FEATURE: Food crisis may get worse before it gets better

By Thalif Deen


WASHINGTON DC, United States, April 30, 2008 – The spreading food crisis — triggered primarily by rising prices, declining outputs and growing scarcities worldwide — is threatening to impact heavily on the most vulnerable in society: women and children.


The United Nations and international humanitarian organisations fear the crisis may get worse before its gets better.


”Even temporarily depriving children of the nutrients they need to grow and thrive can leave permanent scars in terms of their physical growth and intellectual potential,” warns Andrew Thorne-Lyman, a nutritionist at the Rome-based World Food Programme (WFP).


The U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) is particularly concerned with the impact of the current crisis on pregnant women and nursing mothers.


”The Fund was involved in providing food to such women in recent crises, including those in Moldova and Niger,” says Safiye Cagar, UNFPA’s director of information and external relations.


The current food shortages, she said, are bound to make providing this sort of assistance more difficult.


”Our offices are currently working with the U.N. Country Teams in Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Haiti and Nigeria responding to the consequences of the food crisis there,” Cagar told IPS. 


Ann Veneman, executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, warns that rising prices ”will most affect the most vulnerable, including people depending on humanitarian assistance, orphans, those affected by HIV/AIDS, refugees and poor urban families.”


She said that increase in food prices may not only slow down progress towards achieving health and nutrition-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but can also reverse or negatively impact child-related social indicators.


According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), food prices worldwide have increased about 83 percent over the last three years while the price of rice alone has skyrocketed by about 141 percent since January this year.


The U.S.-based Save the Children, a leading humanitarian organisation, says the present crisis is bound to force more of the world’s poor children to go hungry, thereby endangering their current and long-term well-being.


Charles MacCormack, president and chief executive officer of Save the Children, says the increasing pressure on family budgets will have adverse ripple effects on the health, education and safety of children.


”We know from experience that higher food prices most adversely affect impoverished families, especially children,” he said, in a statement released Monday.


MacCormack pointed out that the increasingly high cost of food is pushing more families into poverty and forcing them to make difficult decisions on how to spend their money.


”Parents may cut back on the amount and quality of food for their families; pull children from school and send them to work; reduce spending on health care; or sell key productive assets in order to cope with their newly dire economic circumstances,” he said.


The survival and well-being of vulnerable children depend on meeting current and impending food shortages and on addressing the root causes of food insecurity, he added.


”This crisis is going to get worse before it improves, and it is critical that families and communities have the food they need now and the tools to prepare for and respond to future food emergencies,” he warned.


Thorne-Lyman of WFP says that data from Bangladesh in the 1990s shows that as food prices rose, so did child malnutrition.


He said that families didn’t necessarily stop buying rice when the price went up — they just reduced their consumption of the vitamin and mineral-rich foods necessary to help children grow.


UNFPA’s Cagar said there were also risks that some poor women may be forced into transactional sex to meet their basic needs, as food prices increase and become less affordable to them and their families.


”This could also lead to an increase in violence, especially against female-headed households and among poor women,” she added.


Cagar said UNFPA is also deeply concerned that the food crisis can potentially generate emergencies and disasters, with massive movements of people.


”We respond to such emergencies with support and relief operations to address the urgent reproductive health needs of displaced populations,” she added. 


Asked how the world body should deal with the food crisis, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters last week: ”In the short term, we must address all humanitarian crises, which have been impacting the poorest of the poor people in the world because 100 million people have been driven into this additional hunger crisis.”


He said he was going to discuss this matter in depth with all the agencies, heads of agencies, funds and programmes of the United Nations, as well as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.


”Then, we will try to see what kind of immediate action and immediate long-term actions we can take as a part of a United Nations-led initiative,” he added. (IPS)