UMCOR / Our Work / Disaster Response / Ongoing / World Food Crisis / 0715-World Food Crisis

World Food Crisis Especially Impacts the Poor

by Linda Bloom

July 15, 2008—The skyrocketing cost of rice is affecting how Stop Hunger Now and other relief organizations do their work.

Rice is the main component of the nutritious meal packages dispensed worldwide by the group, which is based in Raleigh, N.C., and led by the Rev. Ray Buchanan, a United Methodist pastor. "It (the cost) is having an absolutely direct impact on what we're going to do," Buchanan said.

As a result, Stop Hunger Now may have to reduce its goal to package 5.5 million meals during 2008 or rely on more donations from volunteers who put together the meals, he added.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, the well-known economist and special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, has described the worldwide food situation as "the worst crisis of its kind in more than 30 years," according to The New York Times.

And those affected most by the crisis are the poorest of the poor, according to June Kim, who monitors hunger-related projects for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. "A lot of people living on $2 a day are now having to pay more for food and getting less food," she said.

Trouble is everywhere, according to news reports:

Perfect Storm

Many say the crisis has arisen from a "perfect storm" of rising oil prices, climate change and natural disasters.

UMCOR finds itself responding to more than just specific regional problems related to food, such as drought in sub-Saharan Africa or floods in Mozambique, according to the Rev. Sam Dixon, chief executive. "It's not localized, as it often has been in the past," he explained.

Whether because of political instability, crop loss because of a natural disaster, or the increased consumption of imported food in more countries, "there are too many factors to address with one strategy," Dixon said.

The change in eating patterns has had an impact because of an increase in average income in places such as India, China and other parts of Asia. "People who are moving out of poverty eat better and they eat higher on the food chain," Buchanan explained. "All that requires enormous inputs of grain."

At the same time, in the United States alone, "a third of all the corn being produced is now going to biofuels rather than human or animal consumption," Buchanan said. The push for biofuels such as ethanol has occurred as the United States tries to reduce its dependence upon oil for energy.

The amount of grain available this year also is in question. U.S. harvests of corn and soybeans are being threatened by rain and flooding, while Australian wheat farmers are coping with drought.

Those with nothing left to lose can become desperate, as shown by the food riots and demonstrations last spring in Haiti, Egypt, Yemen, Indonesia, Côte d'Ivoire, Thailand, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, the Philippines and even Italy.

Global Security

"It's not just an issue of food," Buchanan said. "It's an issue of global security. Global leaders are understanding that this is almost like a tipping point. Right now there are at least 33 countries around the world that are politically unstable ... by food insecurity."

The current crisis does seem to have a broader and more dangerous impact, agrees Richard Williams, director of the social and economic development program for Church World Service. "We feel that it is more widespread because you hear more and more about food riots in a lot of places at the same time," he said. "Food riots can destabilize a government."

With all the factors involved, "there are no quick fixes for this one," Williams added. "This is not a food drop somewhere."

In the United States, the Society of St. Andrew, a United Methodist-related organization, is receiving fewer donations of food while also fielding more requests for food, according to Marian Kelly, director of its potato project.

When Kelly talks these days with staff at food banks and soup kitchens, "I find they're all talking about the same thing. They don't have enough food. Their shelves are all empty."

In addition, transportation "has been one huge, huge drain on our finances," she said. "We need the food desperately, but then you've got to have the money to move it from the farms to the feeding agencies."

Delegates to the June 3-5 Conference on World Food Security in Rome declared that governments and financial institutions must provide more food for the poor and increase agricultural production for the future.

Political Will

The Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, told the conference that more than talk is needed to solve the crisis. "Conferences and reports over many years have concluded that it is feasible to end world hunger," he said. "They have appealed, again and again, for the necessary political will. This experience has taught us that conferences and reports are not enough to build the necessary political will."

What is necessary, he said, is to strengthen advocates for the hungry and poor--ranging from neighborhood groups and religious institutions to governments, the press and political parties.

The supporters of Bread for the World--including United Methodists and those from other denominations--"mobilize hundreds of thousands of constituent contacts with the U.S. Congress each year," Beckmann pointed out, leading the U.S. government "to more than double its funding for poverty-focused development assistance during this decade."

In a statement at the conclusion of the Rome conference, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, a Methodist from Kenya who leads the World Council of Churches, expressed hope for "timely action" and said the WCC Executive Committee would address the food crisis at its September meeting.

"Ensuring food security for all of the world's people is among the greatest challenges facing humanity in the early years of the 21st century," Kobia's statement said. "The churches have an essential role to play, and to be effective we must face the global food crisis together."

Churches should advocate against the production of biofuels "at the expense of food production and the environment," the statement added, and support small farmers and the just distribution of food resources. "As churches, we must continue to accompany and support sustainable communities and movements of farmers and landless rural workers."

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.