UNITED NATIONS - "A rolling tsunami of social unrest is underway as we speak -- hungry people are desperate people capable of taking desperate actions. This tsunami is rapidly enveloping the global South, and it won't take much longer before it knocks at the door of the global North," warned Vicente Garcia-Delgado, the U.N. representative for CIVICUS, the world alliance for citizen participation.
At a forum on the world food crisis held at the United Nations Friday, civil society groups stressed that over 800 million people are now at risk of starvation, while 100 million have joined the ranks of the extremely poor in just the last few months and are now living on less than a dollar a day.
The food price index of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation rose by 9 percent in 2006 and 23 percent in 2007. As of March this year, wheat and maize prices were 130 and 30 percent higher than a year earlier. Rice prices have more than doubled since late January.
A new briefing this week by the U.N. Economic and Social Council says that the poor, especially in urban areas but also the rural landless and small farmers who are net food buyers, have been most vulnerable to food price hikes, as a very high proportion of their household income is spent on food.
However, "Even within rich countries, increasingly large portions of the population are having real problems bringing food to the table and paying for other basic necessities," Garcia-Delgado said.
He stressed that the peace and security challenges presented by the hunger crisis and climate change must be understood as global challenges, calling for global solutions that address the concerns of all nations and peoples.
"Governments must not fall prey to the temptation to seek unilateral solutions based on defensive or militaristic non-solutions. It would be extremely dangerous to look at the current crisis strictly from a national perspective. A knee-jerk resort to a 'fortress America' or a 'fortress Europe' type of mentality would only exacerbate the risks of social and political chaos and will not work," Garcia-Delgado said.
Asma Lateef, director of bread for the World Institute, a Christian grassroots advocacy organisation that lobbies on issues of hunger and poverty in the United States and around the world, said that rising global food prices are being driven by at least four structural changes.
According to Lateef, one factor is growing demand for food and diversified diets, including meat, in many developing countries as people have begun to escape poverty and seen a rise in their incomes.
Secondly, she pointed out the competition for land use and diversion of crops posed by biofuels; thirdly, weather-related crop failures possibly associated with climate change, for example, the decline in wheat production due to an extended drought in Australia; and lastly, rising oil prices, as all contributing to food inflation.
Lateef called on donors, including the U.S., to strive to get the maximum benefit out of food aid resources by reducing restrictions on the procurement and shipping of food aid.
She stressed that the current food aid system must be well resourced, efficient, and flexible because "the capacity of the food aid system is being severely tested as the world tries to cope with this crisis, the recent disasters in Myanmar and China and ongoing humanitarian efforts."
"Furthermore, countries need to be encouraged to relax or avoid export restrictions on food. This only exacerbates the global problem. We need to take a global approach," she said.
"Special lines of credit and guarantees should be also made available to enable net food importing countries to meet the needs of poor people and continue to purchase food on international markets, in ways that do not raise debt burdens or impose more than the minimum conditionality," Lateef said.
Alan Imai, co-director of Shumei International Institute, who shared his successful experiences working with a women farmers' cooperative in Zambia, added that in addition to immediate action, the international community needs to consider long-term solutions that will lead to sustainable food production and economic development.
He also stressed the importance of empowerment of local communities and involving them in decision-making. "The United Nations, governments and other involved organisations must consult with, trust, and listen to local farmers in order to empower them toward self sufficiency, instead of depending on a few scientists and companies, whose motives and perspective cannot be the same as those who are running out of food," Imai said.
Garcia-Delgado said that there is certainly the temptation to cry out "We told you so!"
"Years of foot-dragging, unkept promises, endless negotiations, a slow response to climate change, and the refusal to harness market globalisation -- these are some of the principal reasons which have brought us to the sorry predicament we find ourselves at the beginning of the 21st century," he said.
© 2008 Inter Press Service