Nelly Bassily | May 5, 2008
Protesting in the streets, brandishing signs and chanting slogans such as “We are hungry, put an end to our suffering,” young Ivorians announced their discontent with the rising price of food. Alimata Camara was one of the protesters demonstrating against the high price of life in Ivory Coast, last month. She complains that, now, she is only able to eat once a day. She wonders how she will feed her children before school if food prices keep increasing. Everywhere on the African continent, people’s frustrations are similar. They lament that life has become too expensive and they can no longer feed their families. From Dakar to Maputo, prices for of basic foods have increased sharply. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the global index of food prices grew by an average of 36 per cent in 2007. The FAO also predicts that the cereal import bill for the poorest countries in Africa will increase by 74 per cent in 2008. Over the last few months, the price of rice, a staple food in many countries, has increased by over 50 per cent in Ivory Coast, 45 per cent in Senegal, 42 per cent in Mauritania, 39 per cent in Cameroon, and 300 per cent in Sierra Leone. Moreover, the price of palm oil, used by many as cooking oil, has doubled in the last few months.
What are the causes of the sharp rise in food prices?
Several factors come into play:
One of the main causes is increased demand as, each year, the world adds 28.5 million mouths to feed. Generally speaking, increased demand for any commodity will drive up the price, unless the production of that product also increases. The African population is expected to grow from 800 million to 1.8 billion by 2050. Some say that food production is not keeping pace with population growth and that better technologies must be used to mitigate this shortage. Others say enough crops are being produced to feed the world, but that there is a lack of political will to tackle the distribution of food.
At the same time, the consumption of products such as milk and beef is on the rise in emerging economies like China and India. This increases the demand for grains to feed livestock.
A third factor increasing the demand for staple crops is the production of biofuels. More farmland is being used to grow crops for ethanol and diesel, rather than food. One hundred million tons of grain are used every year to produce ethanol, contributing to the rising price of maize. Some say that the push toward ethanol production and use is creating a shift to more expensive foods such as wheat and soybeans. This, in turn, raises the price of all foods.
Another reason for increased food prices is soaring oil prices. The price of a barrel of oil continues to increase, which also increases costs related to agricultural inputs. Petroleum products are used in the manufacture of fertilizers, and underpin the functioning of agricultural tractors and food transportation.
Extreme climatic conditions are also cited as a factor. Over the past year, several African countries, such as Mozambique, have suffered from floods. Others, such as Somalia, suffer from drought. Both events decrease farmers’ yields, forcing them to raise prices in order to make a profit. Long-term drought in Australia (about 10 years) has also increased grain prices because Australia is a major global producer.
The FAO offers some solutions for those countries most affected by rising food prices. It suggests that countries should rely more strongly on local production to reduce food import bills, and that governments should subsidize agricultural inputs in order to increase food production. (In this issue of FRW, we present two articles that focus on these recommendations, one from Senegal and the other from Cameroon.)
Some governments have responded to these suggestions from the FAO. Senegal announced last week that the country needs 390 billion FCFA (approximately 920 million American dollars or 590 million Euros) to implement a plan to achieve food self-sufficiency. But, experts question their strategy, saying that the government’s vision will not truly develop the rural economy. Other governments have opted for different solutions, such as reducing taxes on essential goods and increasing wages. In Ethiopia, no hunger riots have been reported. Ethiopia’s government announced that it will continue to subsidize staple foods and increase the wages of civil servants. In Djibouti, the government abolished the domestic consumption tax on foodstuffs such as rice, milk powder, cooking oils, wheat flour, and granulated sugar.
Stories below provide a more detailed overview of the current situation with regards to soaring food prices in Burkina Faso, Malawi, Mauritania, and Somalia.