It's a crisis! We're running out of chocolate digestives

By Pascale Palmer
January 7, 2011

Food prices are rocketing but apparently we're going to be able to avoid hungry rioters because "rice is stable".

Rice, the currently stable staple, is food for more than 3 billion people in Africa and Asia, and because its price isn't going ballistic ($1000-a-tonne in 2008, but trading at nearly half that right now), and as long as poor nations don't have to import large amounts of food commodities, this food price spike shouldn't become a crisis.

And while VAT is in the throes of stinging us all in the UK, with the poorest feeling the venom more palpably than most, we are also feeling the food price pinch. Global prices have risen for the sixth month in succession, with a hike in November last year that was the largest since 1976. Wheat, sugar and meat are all on the up, with pork up by 25 per cent since the beginning of 2010.

According to The Independent, the price of wheat is set to jump again this month leaving bakers "and the makers of everything from pasta to biscuits" in a more difficult financial position.

I'm not criticising The Independent here - the information I have pulled out is part of a very bravely prioritised front page story on food commodity price rises. But what makes my mind boggle is that - pared down to the essence of the issue - while the Food and Agriculture Organisation and food aid agencies are finding some comfort in the fact that many of the poorest in the developing world will still be able to afford rice to eat, the price of digestives in the UK might send a shiver down the spine.

Of course it's absolutely no joke that the poorest in the UK will be hit by higher supermarket bills, but this puts it all into perspective a little more, no? What I'm getting at is the idea that we're working with two sets of values for living - one for the poorest in the developing world where we can all breathe a sigh of relief that bellies will be able to be filled; and another for us here where pork, poultry and pasta might not feature on the menu quite as often.

The issue of the right to food should be way beyond just existence or subsistence by now. Good nutrition is vital to the future prosperity of poorer nations; along with health care and opportunities, good food allows people to function to the best of their abilities.

I've seen this firsthand in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the insecurity of conflict means many people no longer want to farm the fecund land away from their homes and communities. So instead, they grow cassava in the poorer soil around their huts and houses. Cassava offers a rich source of carbohydrate, but very low protein and fat levels. And to top it all, it contains cyanide, which if not removed properly from the root can cause a variety of ailments. The people I met in DRC who had very little other than cassava to put in the pot were weak, and some mothers complained their children suffered from kwashiorkor - a protein deficiency that leads to loss of muscle mass and decreased immunity.

When a food crisis bounces around our economically globalised world, it does what a system led by the rich will always do and punches the poorest hard in the stomach. Then it knocks on into our wealthy economies and discussions are tabled at the highest levels to talk through solutions and ways to limit the impacts. While our governments worry we might revolt if our high standards of consumption-driven living are threatened, the poorest communities in the developing world stare hunger and worse in the face. At the very best, with approximately 80 per cent of poorest people's wages going on food, a price increase means they have to choose between eating and almost every other paid-for activity in their lives.

That means education and health care quickly go out of the window. And so the cycle of suffocating poverty begins in earnest.

We've got it bad right here in the UK, and I hate aid agency people telling me that what I'm suffering and seeing in my street and in my family isn't a patch on what's being felt in the outer reaches of the Niger Delta, or in rural Ethiopia or on the Bangladeshi side of the Sundarbans, or wherever.

So I'm not going to say it.


(c) Pascale Palmer is Media Advocacy Officer at CAFOD (

Keywords:food crisis | cafod
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