russia, middle classes grow larger and change their diets to include more meat and dairy products, which demand more grain to produce. So on one hand, there is an increase in the demand for food. On the other hand, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture says that grain reserves around the world are at their lowest level since 1960.
Another pair of factors affecting the whole world is the rise in oil prices (affecting costs of fertilizer, growing and transportation) and the fall in value of the U.S. dollar. Since most international commodity markets are transacted in U.S. dollars (which has fallen 40 percent against the euro), U.S. products actually become cheaper and make it harder for growers in the developing world to compete against low-cost imported food. This has the effect of driving farmers in Africa and Asia off their land and into the cities. By example, Haiti used to grow all of its own rice, but is now the third largest importer of American-grown rice.
The trend toward growing crops for biofuels has also moved calories out of the food chain. In 2007, 28 percent of American corn production went into biofuels, and yet it takes at least 400 pounds of corn to fill the 25 gallon tank of an SUV – calories which could have fed one person for a whole year.
Climate change has had an impact, as well. Australia is in its third year of an extended drought, reducing wheat yields. The last rice processor in that country also closed its doors in 2007 as farmers there have switched almost entirely from rice to less water-intensive wine grapes.
Long-term agriculture subsidies and international trade policies in the U.S. and European Union have meant that developing world growers cannot compete with heavily subsidized first-world grain. Governments in Latin America and Africa cannot subsidize their own farmers at the same level as the U.S. – if at all – so those farmers quit growing and move to cities and their land falls out of production.
The results of all of these factors, plus others, are that the poor are eating less, levels of nutrition are dropping, children are leaving school to work, and the middle classes in some countries are selling their assets in order to eat. Just as importantly, “the anger is palpable across the globe,” says Sean Callahan, CRS’s executive vice president of overseas operations. “The food crisis is not only being felt among the poor but it is also eroding the gains of the working and middle classes, sowing volatile levels of discontent and putting new pressures on fragile governments.”
Perhaps the most appalling fact to emerge from the current crisis comes from Haiti, where there is a booming business in the sale of mud cookies – mud mixed with a bit of sugar and a bit of butter or grease. Flour of any kind has simply become too expensive.
Speaking to the United Nations’ Commission on Sustainable Development in May, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican’s apostolic nuncio to the United Nations, called for investments to reduce food prices and expand global production and distribution of food. He also advocated agricultural policies that “rediscover the path of reason and reality” so that the needs of food production and the responsibility to be stewards of God’s creation are balanced.
In the U.S., increases in food prices are also a challenge. Compared to January 2007, 1.3 million additional people received food stamps in January of 2008. Catholic Charities USA reports that in its spring 2008 Agency Snapshot, 68 percent of Catholic Charities across the country noted an increase in food services provided, and that 20 percent actually had to turn clients away from food services for lack of resources.
In response to this crisis, CRS and the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development recommend five broad policy proposals:
• Offer quick and effective emergency funding for food programs both domestically and internationally, including an increase in Title II funding for American food aid programs overseas and a stipulation that 25 percent of those funds be used for local purchase in the countries in need, thereby stimulating local production; and a second economic stimulus package in the U.S. to reach out to low-income people who were not eligible to receive a stimulus payment earlier this year.
(For more information, please visit Catholic Relief Services’ website at www.crs.org. )