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Rising cost of food is wreaking havoc on Central America

Marla Dickerson, Los Angeles Times via Boston Globe
There is no shortage of good things to eat in the open-air Wholesale Market here in Nicaragua’s capital. Canvas sacks groan with rice and lentils. White eggs are stacked neatly, 30 to a box, fresh from the hens that laid them.

But talk to merchants and shoppers and they’ll tell you stories of want, not bounty. The fallout from exploding global prices for grains and fuel has landed hard on this impoverished Central American nation of 5.7 million people.

Bean seller Blanca Castro said most of her customers were buying less than they were just a few months ago. Some are stooping to humiliating lengths for bargains.

“They root through the garbage,” Castro said. “I see more of this every day.”

Much of Latin America has benefited from soaring global prices for agricultural commodities and petroleum. Venezuela and Mexico are flush with oil profits. Good times are rolling for soybean farmers in Argentina and Brazil.

But in Central America, a major importer of grain and oil, the price increases are wreaking havoc on already fragile economies. The region’s presidents are slated to gather here today for an emergency summit on food security. Aid agencies are warning of rising social tensions in countries where a typical day’s wages won’t buy a gallon of gas and food inflation is breaking family budgets.
(7 May 2008)

Burma cyclone fuels rice price increase

Rice prices have risen for the fourth consecutive day, as tight supplies are aggravated by the disaster in Burma’s key rice-growing region.

The cost of rice, the staple food for almost half the world’s population, increased by 2.4% to $21.6 per 100lb on the Chicago Board of Trade.

Cyclone Nargis, which has killed tens of thousands of people, struck areas where 65% of Burma’s rice is grown.

The disaster comes as rice and other food prices are already soaring.

The higher price of US long-grain rice in Chicago has been replicated around the world, with Thai and India rice also increasing sharply.

The cyclone hit the Irrawaddy delta and other key rice-growing areas in Burma.
(7 May 2008)

Catastrophe may leave Burma unable to feed itself, food experts warn

Rhys Blakely and Leo Lewis, UK TImes
The cyclone that has devastated Burma is set to push world rice prices higher and may also jeopardise the country’s long-term ability to feed its own population, Asian food experts said yesterday.

As well as causing a catastrophic loss of life, Cyclone Nargis appears to have been at its fiercest in Burma’s main rice-growing region, the Irrawaddy delta. With global food prices at their most sensitive for three decades, the effects are expected to reverberate around the world.
(6 May 2008)

Romanian farmland prices set to triple due to rising food prices

Cristina Stoian, Ziarul Financiar (Romania)
The soaring prices of agricultural products in recent months have raised investors’ interest in cultivating grain on ever-larger areas, which is driving up the price of agricultural land.

At present, the average price per one hectare of agricultural land stands at 1,500 euros and players in the field say this is going to triple in the next three years.

… On agricultural ad websites, hundreds of farmers have shown an interest in buying land, most opting for compact areas.

Wheat prices have reached record highs in the past few months, and have traded domestically at as much as 250 euros per tonne (900 RON/tonne), namely 0.24 euros/kg (0.86 RON/kg), after the value of wheat in April was 150% higher than in the same period of last year. The same is happening in the case of sunflower and maize, with prices having doubled and even tripled.

Major farmers, who hold over 10,000 hectares and want to expand, are also finding it hard to find compact areas. This comes as grain production is expected to surge by over 70% this year from 2007, in the context where prices will stay high because of the agricultural product shortage registered globally in the past year.

… Seen as a non-lucrative field for a long time, agriculture has started to attract businessmen’s attention especially in the past year, after agricultural product prices tripled against the previous year amid the high global demand both for consumption and for bio-fuel production. Prices have also been boosted by foreign investors’ rising interest in the unexploited land of Romania, with an extremely high growth potential. Despite the law banning them from buying land from Romania until 2014, foreigners can buy from small farmers if they register a firm in Romania
(7 May 2008)

Liberalizing Food Trade to Death

Shawn Hattingh, MR-Zine (Monthly Review)
People across the world, from Mexico to Mozambique, have once again been taking to the streets in protest. The reason is to demand that their most basic need be met: access to food. With food prices skyrocketing over the last few months, billions of people around the globe have been relentlessly driven towards starvation. The various states in which these protests have taken place have reacted swiftly and brutally. They have deployed security forces armed with shields, batons, water cannons, stun grenades, tear gas, rifles, and even machine guns against the protestors. Hundreds of people have been killed.1

Billions of people are struggling to afford food because of the huge disparities and inequalities that have been exacerbated by the current economic system — neo-liberal globalization. Over the last 30 years, almost all states across the world have adopted neo-liberal economic policies. Neo-liberal policies have favored giant corporations’ interests over those of people and have enabled a handful of companies to gain a virtual monopoly over the human food chain and make massive profits. The poor, however, have suffered consequences of neo-liberal policies: if people can’t afford the prices these monopolistic companies charge, they don’t get food.

The World Has Not Always Been This Way

Prior to the advent of neo-liberalism in the late 1970s, most governments across the world assisted small-scale farmers within their borders, providing them with various forms of subsidies. For example, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, various state-run entities were created to offer small-scale farmers assistance in the forms of research, cheap credit, marketing services, transport,, and processing services.2 Many states even subsidized the seeds, compost and equipment that small-scale farmers needed.3 Third World states also applied high import tariffs on staple foods such as maize, potatoes, rice, beans, grain, and poultry, to protect small- and medium-sized farmers from dumping and cheap imports. A number of states also played an active role during this period in helping small-scale farmers establish cooperatives. The result was that between 1950 and 1980, small- and medium-sized farmers met most of the food needs of their own countries. Even many countries in the South had enough affordable food for their entire populations.

Shawn Hattingh is a research and education officer at the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) in Cape Town.
(6 May 2008)
Similar essay from Food First: Food Crisis in the Age of Unregulated Global Markets.

Urban Farmers’ Crops Go From Vacant Lot to Market

Tracie McMillan, New York Times
… Growing up in rural Jamaica, the Wilkses helped their families raise crops like sugar cane, coffee and yams, and take them to market. Now, in Brooklyn, they are farmers once again, catering to their neighbors’ tastes: for scallions, for bitter melons like those from the West Indies and East Asia and for cilantro for Latin-American dinner tables.

“We never dreamed of it,” said Mr. Wilks, nor did his relatives in Jamaica. “They are totally astonished when you tell them that you farm and go to the market.”

For years, New Yorkers have grown basil, tomatoes and greens in window boxes, backyard plots and community gardens. But more and more New Yorkers like the Wilkses are raising fruits and vegetables, and not just to feed their families but to sell to people on their block.

This urban agriculture movement has grown even more vigorously elsewhere. Hundreds of farmers are at work in Detroit, Milwaukee, Oakland and other areas that, like East New York, have low-income residents, high rates of obesity and diabetes, limited sources of fresh produce and available, undeveloped land.

Local officials and nonprofit groups have been providing land, training and financial encouragement. But the impetus, in almost every case, has come from the farmers, who often till when their day jobs are done, overcoming peculiarly urban obstacles.
(7 May 2008)