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Meagre morsels: the food crisis of 2012

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Children enjoy their lunch break at Ngoma School, Sikaneka village, Maamba district, Zambia. February 2007. The UN’s Millennium Development Goals for 2015 aim to improve primary education, reduce child mortality, promote gender equality and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. Photo: IRIN / Manoocher Deghati

1. The Dawn of Pakistan has reported that “a global race for grain trading power is putting more of the world’s vital cereals in the hands of fewer companies, with a string of recent acquisitions raising fears that consumers will pay even more for their food, while farmers are squeezed”. The report said that Archer Daniels Midland last week bid for Australia’s last independent grain handler GrainCorp, the latest in a series of moves by grain trading heavyweights to grab a larger slice of a booming market as developing economies seek food security.

2. Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz acutely observed that the invention of corn by the Mexicans is only comparable to the invention of fire by the early humans, according to this report from Voxxi. “From the inedible grass of the teocintle or teosinte, ancient Mexicans created modern corn, which was spread across Mesoamerica and eventually around the world.” The report said that the 60 or so breeds and the thousands of different varieties native to Mexico act as a genetic reservoir and a crucially important strategic good in terms of the global food supply and economy.

3. “Hunger and revolutions have always gone hand-in-hand, of course — the latter is what happens when you let them eat cake but the people have no bread,” explained this blog on Reuters. But at which point do prices pass the point of no return? Their research has found that food riots are most likely to occur when the FAO Food Price Index rises above 210. “Recognising the dangers of food speculation, six European banks – including Commerzbank, Germany’s second largest – this summer removed agricultural products from their commodity funds altogether. Wall Street, however, has not been so accommodating.”

4. Food security levels declined in 98 out of 105 countries between June and September because of rising food prices, according to updated data from the Economist Intelligence Unit and reported by Bloomberg Businessweek. The score for affordability of food dropped to 50.5 on a scale of 100 from 53.2 previously, an EIU researcher told the business magazine. Hungary, Brazil, Argentina and Russia had the biggest drops in affordability of food on a combination of economic weakness and inflation, the unit wrote. Global food prices have advanced 7.7 percent from June, according to the EIU. Among the most undernourished countries, the biggest drops in food affordability were recorded in South Africa, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Botswana, according to the report.

Food scarcity during Ramadan exacerbated by floods threatens thousands of poor people in Pakistan. Photo: IRIN / Abdul Majeed Goraya

5. The countries with the highest burden of under-nutrition, responsible for as many as 2.6 million child deaths a year, are the most exposed to food price spikes, reported The Guardian. They tend to be net importers of food, and have citizens who spend 30-60% of their income on food. When prices go up, poor people take their children out of school and prioritise foods that provide energy over nutrition. A relatively short spike can have long-term effects on the development and potential of children.

6. In August 2012, three of the eight “livelihood zones” in Burundi – around 200,000 people – were found to be at a “crisis” level of food security, or Phase 3 in the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification scale, said this All Africa report. This was variously due to recurrent drought, plant disease, poverty, lack of drinking water and land scarcity. Most of the rest of the country is in Phase 2 – also classified as “stressed” – with a risk of falling into Phase 3 “at the slightest shock”, such as flooding or hailstorms, according to Isaac Nzitunga of the Ministry of Agriculture. More than 60 percent of the population in the tiny, densely populated central African state, one still recovering from a 1993-2005 civil war which killed some 300,000 people and uprooted more than a million others, is at risk of food insecurity. Some 58 percent of children are chronically malnourished, which means their physical and intellectual development is seriously threatened.