Our translator, Sami al-Sayani, took us through the crowded, narrow streets of old Sanaa this month, to the Bab al-Yemen market area, leading the way among stalls piled high with apples, bananas and stacks of egg crates. He was unflappable until we asked about the prices of flour and other foods. "The prices are too, too high for flour," he said, demonstrably upset. The retail price of bulk, milled flour in Yemen has skyrocketed 120 percent in less than a year.
It may surprise you that a 26-year-old guy knows the price of flour at all -- let alone that he can quote its rise from memory. But Sayani has a stake in the prices that his family pays for food. He and his brothers and sisters regularly pay into the family coffers to keep the extended family unit afloat. This sort of pooled purchasing power may be all that's keeping bread on the plate these days in many corners of the world. People in the developing world are rioting over food prices, leaving dozens dead in some cities, because there's simply little or no cushion in a poor family's finances to afford even a minor increase in the cost of its food.
The world is used to hearing about hunger in the context of Darfurian refugees or crop failures and famine in sub-Saharan Africa. But now we're facing something different. Large swaths of humanity can no longer be assured that the foods they're eating today will be available tomorrow at prices they can afford -- or available at all. This is not, in fact, as silent a tsunami as a World Food Program official suggested.
Sit down, as we do, with just about any family in the developing world, for whom eating traditional foods is still the norm, and get ready for a surprise: The family's shopper (usually a woman) can tell you within an ounce or two exactly how much of each foodstuff she needs to buy to feed her family. And she could, at least until recently, tell you within a few cents what each item should cost and the expected total bill. We've experienced this in dozens of places -- the third floor of a five-floor walkup in Cairo, a subdivided shack in the Philippines, rural China and Guatemala, a Papuan jungle, the Ecuadorian Andes and sub-Saharan Africa. Susana Mendoza, of Todos Santos de Cuchamaton in Guatemala, tallied up her large family's week's worth of food in a matter of minutes.
While meeting 30 families in 24 countries for our 2005 book "Hungry Planet: What the World Eats," we saw these calculations happen daily. How much red rice does Nalim and Namgay's family of 13 eat in the course of a week at their home in Shingkhey, Bhutan? The number is quick to come -- 66 pounds, with very little waste.
Now, as we travel, we expect a more urgent calculation as prices climb skyward: How much will it cost for my children not to starve?
In Yemen, where food riots broke out in recent months, the answer to nearly every question we asked about food elicited emotions ranging from fear of malnutrition to anger over the exorbitant rise in prices. The cost of one round of traditional flat bread, roughly two slices of bread in the United States, has risen sharply, from about 10 Yemeni rials (about 2.5 cents) to 20 rials in the local bakeries. This may not sound like much to an American who's used to paying $3.50 or more for a loaf of bread, but it is to a Yemeni -- and to many others in the developing world for whom food expenditures can represent 60 to 80 percent of a family's spending.
Few of the Yemenis we met, if any, understand the reasons why food prices have risen so sharply. Even Americans awash in information are as confused and confounded as Yemenis. More than one person made a connection between higher food prices and the ongoing construction of what they call the "President's Mosque" -- a mosque named after the country's leader and reported to cost $65 million. (They had no proof, which, of course, seems an unnecessary component in any discussion about supposed government excess.)
In Yemen, when the price of bread rises, so does anger and resentment of the government. Elsewhere, because of government subsidies, the price of bread is stable, contributing to different kinds of headaches. In Iran, inflation is now up to an annual rate of 18 percent; earlier this month, that cost the economic minister his job. The bakers get government flour and are allowed to charge only a certain low rate for the bread they sell. Would Akbar Zareh, the baker we met in Yazd, like to charge more? Yes. Can he? No -- it's illegal. Would the government like to charge more for the flour? Yes. Can they? With the price of flour rising rapidly, they may have no choice.
Joao Cardoso is a fisherman in northern Brazil who lives in a floating house on the Amazon River. The world market does not drive his food security, at least in the short term. He and his wife eat fish that they catch, grow vegetables on their dock and spend only a relative pittance on other things they need, using a small government pension paid to rural retirees. They're fairly self-sufficient. If he moved to Manaus, the capital of his state, Amazonas, or some other urban area, both his diet and his financial circumstances would change greatly, and he'd suffer along with other poor urban Brazilians. Solang da Silva Correia, a cattle rancher's wife who lives two hours upriver from Cardoso, has very little expendable income, but because she and her husband raise cattle, fish and vegetables, their food security is pretty high.
Do they consider themselves poor? Yes. Do they have enough to eat? Yes. Both of these people are rural dwellers, and these days, they seem to be the lucky ones. Hundreds of millions of people have moved into cities around the world in the past 20 years. It is they, the new urban dwellers, who are increasingly being held hostage to international market forces.
The grocery lists of the two families we covered in China for "Hungry Planet" couldn't be more different. The Cuis, who live in the countryside about two hours outside Beijing, eat largely unbranded traditional foods cooked at home, much as we had seen before in our years of covering China. The Dongs, who live in Beijing proper, eat food from the global marketplace -- shopping at supersized international markets such as Ito-Yokado (Japanese) and Carrefour (French), which are quickly replacing the city's traditional mom-and-pop market stalls.
The Dongs' one-stop shopping cart overflows with traditional basics -- rice, eggs and fresh vegetables -- but it also holds the new essentials: three flavors of Haagen-Dazs ice cream, fresh whole milk, beef flank, prepared sushi, baguettes and Great Wall red wine. Though both families, urban and rural, have added a lot more meat to their diets in recent years, only the Dongs' includes American fast food. Dong Yan, 13, eats with friends at McDonald's or KFC two or three times a week, one hungry teen-ager in a country where appetites are shifting toward an increasingly complex -- and energy intensive -- palate.
The menu that people hit by this immediate crisis are using is fairly simple: flour and rice, even as these staples double or quadruple in price; cakes in Haiti made largely of mud, choked down in a desperate attempt to fill one's belly; bread baked by the military in Egypt. But from our travels, it seems that the menu items that helped create the current crisis are more complex, processed and partially hydrogenated than these modest items.
Food corporations have learned how to enter the developing world. Few of the families we met could afford a week's worth of a processed food item at one time, so the global food companies make their wares more affordable by offering them in single-serving packets. In Manila, individual portions of "foods" such as imitation-cheese spreads, chips and spiced rice dishes are much like the convenience packs sold in the United States. Highly processed foods are making inroads into the diets of the developing world, and with that comes dependence.
We have visited hundreds of families in their kitchens and homes around the world over the last 15 years, and both here and abroad, we have seen a grand march toward unsustainability as some of us play catch up and the rest of us play keep up. Nearly everyone would love to have the wealth and choices that we enjoy in the United States. But that aspiration toward overflowing grocery aisles, with gas-guzzling trucks feeding a new appetite for imitation cheese spread, seems impossible to sustain. And it could lead to flour sacks full of nothing.
© 2008 The Washington Post