Rising food prices leave millions hungry

A family in Mauritania shares a pudding made from rice, milk and sugar.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: They're still high by historic levels but it might be worth pointing out food commodities fell today. Rice, wheat, and soybean prices were all lower. Whether or not that'll eventually lower global food prices themselves we don't know yet. But even if it does, it probably won't happen soon enough to help the world's poorest consumers, the hundreds of millions of people who live on a dollar a day or less. Washington Post reporter Anthony Faioloa met some of them recently in Mauritania in western Africa.

ANTHONY FAIOLOA: It's a broken cycle, a broken cycle of food that you're seeing there. Often you'll find that the adults are saving food, giving it to their children, eating less themselves. It makes them weaker and weaker. If there are mothers, for instance, with infants, some of them would stop lactating because they're not getting the nutrition that they need in order to breast feed their babies.

RYSSDAL: What money they do have, where's it coming from?

FAIOLOA: It depends. Often their goat herds. Often their cattle herds. You know, what you're finding, though, sadly, is that there's a situation where people are selling off their goats. They're selling off their futures, often, in order to be able to buy food for their families.

RYSSDAL: You found a man, actually, who was selling his last goat, right?

FAIOLOA: Absolutely. It was a situation where this man had -- and his family -- they had five goats last year. And, over the last year as prices have gone up for food, they've been forced to sell the goats one by one, or eat the goats in order to have food for dinner, etc. He had a bright smile and bright eyes. But when we first saw him, we saw none of that. We saw a father trying to feed his children. I mean, he seemed like he was a man on a mission. One thing that he told us that really stuck into my head was that tonight's dinner is more important than tomorrow's breakfast. And that really is the motto that they're living on.

RYSSDAL: Did he find a buyer for the goat?

FAIOLOA: He didn't. One of the great problems that they're having right now is that there are so many people like him in Mauritania that are being forced to sell their livestock that the prices for goats are actually falling. So, he'll take a goat to market but no one is willing to pay the price that was the going rate, say, a month or two ago. So, he made the decision that he was going to wait a few days hopefully to see if he could find another buyer. So, normally, he would also be a day laborer, but he's been unable to find work lately -- and this was something that we found very common because there doesn't seem to be a lot of work lately there.

RYSSDAL: Is it your sense that Mauritania is different from a lot of countries in Africa?

FAIOLOA: What makes Mauritania different, to some extent, is the fact that it is what we call a country in a food trap. It has to import roughly 70 percent of its food supply. So, the fluctuations of prices in global trade come to roost more quickly and more directly in a place like Mauritania. And, of course, the irony is that these are countries that can afford it least. They're very poor countries.

RYSSDAL: There's emergency aid. There's the World Food Program. There's the United Nations. What about the government of Mauritania and other governments in Africa?

FAIOLOA: Well, the government of Mauritania right now is trying to double their agricultural output by the end of the year. Now, there are a lot of people who feel that this is just simply too ambitious a goal to achieve, especially for a country that is on the edge of the Sahara and not exactly in the most ideal climatic situation. But, that said, they are trying to undo the last 15 years of basically abandoning the idea of growing more food. This year they've designated it the year of agriculture there. So they are taking some steps. The question is, Is it going to be enough and is it going to happen quickly enough? And I don't think we know the answer to that yet.

RYSSDAL: Anthony Faioloa covers globalization for The Washington Post. The paper's series on The Global Food Crisis started this past week and it runs through Thursday. Anthony, thanks a lot.

FAIOLOA: Thank you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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