The skyrocketing international price of grains and other foods has Christian development groups redoubling efforts to connect farmers to local markets.
The World Bank's index of food prices rose 17 percent from August to November of 2010. In Bangladesh, where 37 million people can't afford more than 1,800 calories per day, families spend nearly half of their income on food, according to a World Vision survey.
Just as rising prices led to the overthrow of Haiti's government in 2008, analysts link food prices to the recent political turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa.
The anger directed at politicians began in the stomach. While estimates vary, the number of hungry people around the world is nearing 1 billion.
"After decades of progress, high prices are increasing world hunger," says David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World. Since 2008, the number of hungry has increased by 33 percent, or 250 million people.
No one fully understands why prices are rising, but Beckmann says most agree on four main contributors: developing countries eating more grain-fed meat; bad weather decreasing harvests; greater use of grain for ethanol; and investment banks trading in food futures contracts.
In March, Roger Thurow, author of Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, was in Kenya, where farmers are entering the hungry season—when prices double as crops are planted but not yet harvested.
The problem is that farmers' grain storage is inadequate, or there is no transportation to local markets. "When you talk to African farmers," Thurow says, "they recognize that post-harvest issues are big." Farmers, he says, are asking, "?'How do I get the best price?' But you need developed markets and communication for price discovery."
Such development is in the works, says Suzy Cheston, World Vision's senior director for agriculture. Government campaigns are successfully identifying regions where crop yields can most easily increase. However, "There's food and there's access," Cheston says. "How do we ensure people have access? It's having markets that work."
Growing more food doesn't reduce hunger on its own. For example, Ethiopia's booming harvests in 2005 collapsed prices, causing farmers to lose money and not plant the following year. Famine followed.
That's why in Bangladesh, World Vision is providing inputs, such as seed and fertilizer, to help more than 40,000 farmers grow food. But it's also linking farmers with training services in markets, microfinancing, and marketing techniques. "It's a paradigm shift," Cheston says, "that markets are part of the solution."
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Previous articles on food from Christianity Today include:
A God-Sized Food Bank | The Big Reach Center of Hope offers a lifeline to Ohio's rural poor. (January 24, 2011)
Let People Shop | Food pantries feed more, waste less with client choice. (November 23, 2010)
A Feast Fit for the King | Returning the growing fields and kitchen table to God. (November 5, 2010)