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Jitters over wheat prices spark memories of 2008 food crisis

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Members of the Jalala Women's Association work in one of their fields. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America
Members of the Jalala Women's Association work in one of their fields. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America

“People still remember what happened a few years ago,” the New York Times quoted an economist at the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization saying on Saturday as news of rising food prices—and the possible clashes they could trigger—hit the headlines.

How could anyone who was hungry then forget?

Accompanying the Times story was a stunning photo of a young boy in Mozambique where the cost of bread has suddenly skyrocketed by 30 percent.  Defiance—or is it disbelief?–seems to arc through every bone in his body: Wearing shorts and a pair of boots that climb almost to his knees, he’s staked out his position in front of a burning car. On his head floats a too-big cap that must have once belonged to a policeman or a military officer.

Two years ago, a global spike in food prices sparked riots in countries around the world, and shoved millions more people into the ranks of the hungry. More than a billion people on our planet—nearly one in six—face chronic hunger. For families in developing countries who already spend between 50 percent and 80 percent of their incomes on trying to keep themselves fed, hikes in the cost of food could be disastrous.

The UN said yesterday that the world is not facing a new food crisis, even though a severe drought has swept Russia’s wheat fields, prompting the country to impose a ban on wheat exports which, in recent years, have fed heavily into international markets. Still, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization plans to convene a special meeting on September 24 to review the hike in wheat prices—they climbed 5 percent in August, the biggest monthly jump in nearly a year—and work to avoid a repeat of the 2008 crisis.

What else can be done?

One of the simplest, most sure-fire ways to fight hunger is to invest in women farmers. They produce 60 to 80 percent of food in developing countries, yet they own only 2 percent of the land. Just ask the members of the Jalala Women’s Association in Shashemene, Ethiopia, what’s possible with a little bit of support: They are harvesting fields of teff and potatoes; they are nurturing an enset plantation; and soon they will be grinding grain for the community with their new mill.

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