The unrest, which is likely to spread to nearly 40 countries, has been triggered largely by a sharp increase in the prices of staple commodities, including wheat, rice, sorghum, maize and soybeans, according to the United Nations.
Following last week's food riots in Haiti, which claimed the lives of four people, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appealed to international donors for urgent assistance to one of the poorest countries in the Caribbean.
A meeting of the world's finance ministers in Washington over the weekend warned that rising food prices were more of a threat to political and social stability than the current crisis in global capital markets.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has singled out six countries with an "exceptional shortfall in aggregate food production and supplies": Lesotho, Somalia, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Iraq and Moldova.
An additional six countries with "widespread lack of access" to food include Eritrea, Liberia, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and North Korea.
The steep rise in basic foodstuffs has already sparked demonstrations and/or riots in Egypt, Cameroon, Haiti and Burkina Faso, while an increase in both fuel and food prices has triggered unrest in Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique and Senegal.
The FAO has also warned of impending political and social unrest, specifically in countries where 50 to 60 percent of a family's income is spent on food.
"If the basic food requirements of vast numbers of the poor remain beyond them, with a broad range of consequences to their well-being, they will probably have no alternative than to make themselves 'heard' by taking to the streets," says Ernest Corea, until recently a senior consultant with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) at the World Bank.
This has happened in history, and food riots of varying intensity have already taken place in several countries, he told IPS.
It was the U.S. civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. who said that "violence is the voice of the unheard", said Corea, co-author of "Revolutionising the Evolution of the CGIAR".
Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the San Francisco-based Oakland Institute, which has done exhaustive studies on issues relating to food trade and agriculture, told IPS that various causes for the current crisis are being cited in policy circles, including increased demand from China, India and other emerging economies.
The high per capita income growth of some of these countries has resulted in changing appetites.
Additionally, she noted, the price increases are also attributed to rising fuel and fertiliser costs, climate change, and the new emphasis on converting crops to biofuels, which are being held responsible for almost half the increase in the consumption of major food crops in 2006-07.
"What is not being mentioned is that in the last few decades liberalisation of agriculture, dismantling of state-run institutions like marketing boards, and specialisation of developing countries in exportable cash crops such as coffee, cocoa, cotton, and even flowers has been encouraged by international financial institutions backed by rich countries like the United States, and also by the European Union," she pointed out.
Mittal said these reforms have driven the poorest countries into a downward spiral. "Removal of tariff barriers has allowed a handful of Northern countries to capture Third World markets by dumping heavily subsidised commodities while undermining local food production," she said.
This has resulted in developing countries turning from net exporters to large importers of food, with a food trade surplus of about 1.0 billion dollars in the 1970s transforming into an 11-billion-dollar deficit in 2001.
She also said the situation has been worsened by the dismantling of marketing boards that kept commodities in a rolling stock to be released in event of a bad harvest, thus protecting both producers and consumers against sharp rises or drops in prices.
Corea blamed the crisis on inadequate investment in agriculture and the sharp decline in official development assistance (ODA) for agricultural development over several years.
Additionally, he said, there were also natural disasters and human-made impediments to agricultural development, which is the basis of food security. He pointed out that 21 of the 37 countries listed by FAO as "food crisis" countries requiring assistance have suffered from floods, droughts, and other adverse weather conditions.
And 20 of them are the scene of continuing, current or recent internal conflicts, civil strife, and large scale internal displacement of people.
Moreover, he said, there has been an increased demand for food as a result of both increased population and increased income.
Additionally, as incomes increase, the pattern of food consumption usually changes. For example, higher income earners tend to consume more meats than the poor. One consequence of this trend, he argued, is that some food stocks are diverted for processing as animal feed.
He also blamed rising food prices on subsidies to U.S. farmers for growing crops for energy, in response to the high price of oil and by-products. In 2008, a third of the country's maize output will be used in the production of ethanol and not for food production. Rising fuel prices have also increased the price of some agricultural inputs like fertiliser, and transport.
The diversion from food to fuel has already been described by some developing nations as "a crime against humanity".
Corea said there is also a lack of major agricultural research breakthroughs at the level of Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug's research triumphs that led to massive increases of cereal production in Asia and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.
Also, there has been inadequate attention to the so-called "orphan" crops -- such as millets, indigenous vegetables, local roots and tubers -- which are not commercially as important as rice, wheat and maize/corn but are essential items in the diet of the poor in 26 of the 37 "food crisis" countries.
Asked if she expects the crisis to escalate, Mittal told IPS: "The situation will get worse if the diagnosis of the problem continues to ignore the underlying causes of this crisis and fails to ask what made developing countries vulnerable in the first place.'
Asked how best the food crisis can be resolved, Mittal identified several measures, both nationally and internationally.
Firstly, it is essential to have safety nets and public distribution systems put in place to prevent widespread hunger.
The poorest countries lacking resources should call for and be provided emergency aid to set up such systems.
And donor countries should commit and provide more aid immediately to support government efforts in poor countries and respond to appeals from the U.N. agencies, she added.
Additionally, development policies should promote consumption and production of local crops raised by small, sustainable farms rather than encouraging poor nations to specialise in cash crops for western markets.
National policies involving the management of stocks and pricing, which limit the volatility of food prices, are vital for protection against such food crisis.
Lastly, she said, there is a need to adopt the principle of food sovereignty by developing countries to protect their poorest farmers and consumers.
© 2008 Inter Press Service