Food Insecurity a Chronic Problem in Mozambique

BY Talea Miller  October 18, 2010 at 3:00 PM EST

Beach in Maputo MAPUTO, MOZAMBIQUE | Maputo’s streets were buzzing with commercial activity Monday and its beaches packed over the weekend with families having picnics and friends sharing beers.

But just last month, there was a very different scene here: riots over a hike in food and water prices raged for three days and ended with 13 people dead. The government has since reduced prices by reinstating the food subsidies it cut prior to the riots, but the chronic problems of hunger and food insecurity remain in this impoverished nation.

The NewsHour’s Global Health team is in Mozambique this week to shoot a series of reports that will air in November. We arrived just in time for World Food Day, Oct. 16, a day created to bring more attention to these issues.

Prices for staple foods like bread have climbed steadily over the last year in Mozambique, where more than 44 percent of children are chronically malnourished, according to the recently dismissed minister of health, Dr. Ivo Garrido. The country was given a rating of “alarming” on the Global Hunger Index released last week, even while being cited for improvements.

Vincent Augusteu is a tailor from Maputo who alters clothing in an outdoor market stall. He told the NewsHour it’s hard for him to afford rice for his family of five now, and he sees other families struggling as well.

“It has become more difficult, I am running out of clients,” he said. “They are spending more money on food, they don’t have money to pay me.”

Mozambique is a prime example of a country dependent on imports for food – only 30 percent of the country’s wheat is grown domestically, so price changes in the global market can have a swift impact. Grain prices shot up over the summer because of response to severe drought and fires in Russia, a large wheat-producing country, and corn prices jumped again last week on a new assessment of the U.S. crop yield.

Keith Wiebe, deputy director of the agricultural development economics division of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, said that 2010′s crop yield is actually quite good and is on track to be the third largest cereal harvest on record. In addition, some of Mozambique’s food price problems were caused by a devaluation of its currency, he said, making a chain effect similar to the widespread food riots seen in 2007 and 2008 highly unlikely.

But Wiebe warned that increases in staple crop prices affect those in the developing world more severely because they are often buying the grain itself, instead of a processed food item. Those in the developing world also have less room in their budgets to reallocate, he said.

“When prices go up in the United States or Europe it means very little for most people, because we spend a relatively small share of total income on food– maybe 10 or 20 percent,” Wiebe said. “It’s much different in developing countries and in particular for poor households … they might spend half or three quarters of their income on food.”

As food takes up a larger portion of a family’s budget, nutrition can also start to suffer as a result, said Susan Shepherd, nutrition coordinator for Doctors Without Borders.

“When food prices rise generally families spend their money on fewer types of food so the diet becomes much less diverse,” she said. “That means that children are not getting the range of proteins and vitamins they need.”

While Maputo is calm for now, it remains unclear how long the government will be able to maintain the current subsidies, or how it will confront the long-term challenge of hunger among the country’s most vulnerable populations.

The global health team will be reporting on the economic challenges in Mozambique, and the impact of malnutrition and HIV/AIDS on the population in a series of reports next month. Check the Rundown later this week for more reports from the field.