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Food prices: Africa shows first signs of trouble

Recent violent unrest over soaring food prices in several West African nations points to new signs of trouble on a continent where nearly half the people live on a dollar a day, experts warn.

After Mauritania and Morocco, Senegal this week was the latest country hit by violent protests.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation chief Jacques Diouf last month warned of a ”risk of social and political troubles in Third World nations in the months or years to come” due to the global rise in cereal prices.

”Soaring international prices have obviously had much more impact in the countries that depend a lot on imports for their [food] needs,” UN World Food Programme (WFP) spokesperson for West Africa Stephanie Savariaud told Agence France-Presse.

The mounting demand for biofuels and escalating prices of fossil fuels mean farmers cultivate less food in preference of fast cash-spinning biofuel crops.

And the internationally rising oil prices are reflected in imported food costs.

”The growing demand for biofuels and the high prices of fossil fuel have a dramatic impact on millions of people,” said Savariaud.

”Food prices in Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal shot up steeply in 2007,” she said, citing countries that depend heavily on imported staples.

In the vast and arid Mauritania, where national cereal output is less than 30% of needs, the price of imported flour shot up nearly 100% — from $200 per ton last year to $360 in September, according to WFP.

Shops there were vandalised and torched earlier this month to protest spiralling food prices, leaving one person dead and 17 wounded.

In Morocco, about 50 people were injured during September food protests.

Escalating food prices have affected almost every nation on the continent, but so far without sparking the kind of violent outbreaks witnessed in West Africa, home to the greatest number of the world’s most poverty-stricken countries.

Chances of controlling the high food bills are not easy in the short term, warned FAO chief of Global Information and Early Warning System, Henri Josserand.

”It is something that cannot be changed quickly,” he said.

”Prospects are not good for countries that strongly rely on imports because in the short-to-medium term, we forecast that food prices will remain extremely firm, at least in the next 10 years,” Josserand said.

Countries are therefore left with no choice but to change dietary habits by substituting imports with local produce, said Josserand.

But home-grown food production is also threatened by climate change, with the continent facing desertification and in cases oscillating between extreme conditions of droughts and floods.

Climate change might mean African countries that depend on rain for food production would harvest half their normal output 12 years from now, WFP chief Josette Sheeran warned during a visit to West Africa last week.

Climate change, rising food prices and population growth could combine to create a ”perfect storm” on the continent, she said.

Already in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, three-quarters of the 60-million people don’t have enough food and 1,5-million are actually facing hunger, according to WFP.

And so far, the leading coping mechanism is hunger.

From Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa to Southern Africa’s worst-hit Zimbabwe, already buckling under the world’s highest inflation rate, families have no option but to skip a meal or two a day in an effort to stretch the little available. — Sapa-AFP

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