LIMA, Peru (CNS): As protests over rising food costs spread around the globe, experts warn that high prices are here to stay, and Catholic bishops are calling for governments to take emergency measures to keep their poorest citizens from going hungry.
Already this year, demonstrations linked to spiralling food prices have struck more than a dozen countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Protests forced Haitian Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis out of office on April 12, and demonstrators have been killed in Cameroon, Peru and Mozambique.
The price increases are fuelled by a variety of factors that “are all coming together at once”, said Lisa Kuennen, who is director of the public resource group at Catholic Relief Services, the United States bishops’ international relief and development agency.
Drought last year in Australia and Canada pushed wheat prices up, while flooding destroyed crops in various countries, she said.
High oil prices have increased the price of petroleum-based fertilisers and increased transportation costs.
Another factor is the rising standard of living in China and India, which has led to increased demand for luxury foods such as meat and milk.
Because it takes 3.2 to 3.6kg of grain to produce a kilogram of meat, increased meat consumption drives up demand for grain and, therefore, the price.
In China, per-capita milk consumption quadrupled between 1990 and 2000, while poultry consumption more than doubled and the consumption of fish nearly doubled. In India, the consumption of meat, milk and fish also has increased.
Price increases hit poor countries – and their poorest citizens – hardest.
In Guatemala, the price of tortillas, a staple food, has risen 30 per cent in the past few months.
Poor Mexicans workers earning the minimum wage of about $4 a day now spend as much as one-third of their earnings on tortillas for the family.
“There has been an uncontrollable rise in the price of tortillas and other basic elements,” Mexican Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel of San Cristobal de Las Casas said last year.
“Society and the Church have to support social development programs so that the poor can be self-sufficient and not have to depend eternally on government and private help.”