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Food crisis: the rising human cost

27-05-2008 Interview

As the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement prepares to take action in the face of the unprecedented food crisis. the head of the ICRC's Economic Security Unit, Barbara Boyle Saidi, looks at the underlying causes of the problem and the strategies needed to address it.


  © ICRC / T. Gassmann / V-P-PER-E-01300    
Barbara Boyle Saidi, head of the ICRC’s Economic Security Unit.    
     The major food crisis that has taken hold in recent months is affecting millions of people across the globe and posing a threat to many more. Escalating prices of primary agricultural produce, together with an unprecedented increase in oil prices, are causing serious hardship, especially for the most vulnerable. No one knows just how high grain prices will go. The crisis has prompted food riots in more than 30 countries to date – in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Caribbean. Cyclone Nargis, which wreaked havoc in Myanmar, has compounded the misery. Concerned by these worrying developments, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is gearing up for action.  

 The crisis is getting worse by the day. What are the main contributing factors?  


What we are looking at is a broader structural crisis, of which the food crisis is just one of several symptoms. A range of interrelated factors are at play. Drought and climate change have led to a slow down in the growth of agricultural production: in Australia, wheat production plummeted by 52% between 2004 and 2006, and grain production dropped by 13% in the United States and 14% in the European Union in the same period. The use of mainly corn-based biofuels is also contributing significantly to the current shortages. Lastly, changes in eating habits in the West and in the so-called emerging markets primarily in Asia, along with rapid urbanization, have driven up demand for food, putting further strain on supply. Speculation on food commodities is also a major destabilizing factor.

That said, this is not the first time we have faced such a crisis. During the oil crisis in the 1970s, the price of wheat reached current levels: subsequently, the Green Revolution restored balance to the grain markets.


 What are the main consequences of this crisis in the short and medium term?  


As one aspect of the current economic crisis, the food crisis requires fundamental structural reform to stabilize the situation in the long term. In the short term, however, we are caught in a vicious cycle in which consumers are variously affected. Protests against the price increases are taking place daily, generating all sorts of tensions. Bear in mind that in developed countries, the average consumer spends around 15% of his/her income on food. In emerging countries, this proportion rises to 30%, and in countries affected by armed conflict and drought or other disasters, more than half – even three-quarters – of a household’s income will go on food. Increases of the kind we are seeing inevitably undermine expenditure on other basic necessities, such as health or schooling. In many countries where the ICRC is active, there has been a gradual decline in living conditions, of which the main signs are: the sale of jewellery; depletion of savings; the sale of land or other productive assets; and lastly, a reduction in food consumption that could lead to famine.

Without major structural adjustments, the small-scale farmer will not be able to benefit from the current high prices, for lack of guaranteed access to key markets.

People struggling to cope with the effects of armed conflict or other situations of violence are facing an additional burden, as seen in Chad, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Haiti, to name a few. Detainees are likely to be affected if the rise in food prices is not compensated for by prison budgets, and if their families lose their ability to support them. The dependency of displaced populations and the wounded and sick on aid may equally increase.

 How is the ICRC going to help the most vulnerable people hit both by armed conflict and the food price crises ?  

In countries affected by armed conflict or other situations of violence, the ICRC stands   ready to step up its humanitarian response   to emerging needs caused or exacerbated by rising food prices. For instance, the ICRC has just appealed for additional funds to expand its operations in Yemen and Somalia.

The ICRC urges authorities, and law enforcement agents in particular, to protect populations from any possible outbreak of violence related to high food prices, and to take all necessary measures to prevent excessive use of force when confronted with mass protests and riots. Those wounded in the wake of riots must receive immediate medical attention, and the ICRC is ready to support national Red Cross or Red Crescent societies in the provision of first aid to those who might need it.

 Broadly, what are the implications for the Movement?  


In the countries hit by the crisis, ICRC and International Federation national staff and National Society staff are, or will be, affected as consumers. The most vulnerable are very often National Society volunteers.

In terms of the response, National Societies are likely to be in greater demand from humanitarian agencies to address the immediate needs engendered by the food crisis.

A dialogue is under way between the ICRC and the International Federation, which should lead shortly to an overall Movement strategy.


 How is coordination going within the Movement and with external partners such as UN specialized agencies?  


We maintain a continuous dialogue with the World Food Programme (WFP), the main provider of food aid at the international level. This dialogue focuses on attaining optimal coverage of needs so that the ICRC and WFP do not end up competing. In fact, food aid is only a minor part of the ICRC’s assistance programmes. Similarly, we are in regular contact with the Food and Agricultural Organization. We also have ad hoc consultations with the United Nations Development Programme and the International Labour Organization, mainly in relation to the evolution of the labour market (and the effect on it of urbanization) in the contexts where the ICRC operates. These discussions enable the ICRC to fine-tune its micro-economic programmes to better support conflict victims who have lost their livelihoods in starting up a new profession or their own business. Thus, it may make more sense to provide training in electromechanics, if there is a skills shortage in that area, than shoemaking, if that market is in decline or saturated. Within the Movement, the ICRC coordinates systematically with the International Federation, as well as with a number of National Societies that have made the issue an operational priority.


 Will the ICRC have to adapt its economic security policy in light of the food crisis and, if so, in what way?  


Not at first glan ce. The ICRC’s main concern is to pinpoint where in the food chain there is a problem and, on the one hand, to halt the downward spiral and, on the other hand, to revive the household economy. For example, if food is available but too expensive, as opposed to not available at all, it may be preferable to provide cash assistance or food vouchers rather than direct food aid. Such information also enables us to decide whether to take action at the level of the small producer (supply) or of the consumer (demand). In this respect, the humanitarian response can only be modest, given the extent of the crisis: only structural adjustments will provide a viable long-term response. Change, therefore, should focus on the amount of assistance provided and not on policy as such.


 Cyclone Nargis, which struck Myanmar in May, has made matters worse…  


It is a disaster for the food supply: the area of Myanmar devastated by the cyclone produces more than three-quarters of the country’s rice, half of its poultry and a little less than half of its pigs. Not only is the current rice harvest almost certainly wiped out, but the fishing sector has also been severely disrupted. It is still too early to gauge the full impact of the storm, but the damage is extensive, and we can already foresee long-term problems, notably with regard to rice production.