WITH all eyes on London, British Prime Minister David Cameron used the Olympics this month to highlight hunger.
The United Kingdom hopes to raise enough aid to save 25 million children aged under 5 from malnutrition by the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Cameron's opportunism is not surprising -- it is harder to solicit help for those who don't consume enough of the right foods than for walking skeletons who have nothing to eat at all. Famine can still occur, of course, in one or two chronically distressed regions, such as Africa's Sahel. Few die of starvation any more, however, but many millions barely survive above it, and suffer disease and disability as a result. The toll on children is especially heart-rending.
It goes from bad to worse when food prices rise. Families already on the margins will then be able to afford less of the usual staples, and skimp further on a diet that is already low in essential micronutrients. The commodities boom before the fall in 2008 sent large numbers over the edge, sharply reversing years of successful poverty alleviation in the developing world. In February last year, the Food Price Index set up by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) spiked up to a level even higher than three years earlier, before settling down rather quickly a few months later. In July, the index rose six per cent, mostly the result of the worst drought in 50 years in the world's most productive agricultural country, the United States. Prices for maize rose 23 per cent and for wheat 19 per cent. FAO also reported that lower rainfall could affect grain output in India and Australia. Rice prices have thankfully remained stable.
Green revolutions and advances in agronomy have ensured that the world is capable of growing enough food. But the planet's bread baskets are unevenly distributed and susceptible to weather disruptions. On top of that, many developing countries have neglected their agricultural sectors without compensating improvements in their trading positions, which would at least allow them to buy from the open market. Much of the Middle East, for example, is in food deficit. Its biggest country, Egypt, is also the world's biggest importer of wheat. Food riots in 2008 had served as a dry run for the broader and more momentous protests of the subsequent Arab Spring. Because of the considerable upheaval they can cause, food prices certainly bear watching. Supply and demand should be balanced. Nations should properly motivate farmers, and work together towards not only their own food security but that of the entire global community.