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High food prices cause concern in Middle East

A Jordanian woman checks vegetables at a wholesale market in Amman before the start of the Holy Islamic month of Ramadan.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: While there's almost no inflation here in the United States, prices are rising in much of the rest of the world. And a lot of that increase is being seen in food. A couple of days ago, the World Bank warned food prices are reaching what it calls "dangerous levels." That's become especially clear in the Middle East. Over the past weeks, protestors from Tunisia to Egypt to Jordan have complained about the cost of what they eat.

Marketplace's Alisa Roth reports.


Alisa Roth: The main food market in Zarqa, about an hour north of Amman. You can smell the onions, the mint and the parsley. From small wooden stalls, shopkeepers preside over piles of cucumbers and zucchinis.

These men are singing a duet about the price of their tomatoes.

Men singing

They're all trying to convince shoppers their produce is the best. They have to, because people are buying less. Like elsewhere in the world, food prices have been going up -- by some counts as much as 8 percent last year.

At this butcher shop, there's a half a sheep carcass hanging in the window and a few cuts of meat next to it. The butcher's quit stocking his store because nobody can afford to buy.

Butcher speaking in Arabic

He says it's been like this for the last year: No customers. But he has to charge more for the meat, because it costs him more to get it. He says he's living day to day, just trying to survive, which is actually a lot like his customers.

While I was talking to him, a woman, named Huda Said, came in with her nine-year-old son. They walked out a minute later, without getting anything. I caught up with her outside, while she was buying tomatoes.

Huda Said speaking in Arabic

She says she didn't buy any meat because she doesn't have the money. One of her sons, who's a policeman in Amman, supports their family of seven. And he doesn't make enough for her to buy anything but vegetables.

There are a lot of reasons food prices fluctuate so much: Bad weather making for poor crops; growing middle classes wanting more energy-intensive food, like meat. And using more land to grow crops for fuel means there's less land to grow food.

Richard Ferguson is global head of agriculture at Renaissance Capital. He says the higher food prices are hardest on poor people and poor countries.

Richard Ferguson: The average American spends about 9 or 10 percent of their income on food, but by the time you get to the poorest countries in the world, you're at over 50 percent of your income, so that can have a dramatic impact on, you know, your day-to-day living.

Food costs don't eat up quite so much of people's incomes in Jordan. But the country is especially sensitive to higher food prices on the world market, because it has to import a lot of its food -- almost all of its wheat, for example, and a lot of its fruit.

Mohamed Hamdan is an agriculture professor at the University of Jordan. He says countries like Jordan don't have a lot of choices: It's increase food production or increase subsidies. Otherwise, they're subjecting people to the higher global food prices, which only has one outcome.

Mohamed Hamdan: The nutrition situation in the Arab countries and in the poor countries is getting worse.

And that, he reminds me, is part of what's set off protests in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere.

Back in the market in Zarqa, Huda Said can't imagine the situation getting any worse.

Said speaking in Arabic

She says there are already months when her kids don't eat any fruit. But, she's still better off than some people: A lot of women she knows can't even afford to buy bread.

In Zarqa, Jordan, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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