Food for thought

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Features - Features from Freeq

Before you read any further, pause for a moment and imagine what life would be like if you made less than £1 a day - that's just a few pounds a week to cover all your living costs. Not so rosy is it? Now imagine how you'd feel if you had to spend 80 per cent of this meagre sum on basic food items, leaving you precious little for anything else. This the reality for around 2.7 billion people, Oxfam says, now that food costs have reached record levels - the highest for 25 years. Consumers in the UK are most definitely feeling the pinch, with higher grocery bills adding to the misery already caused by the credit crunch and soaring petrol costs.

The rocketing prices have made life quite uncomfortable for many of us in this country. However, as Oxfam's director of campaigns and policy Phil Bloomer points out, for the world's poorest citizens it has turned an already desperate situation into a full-on crisis. "Food inflation might cause pain in rich countries - but it is shattering entire economies and people's lives in developing countries," he says.

So, how bad is it? Well, according to figures from the UN, the international price for rice has gone up by 75%, vegetable oils by 60%, dairy products by 83% and wheat by 125%. The bottom line is that the global food crisis - dubbed the "silent tsunami" - has made basic staples unaffordable for many.

It's estimated that more than 850 million worldwide do not have enough to eat each day, with 90 percent of these live in poverty in developing nations. To make matters worse, the World Bank has now forecast that the rapid increase in food prices could add up to 100 million people to this count.

Suddenly, mutterings in the media of an impending "international catastrophe" don't sound over-dramatic after all.

A range of factors are said to have contributed to the present situation. There has been higher demand for food in fast-developing nations, such as China and India. The high price of oil has pushed up the cost of making and transporting grain and rice.

Meanwhile, more and more agricultural land is now being used for the highly profitable production of biofuels, which use maize crop to produce ethanol for vehicles. To make matters worse, the past year's extreme weather in some areas has made food production even more volatile.

Some anti-poverty groups believe a key portion of the blame lies with market liberalisation policies, which see poor countries in Asia, Africa and the Pacific forced to rely on imports from wealthier nations. A new report - ‘Fighting Food Shortages: Hungry for Change' - published by development agency Christian Aid, has condemned these policies.

The report's lead author Oliver Pearce even goes so far as to describe them as ‘ruinous'. He explains: "Markets have been prised open for heavily subsidised food exports from richer nations. Local farmers and agricultural businesses have found themselves undercut and been forced out of business."

Christian Aid is concerned that allowing international companies to compete with local farmers in poor nations could "undermine" their agricultural sector and result in "long term negative effects for poverty, food security and the environment".

So far, so complex. But what can be done? Development agencies are calling for urgent global action from political leaders. Christian Aid wants to see the international community make a "concerted effort" to support agricultural industries in developing nations, for instance by helping small-scale farmers with investment and infrastructure.

Meanwhile, debt campaigners are calling for the cancellation of debts of countries most seriously affected by the crisis. Jubilee Debt Campaign director Nick Dearden says: "It is shocking that while many millions of people in the world are going short of food, their governments are still being forced to shell out millions of pounds a week to rich countries and banks."

He's right. It really is shocking. So next time you sit down to a slap-up meal, spare a thought for those who haven't eaten in days. Better still, get yourself online and get stuck into some campaigning action.