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Millions face starvation

by Salil  Sarkar

Article published on the 2008-10-28 Latest update 2009-10-28 11:02 TU

Children in a Philippines slum queue for free meals(Photo: Reuters)

Children in a Philippines slum queue for free meals
(Photo: Reuters)

Hunger and starvation are silent "mass murder", says the UN's food chief. At least 800 million people did not know where their next meal would come from before the crisis. Now it is going to get worse.

Hunger and poverty go hand-in-hand. Countries with high levels of hunger are overwhelmingly low- or low-middle-income countries.

The findings of the International Food Policy Research Institute and other concerned groups make uncomfortable reading.

The institute's latest study puts sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia at the top of the Global Hunger Index (GHI). Out of 88 countries scrutinised, democratic India figures at rank 66, above war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Mali, or Ethiopian, but way behind Myanmar, Mongolia, China or Iran.

“In this context of higher food prices," it says, "prospects for improving food and nutrition security do not appear favourable, given that at least 800 million people were food insecure even before the food price crisis hit."

This is silent “mass murder”, says United Nations food envoy Jean Ziegler.

For the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, growth in biofuels, speculation on commodities markets and European Union export subsidies mean the west is responsible for mass starvation in poorer countries.

The move into biofuels have forced global food prices up by 75 per cent, according to a secret internal World Bank study cited in London’s Guardian newspaper. That is far higher than previously estimated.

The daily says that the damning unpublished assessment is based on the most detailed analysis of the crisis so far, carried out by an internationally-respected economist at the bank.

The figure gives the lie to US government claims that plant-derived fuels contribute less than three per cent to food-price rises.

Why is the report secret?

To avoid embarrassing or attracting the ire of leaders of the United States, the European Union and some other states such as Brazil who are banking on biofuels.

Rising food prices have pushed 100 million people worldwide below the poverty line, estimates the World Bank, and have sparked riots from Bangladesh to Egypt.

President Bush complacently linked higher food prices to higher demand from India and China, but the leaked World Bank study contradicts him.

"Rapid income growth in developing countries has not led to large increases in global grain consumption and was not a major factor responsible for the large price increases," it says.

"Without the increase in biofuels, global wheat and maize stocks would not have declined appreciably and price increases due to other factors would have been moderate," says the report.

The basket of food prices examined in the study rose by 140 per cent between 2002 and February this year. The report estimates that higher energy and fertiliser prices accounted for an increase of only 15 per cent, while biofuels have been responsible for a 75 per cent jump over that period.

It argues that production of biofuels has distorted food markets in three main ways.

First, it has diverted grain away from food for fuel, with over a third of US corn now used to produce ethanol and about half of vegetable oils in the EU going towards the production of biodiesel.

Second, farmers have been encouraged to set land aside for biofuel production.

Third, it has sparked financial speculation in grains, driving prices higher.

World cereal stocks are at an all-time low, food-aid programmes have run out of money and millions face starvation. Yet wealthy countries persist with plans to use grain for petrol.

Next year, the use of US corn for ethanol is forecast to rise to 114 million tonnes - nearly a third of the whole projected US crop. American cars now burn enough corn to cover all the import needs of the 82 nations classed by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as "low-income food-deficit countries".

Weather plays a major role, too.

The FAO's latest food situation brief reports that, in 2007, "unfavourable climatic conditions devastated crops in Australia and reduced harvests in many other countries, particularly in Europe", while southern Africa and the western United States have been hit hard by severe drought.

Rising oil prices also increase the cost of food, as fossil fuels are important throughout the agricultural process, from tractor diesel to fertiliser production.