Thursday, April 10, 2008

Anger over spiraling world food prices is becoming increasingly violent.

Deadly clashes over higher costs for staple foods have broken out in Egypt, Haiti and several African states, and an international food expert yesterday warned of more clashes with no short-term relief in sight.

“World food prices have risen 45 percent in the last nine months and there are serious shortages of rice, wheat and [corn],” Jacques Diouf, head of the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said at a major conference in New Delhi yesterday.

“There is a risk that this unrest will spread in countries where 50 to 60 percent of income goes to food,” he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a personal appeal for calm in Haiti yesterday. U.N. peacekeepers were called to protect the residence of President Rene Preval from rioters protesting sharp increases in the prices of food and fuel. At least five people have been reported killed in disturbances since last week after the cost of rice doubled and gas prices rose a third time since February.

A supermarket, several gas station marts and a government rice warehouse were looted, the Associated Press reported.

Video: Haitian leader’s pleas fail to stop riots

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif this week promised concessions to workers in the industrial city of Mahalla al-Kobra after two days of rioting over rising food prices left one protester dead.

The clashes were described as the most serious anti-government demonstrations since 1977 riots erupted over soaring bread prices.

The FAO has reported popular unrest over rising food prices in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique, Bolivia and Uzbekistan, among other countries.

The Philippines, the world’s biggest rice importer, moved to head off protests after global prices doubled in a year. Financial giant Credit Suisse yesterday reported that higher rice prices would cut the country’s gross domestic product this year by at least 1 percent.

The government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo tightened controls of domestic rice sales and strengthened security at government storehouses to prevent hoarding. Anyone convicted of “stealing rice from the people” will be thrown in jail, she warned.

U.S. Ambassador Kristie Kenney yesterday said the Bush administration would offset any rice shortfall with cuts from other exporters.

World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick said earlier this month that nearly three dozen countries face social unrest because of surging food and fuel prices. For the countries most at risk, “there is no margin for survival,” he said.

Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, was in Washington last month making an urgent appeal for funds to compensate for rising prices.

“We’re asking for the world to really think through how we meet the emergency needs of the hungry,” Ms. Sheeran told The Washington Times.

Even the most repressive regimes are not immune to popular unrest. The spark for rioting against the military junta in Burma last year was a rise in food and fuel prices after the government abruptly removed subsidies.

International agricultural analysts have seen the crisis building for months, spurred by an unusual combination of forces that John Holmes, the chief U.N. humanitarian official, this week called a “perfect storm” of trends fueling demand, cutting supply and producing higher global grocery bills.

Among them: higher fuel prices that make transporting food more expensive and encourage farmers to shift from crop production to biofuels; rising food demand as China, India and other Asian countries grow wealthier; drought in major producers such as Australia; and speculation on major commodities markets that staple prices will stay high.

Mr. Holmes predicted at a conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, that the situation will spill into the political arena.

“The security implications [of the food crisis] should not be underestimated, as food riots are already being reported across the globe,” he said. “Current food prices are likely to increase sharply both the incidence and depth of food insecurity.”

Ms. Sheeran told The Times that her agency was $500 million short for the current fiscal year in meeting needs to relieve the global food and fuel crises.

“We don’t have the buffering space” to cover such sharp increases in the cost of basic staples, she said.

Analysts say the price increases are across the board, not focused on one crop or market as in past commodity patterns.

A survey released by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute found that the price of staple food has risen by 80 percent since 2005, including a 40 percent surge last year alone. The real price of rice is at a 19-year high and the price of wheat on world markets is at a 28-year high.

“The realities of demography, changing diets, energy prices and biofuels, and climate change suggest that high — and volatile — food prices will be with us for years to come,” said study author Joachim von Braun.

It is not just the poor who have taken to the streets over rising food prices.

Workers at the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Jordan staged a one-day strike Monday to demand higher pay to cover rising food and gas prices. The action closed 177 schools for Palestinian refugees.

The U.N. staffers say they are prepared to walk off the job again next week if they do not get a pay raise.

Surging prices have led to food riots and protests around the globe.

EGYPT — Violent protests this week over soaring food prices left one dead and 15 injured.

HAITI — Five people were killed and about 20 injured in a week of protests, including an attack on U.N. peacekeepers.

CAMEROON — Violent food riots in February claimed 40 lives, and protests continue this month.

BURKINA FASO — A general strike is called this week over rising food prices, after protests earlier this year led to hundreds of arrests.

PHILIPPINES — The government beefs up security at rice warehouses to prevent theft and hoarding.

JORDAN — U.N. aid workers stage a one-day strike for more pay to cover food and fuel price increases.

BURMA — Cuts in fuel and food subsidies sparked massive anti-government protests last summer.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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