FOOD riots have broken out across the globe in recent months, highlighting a growing international crisis that carries a potentially immense human toll, one which, if left unchecked, could rock governments in dozens of developing countries.
The price of basic foodstuffs is skyrocketing. Wheat prices have risen 130 percent since last year, soy is up 87 percent, and rice, according to World Bank President Robert Zoellick, has jumped 75 percent (more in some places) in just two months.
Increases of this magnitude, while a cause for concern even for people in developed countries like the United States, are devastating to half the world's population, who live on less than $2 per day and already spend more than half that income - in some cases 75 percent or more - on food.
For them, the choice is not to buy cheaper cuts of meat (they can't afford meat), cut down their milk consumption (they can't afford milk), or eat out less often. For them, the choice is to go hungry.
Haiti, Egypt, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Mexico, Pakistan, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mauritania, and India - all of which have experienced recent social unrest linked to the rising price of food staples - are just the tip of the iceberg, Mr. Zoellick says. In all, he told CNN recently, 33 countries could face similar rapid instability.
The causes are complex but it is clear that there are several: rising fuel costs, food crops such as corn being converted to the production of bio-fuels like ethanol; drought in places such as Australia (the world's third-largest producer of wheat), and the growing demand for food from developing nations such as India and China.
The numbers are stunning, the potential for disaster staggering. In a good year, 6 million children under the age of 5 die from malnutrition worldwide and 800 million people go to bed hungry every day. So far, 2008 is not shaping up as a good year.
India, home to many of the world's poor, already distributes 15 million tons of subsidized wheat and rice to hundreds of millions of its own poor at an annual cost of $8.4 billion. By comparison, the Chicago Tribune notes, the world's biggest food-relief agency, the United Nation's World Food Program, spends $3.4 billion annually distributing 5 million tons of food to 73 million people. That agency has identified a $500 million "food gap," and the United States has pledged $200 million in emergency food aid.
That's a start, but more needs to be done to address the underlying concerns, both because it is the right thing to do and because, as was seen in Haiti, where the prime minister was sacked for not controlling food prices, hunger can carry a political cost as well.
Failure to solve this crisis will lead not only to millions more deaths from malnutrition and related diseases but also to growing unrest as the world's poor look with growing anger at their well-fed neighbors at home and abroad.