Sydney: From the rice paddies of Asia to the wheat fields of Australia, the soaring price of food is breaking the budgets of the poor and raising the spectres of hunger and unrest, experts warn.
A billion people in Asia are seriously affected by the surging costs of daily staples such as rice and bread, said Rajat Nag, director general of the Asian Development Bank, or ADB.
“This includes roughly about 600 million people who live on just under a dollar a day, which is the definition of poverty, and another 400 million who are just above that borderline,” he said.
India’s top farm scientist and architect of the 1960s “Green Revolution,” M.S. Swaminathan, has said India needs a second agricultural revolution to boost food supplies or face huge social turmoil.
Globally, the World Bank last month estimated that 33 countries were threatened with political and social unrest because of the skyrocketing costs of food and energy.
Across Asia, workers made a campaign against high food prices their May Day battle cry last Thursday in marches through cities including the capitals of Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. While the demonstrations were mainly peaceful, concern is growing over the potential for political instability and unrest if high prices persist.
“Once people get hungry, they start also getting quite desperate and take desperate measures,” said Damien Kingsbury of Australia’s Deakin University.
Experts blame the high food prices on a confluence of factors, including increased demand from a changing diet in Asia, droughts, the rising use of crops for biofuels, and growing energy and fertilizer costs.
In Australia, which usually ranks second after the US as a global wheat exporter, several years of drought cut harvests to just 13 million tonnes (mt) last year from an average of 22mt. So while consumers are struggling, Australian farmers are not getting rich on the backs of the poor, said National Farmers Federation chief executive Ben Fargher.
“It’s been the worst drought in our history and many, many farming families are under significant financial and emotional stress and it will take our communities a long time to recover,” he said.
And even in a relatively prosperous country like Australia, people are feeling the squeeze in the supermarkets, prompting the government to launch an inquiry into how to stem rising grocery prices.
In a phrase particularly chilling for Asia, the World Food Programme has described rising food prices as a “silent tsunami”.