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World hunger's urban edge

By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News, Rome

The global food price crisis has revealed not only the new face of hunger but also its voice.

A woman shops at a market in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
In Haiti, the prices of some basic foods have gone up by 50% in 2007

"The hungry man is an angry man," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told a summit in Rome called to address the food price crisis.

The urban poor, thousands whom poverty has pushed from rural areas to inhabit the edges of ever-swelling cities, have been mobilised as never before with street protests forcing political interventions.

"This crisis suddenly makes poverty in urban areas very visible," explains James Garrett of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Their riots have shaken governments, ensuring that the issue of hunger, which now affects some 860 million, has reached the very top of the political agenda.

For perhaps the first time in decades, the hungry are not a distant, scattered and powerless group.

"It is much easier to organise in an urban context," says the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's Kostas Stamoulis.

"The ability to apply political pressure is more accessible. Rural households are generally poor, dispersed and the costs of forming alliances and staging protests make it much more difficult."

On the edge

City dwellers' anger is fuelled by their position at the front-line of global food price volatility as they are more vulnerable to its effects.

One of the new factors of hunger is that we are seeing foods in the markets but people can't reach them
Josette Sheeran
WFP's executive director

"These are people who already do not have much, operating within a cash economy - you are buying everything you eat, your healthcare, everything is part of a monetised system," Mr Garrett explained.

"In the cities of countries like Egypt and Peru, you are buying 80% of the things you consume. Combine this with only fragile and insecure employment and it is easier, when faced with that, to get together," he said.

In Haiti, where the price of staples like rice, beans and fruit have gone up by 50% in the last year, the level of public anger was so great that it forced the ousting of Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis.

Fear over the political impact of food prices has also led to many major market players - India, Brazil and Vietnam among them - to further shrink international markets by imposing export bans and trade restrictions on commodities.

graphic of cost of food
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"Large urban agglomerations are close to transport networks which means that the increase in price of cereals are transmitted directly to urban areas, they are very well-linked to international markets," said Mr Stamoulis.

But there is a very real risk, Mr Stamoulis warned, that this food crisis may begin to reverse the process of urbanisation and that people may begin to abandon cities, returning to land where they can cultivate their own crops.

"We have observed in the past, after some other financial crises, that there has been a backward movement - from urban to rural areas - as a result and agriculture has acted as a buffer sector for returning migrants," he said.

Cutting corners

The World Food Programme (WFP) - which estimates that some 10% of its 70 million beneficiaries are the urban poor - says that one of the factors that differentiates this crisis from others is not that there is a dramatic lack of food, rather that the food available has become unaffordable.

"One of the new factors of hunger is that we are seeing foods in the markets but people can't reach them," the WFP's Executive Director Josette Sheeran said.

As a result, the organisation is adding cash transfers as well as direct handouts of food to its operations, supplementing local suppliers' trade by making their food more affordable.

But in the longer term, the organisation's Henk-Jan Brinkman warns, the cut-backs and changes that people make to their diets and lifestyles can have consequences that far outlast a spike in food prices.

"When the price of a staple goes up, people keep consuming the same number of calories but they cut the quality - so animal-based proteins like meat and diary are cut from the diet," he said.

SUMMIT AGENDA
Price controls, trade tariffs and export bans
Subsidies for biofuels
Help for farmers in poorer countries
Effect of climate change on agriculture

"This has a long-term effect on nutritional status for children. It can lead to stunting, lower haemoglobin levels and, in the long term, life-long consequences like higher disease occurrences and lower birth rates."

Non-governmental organisations have expressed the concern that the current food price crisis could reverse decades of painstaking progress achieved in other development fields.

"We risk losing all the gains we have made," warns Magda Kropiwnicka, a food and hunger policy adviser with ActionAid.

"Because of this food price crisis children are being withdrawn from school, people who are HIV-positive can no longer afford to buy medicine."

It is a fear echoed by the IFPRI's Mr Garrett: "The international system is taking months but households can't wait. They are reducing the quality of food, they aren't getting the healthcare that they need."

According to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, chair of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Agriculture, urban poverty is closely linked to rural need and one problem cannot be solved without addressing the other.

"If we were able to develop the rural areas, to improve agriculture and get more people employed in the rural areas, to make a decent living, not so many would rush to the cities to end up in the slums. If we had higher yields we should be able to feed the city populations better," he said.

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