The Growing Food Cost Crisis

Sharp price hikes are hurting the poor and sparking violence

A peasant woman with a basket of corncobs joins a demonstration against high corn prices in Mexico City.

A peasant woman with a basket of corncobs joins a demonstration against high corn prices in Mexico City.

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In fact, the benefit to farmers may offer hope for those affected most: residents of poor and politically unstable countries. For decades, poor farmers in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, saddled by low returns on crops, have had little to invest in production-boosting techniques. Now higher prices, if supplemented by government support, could eventually lead to better yields. There is no guarantee, of course, that governments will respond, but public attention can often illuminate otherwise ignored problems. United Nations representatives, for instance, have already called on the European Union to ease its long-standing opposition to genetically modified foods.

For now, however, the situation is grim. Relief programs, including USAID and the U.N. World Food Program, are predicting huge budget shortfalls because of soaring crop prices. usaid, predicting a $200 million gap this year, is considering making deep cuts to some of its emergency programs, such as those in Iraq and Sudan. Meanwhile, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as in Latin America and West Africa, millions are growing dissatisfied with their governments. "There is a reason why politicians for hundreds of years have been emphasizing a chicken in every pot," said UNWFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran. "Food is the most basic requirement of society. When prices go up, the pressures come quicker."