Food crisis could hit Pacific hard: experts warn

By Xavier La Canna, South Pacific correspondent

AUCKLAND, June 4 AAP – Across the Pacific, where so many already depend on aid to survive, governments are nervously planning how to best fight the looming threat of hunger.

They are grappling with the issue facing so many developing countries – food security, at a time when food prices are at 30-year highs.

In the past year alone, the cost of staples including rice and wheat has doubled.

As oil prices hover near record levels, and with production curtailed by dought and the trend towards biofuel crops, experts are predicting the situation will only get worse.

A recent Asian Development Bank report predicts an additional five per cent of people in the Pacific – or some 50,000 people – will slip into poverty because of the high prices.

“A lot of people are going to suffer … they may go very hungry and face having a very poor diet,” lead author, economist Craig Sugden, said.

And with hunger often comes unrest.

Riots over high food and fuel costs have already broken out in countries as far flung as Cameroon, Indonesia and Mexico. In Haiti, the prime minister was sacked after protesters angry over soaring prices went on a week-long rampage, killing at least six people.

Brazil, Vietnam, India and Egypt have all imposed food export restrictions. And in Europe, a rash of protests over sky-high fuel prices have hit Spain, France, Britain and Italy.

The threat of hunger on a vast scale is so bad that world leaders are currently attending an emergency summit in Rome, where United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon has called for a 50 per cent rise in world food production by 2030.

Like so many other nations, those in the Pacific are watching closely amid expert warnings that food security issues could lead to renewed trouble in the region.

Research by the Asian Development Bank’s Sugden has found East Timor – where Australian troops are already based to ensure security and political stability – could face unrest due to the food crisis.

Last year, 240,000 East Timorese needed food assistance, under a program that cost the UN World Food Program $A12.8 million.

This year, the WFP has applied to donors to increase funding for the country to $A85 million.

“The big problem is going to be the low-income urban households … It certainly heightens the risk of instability,” Sugden warned.

Other Pacific nations are equally aware of the risks, and are taking steps to boost production of domestic crops.

In the Solomon Islands, a recipient of Australian aid, the government has offered subsidies to farmers to grow rice as world prices soar.

To help keep costs down, the government has also removed the tax and import duty on rice, and is encouraging people to change the focus of their diets to local crops such as taro, yams and bananas, which are cheap and abundant.

Fiji’s military government is also urging people to do what they can to be self-sufficient, telling them to cultivate their own food gardens.

In Papua New Guinea, the non-government policy research group, the Institute of National Affairs (INA), believes up to 40,000 people could be hit hard by the food crisis.

Even though the country is a net winner from high commodity prices, with its oil and food reserves, the problem stems from the many landless squatters in the capital Port Moresby and another large city Lae, INA director Paul Barker said.

Authorities were looking at how to encourage people to better share the food grown in the country, Barker said.

“When the food price hikes go on, a significant portion of the urban population have a hard time with that,” he said.

“I think it will flow on to the crime rate in those settlements that don’t have land, or access to land and gardens.”

While some countries can rely on the solution of home-grown food, others are not so lucky.

In the Marshall Islands, a group of infertile outcrops halfway between PNG and Hawaii, a government group met this week to try and avert serious problems.

Rebecca Lorennig, from the Marshall Islands Ministry of Research and Development, said crops that were plentiful in other Pacific countries simply would not grow in her country’s poor soil.

“Breadfruit can be converted to breadfruit flour. We have just started training people how to do it. But the problem is that we have seasons for breadfruit. It doesn’t come out all the time,” she said.

She said high oil prices were also making it tough for some employees to travel to work.

“Some of us have to drive 60 miles (97km) per day to work, and the fuel is $US7 per gallon ($A7.32 for 3.7 litres). It is a major crisis,” she said.

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