Oxfam: global food crisis will worsen - 1bn hungry people need help now

Urgent action is needed to prevent hundreds of millions more people slipping into hunger as a result of volatile food prices and increasing energy and water scarcity, said international agency Oxfam today. Decades of underinvestment in agriculture coupled with the increasing threat of climate change mean that despite recent price falls, future food security is by no means guaranteed, and in fact the situation could get worse, said Oxfam on the opening day of a UN conference in Madrid to address the issue.

Oxfam’s warning comes on the day that two new reports are published, detailing the threats to global food security and exposing the lack of adequate coordinated international action to tackle hunger.

The reports, A Billion Hungry People and The Feeding of the Nine Billion are published by Oxfam and the UK think tank, Chatham House respectively, and together are a call to action to politicians, and representatives from the private sector and civil society meeting to discuss the implementation of the UN Taskforce’s response.

Although global food prices have fallen in the last few months, they are not back to previous levels, and are likely to rise sharply again in the future. Furthermore, price volatility itself is a problem, and more needs to be done to address the underlying structural issues that cause the chronic hunger affecting 1 in 6 people in the world today, says Oxfam.

Carlos Galian, agricultural policy expert at Oxfam, said: “This should be a wake-up call for all those who believe that the food crisis is over. World leaders have a window of opportunity to prevent a worse situation resulting from the triple crunch of the economic crisis, climate change, and energy and water scarcity. They must act urgently to turn their plans into coordinated action that addresses immediate needs and begins to implement long-term reforms. Failure to act will see millions more people falling into hunger."

Oxfam said current severe food shortages in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are evidence that the global food crisis is far from over (see annex). Even before recent price rises, there were over 850m people classified as undernourished. Now, there are nearly a billion, as a result of the price rises, alongside other factors such as political instability and conflict.

“Not enough has been done to tackle the situation. There is a lack of coordination at all levels and the opportunity for root and branch reform of the aid system has not yet been taken. International institutions and donors must reverse decades of under-investment in agriculture and scrap blatantly distortionary polices such as biofuels mandates that make things worse,” said Galian, who is attending the conference.

“The recent decision by the EU to reinstate export subsidies for dairy is the direct opposite of what’s needed: a retrograde step that calls into question their commitment to longer term reforms,” he added.

The Feeding of the Nine Billion, published by Chatham House and part-funded by Oxfam, predicts demand for food will increase as the world’s population grows by 2.5bn to 9.2bn by 2050. It also notes a UN prediction that climate change will increase the number of undernourished people worldwide by between 40m and 170m.

Meanwhile, Oxfam’s A Billion Hungry People includes recommendations for reform of the humanitarian aid system and makes a strident call to poor countries to do their bit by investing more in agriculture, targeting women and small-scale producers. Developing countries must increase social protection measures for vulnerable populations – including cash payments and employment creation programs for those at risk of hunger. Rich countries must ensure long-term predictable funding to developing countries for investment in agriculture and climate change adaptation.

Notes to editors

Annex 1 - The Food Crisis in Figures

  • One in six of the world’s population is hungry, almost a billion people.
  • 13 million children are born annually with intrauterine growth restriction meaning that stunting sets in even before children are born due to the hunger experienced by the mother.
  • Between 50 and 60 % of all childhood deaths in the developing world are hunger related.
  • The risk of death is 2.5 times higher for children with only mild malnutrition than it is for children who are adequately nourished.
  • The proportion of overseas development assistance spent on agriculture has fallen from almost a fifth in 1980 to just 3 per cent today.
  • Poor people are particularly vulnerable to changes in food prices with many spending up to 80 per cent of their income on food.
  • Even before the recent crisis:
    • More than 24,000 people died of hunger related causes every day
    • Five million children under the age of 5 died every year of hunger related causes
    • 16,000 children died every day of hunger-related causes – one every five seconds

Annex 2 – The Continuing Crisis

Afghanistan

Five million people are acutely affected by the food crisis in Afghanistan with a further 8.5 people suffering from chronic food insecurity.

Afghanistan is particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in global prices as the country’s agricultural production has dropped by half as a result of war, displacement of people, persistent drought and flooding.

Oxfam is helping to build grain banks for 31 communities in Daikundi province. These allow communities to buy in grain when it is cheap, and distribute it to those most in need to see them through the winter without taking loans or selling livestock. 1,814 households (approximately 9,000 people) are receiving grain.

Ethiopia

Surveys by NGOs reveal high and increasing levels of malnutrition and poor food security.

Despite falls in food prices on global markets, the cost of cereal in Ethiopia remains 54 to 338 per cent higher than at the same time last year.

Recent price increases following the harvest are of particular concern as this should be when prices are at their lowest.

Despite these concerns the World Food Program faces a $359 million shortfall for its relief program. Oxfam is supporting more than 110,000 vulnerable women, men and children by providing water, food, and a means of earning a living.

Kenya

With 10 million people at risk of food shortages, the Kenyan government earlier this month (January 2009) declared a national emergency and appealed for $400 million in aid. The emergency has been caused by a combination of drought; high food prices, and the effect of post-election violence in early 2008 that disrupted farming in the Rift Valley, the country's breadbasket.

After the severe drought in 2005-6, Oxfam's program in Turkana and Wajir has been focusing on drought preparedness and improving people's resilience, including better access to water.

Mozambique

Seven out of 11 provinces in Mozambique face acute food problems because of poor harvests. The UN estimates that 350,000 people are in need of food aid after large areas of the country received less than half the usual rainfall since October.

The World Food Program has warned that without additional money it will run out of food supplies next month. Oxfam supports poor farmers to improve their access to sufficient food by using different agricultural methods and diversifying their crops. The program also supports farmers’ income opportunities by improving their access to markets.

Zimbabwe

Five million people, almost half the country’s population, are dependent on food aid. Another million people are in need of aid but are not receiving it because donors have not provided sufficient money. Rations given to hungry families have already been cut once and may have to be slashed further next month because there is not enough food to go around.

A recent survey by the World Food Program found that one out of eight households had not eaten anything the previous day. In October 2008 Oxfam began a six-month food aid program providing support to 165,000 vulnerable people in Midlands province. We are now expanding this to reach around 250,000 people. We are also providing farmers with seeds and fertilizer.

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