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Relief for World Food Crisis Made More Difficult by Cyclones, Riots

May 5, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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In the wake of the devastating cyclone in Myanmar and widespread rioting in Somalia, the international community continues to try and respond with food relief programs to confront the rising need. World Food Program's head Josette Sheeran discusses the relief efforts.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on that, we turn to Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations World Food Program.


How has the World Food Program had to respond to the storms in Burma?

JOSETTE SHEERAN, Executive Director, United Nations World Food Program: Well, they have really taken their toll.

We have planned an emergency operation, which should be approved tomorrow, to reach 500,000 people with emergency food assistance. And we’re also worried because these storms have hit right in the middle of the rice harvest. And we’re worried about the food lost, as we saw last year in Bangladesh, where we lost 300,000 acres of food production in the storm.

So, we are worried about the immediate-term effect and making sure we reach people and save lives, but also the food that is lost for kind of future needs.

RAY SUAREZ: Wasn’t there already a tight food supply situation in Southeast Asia, with rice in particular?

JOSETTE SHEERAN: There is a tight food situation all over the world, including in Southeast Asia. So, we can’t really afford to lose any of this production there. So, we will be monitoring that situation also and looking at how much we have lost as soon as things settle down.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, when there is a catastrophe like that, where do you get the grain from on an emergency basis, if the neighbors can’t immediately pony it up?

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Well, Ray, this is becoming an increasing problem.

Today, more and more nations have shut down the ability to export food. And, in fact, we’re really appealing globally for nations to allow at least for humanitarian purchases, even when they block exports of food right now, because we’re having more and more trouble buying just to help people that are the victims of war or storms or just severe abject hunger.

Aid groups struggle with food price

Josette Sheeran
United Nations World Food Programme
We reach 20 million kids a year, for example, with a cup of food. It's all they get. It's one cup of porridge. Today, I can buy 40 percent less food for this cup then I could last June, just due to the soaring prices.

RAY SUAREZ: So, absent emergencies, just the spikes in the price of basic foodstuffs have hit your ability to help people?

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Well, it has.

I have brought with me a cup from Rwanda. This is from our school feeding site. We reach 20 million kids a year, for example, with a cup of food. It's all they get. It's one cup of porridge. Today, I can buy 40 percent less food for this cup then I could last June, just due to the soaring prices.

So, just when the world's most vulnerable people, mostly women and children, can't afford the food themselves, our ability to help them has been severely hit.

RAY SUAREZ: In the past month, you have been sending out a worldwide appeal, looking for an extra $500 million in food aid, in donations to help you make up for those price rises. Have you gotten the response you needed?

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Well, I'm pleased to report the American people have been very generous.

President Bush announced earlier this week a huge contribution that will total about a billion dollars for both immediate needs and for the longer-term agricultural production challenges we're seeing right now in the developing world. And, so, I urge Congress to consider that. And they have already been considering helping in a major way.

And then other countries have stepped up to the plate, Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe, Japan, and others. So, we're about 60 percent there. And we will keep pushing to close the gap, so we can keep this cup full.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, when something like the typhoon happens, it's not just a question of keeping people alive today and tomorrow with emergency supplies. Don't you have to bridge them all the way up until the next harvest?

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Well, it depends on the complexity of the situation.

But this is why the World Food Program, rather than just handing out food, over the past 40 years, has planted, for example, five billion trees with people who have to reestablish soil stability, reestablish their crops after a severe weather disaster, like an earthquake or a cyclone.

So, we actually cannot leave until food production is back online, as you said, roads are reopened, farmland is reestablished, irrigation dikes are back in. So, we do a lot of what we call food for training and food for work to rebuild these communities after a disaster.

World developments add to crisis

Josette Sheeran
United Nations World Food Programme
I have talked about a perfect storm for the world's most vulnerable, with the soaring food prices and the soaring fuel prices. And Somalia is probably a perfect example, unfortunately, of this perfect storm.

RAY SUAREZ: Because, in the case of Myanmar, two big rice production areas were destroyed by this storm. So, that means you may be having to help people there for a long time, no?

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Well, hopefully not.

I mean people are anxious to get their self-sufficiency back. No one likes to depend on anyone else for the basic food for their family. That's a basic need that people want to feel secure over.

But it depends on how quickly we can get back on track there. And it depends on cooperation with the government. And it depends on how much we can bring in to rebuild and how quickly, how much financial support we can get to work with the people there.

RAY SUAREZ: Elsewhere in the world, Somalia, in the past day, there have been food riots. Now, in the case of Mogadishu, the capital city, the price of cornmeal has gone up double just in the last couple of weeks. A 110 pound sack of rice has gone up about 60, 70 percent.

Why is that happening?

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Well, Ray, I have talked about a perfect storm for the world's most vulnerable, with the soaring food prices and the soaring fuel prices. And Somalia is probably a perfect example, unfortunately, of this perfect storm.

The food prices have doubled, as they have all over the world. Plus, they have a drought. And, so, we expect to increase the urgent need there from 1.2 million people we're serving today to 2.4 million over the coming months. That's what the current assessments show is urgently needed.

But, right now, we're facing a massive pipeline break in our food there, because we have purchased it in Kenya. But Kenya has shut down exports for their own purposes because food supplies are so tight.

And, so, we're seeing this kind of global phenomenon of tight supplies and high prices hitting countries like Somalia extremely hard, and even making our ability to help them much more complicated than it had been just a year ago.

Market and energy prices converge

United Nations World Food Programme

RAY SUAREZ: So, if you are trying to help, do you give money or food? Because giving food changes local market conditions at the same time.

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Well, we have to come in with a very nuanced response.

Right now, we're seeing what I call a new face of hunger, which is, in many places, there's food on the shelves and people are simply priced out of the food market. And, so, they can't buy it, but it's there.

In those cases, we want to come in and give a voucher or something to help people get through that very difficult period and make up the difference with the 40, 50, 60 percent increase in food prices.

This is urgent, because we're seeing people, for example, in Burundi, eating moldy cassava flour, just reduced to basic diets that have no nutrition, or, in Haiti, for example, children eating mud cakes. You do that for a few weeks or a few months, and a child really -- that will be with them for a lifetime, the loss in nutrition.

So, we want to get in and help those who -- where there is food, but they can't get it. In some countries right now, import-dependent countries, they don't have enough food. And they cannot afford to import it. And, in those cases, they're asking us to help either the government purchase the food or for us to help bring in the food to help them get through this very challenging time.

RAY SUAREZ: You spoke briefly about the rise in energy prices around the world and how this is affecting food. But what about taking food and turning it into energy? Has that changed the -- what's waiting in the marketplace for the world's poorest consumers?

JOSETTE SHEERAN: Well, there's been a huge soar in demand for food.

It's both from hungry populations that are increasing their spending power, such as China and India. But also, as oil prices are so high, it has become more attractive to use food as an input for industrial purposes or for fuel for cars. This is a global phenomenon. It's happening in the U.S. It's happening in Africa with cassava or palm oil. It's happening in Europe with wheat.

So, we're seeing, in a very tight supply market, the demand for food for fuel use, the demand for food for animal feed, because people in China now are eating twice the amount of meat that they did 20 years ago. So, there's just a lot of demand on a very tight supply. And it's driving these prices through the roof.

RAY SUAREZ: Josette Sheeran of the World Food Program, thanks a lot.