Begging for Food

What’s for Dinner? photo: oceandesetoiles/flickr

Officials from five aid agencies who have just returned from a trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) say they saw evidence of looming food shortages and alarming malnutrition, including people picking wild grasses to eat. The experts visited North Korea at the request of the DPRK government and were given unprecedented access to assess the country’s food situation. Their report now shows a nation on the verge of disaster. They are therefore appealing for quick assistance to feed the isolated country’s most vulnerable people. There are hurdles, however, to resuming aid to North Korea.

The charity workers – from Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resource Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision – spent a week in North Korea earlier this month. In their report, they say they visited hospitals, orphanages and homes as well as farms and warehouses. And they paint a very bleak picture. Last summer, heavy rains and flooding reduced vegetable crops by more than 50 percent, and a bitter winter has now frozen up to 50 percent of wheat and barley. Both the NGOs and the North Korean authorities estimate that food stocks will be exhausted before June.

North Korea has been suffering from food shortages due to economic mismanagement and natural disasters intermittently for the past two decades, when China and the former Soviet Union implemented hard currency payment systems that sharply reduced North Korea’s ability to import goods. The years of mismanagement thus resulted in famines during the 1990s which, according to some estimates, killed over a million people. In past years, therefore, South Korea and the US have been the primary external sources of food, either through direct food assistance or deliveries of fertilizer. But this year, with rising impatience and anger toward the North Korean regime, these reinforcements are in doubt.

Food Crisis Looming?

Food crisis looming? photo: Peter Casier/WFP/flickr

A review of commodities reports and price indices over the last six months seems to point to a ripening of conditions that will likely spark a food crisis later this year.

The specific causes of the 2007-2008 food crisis are still debated, but it is clear that a combination of high oil prices, low food stocks, a low value of the US dollar, and market speculation, drove world food prices to an unprecedented level, sparking riots and unrest around the world. There are important similarities between observable conditions then and now.

Since the summer of 2010, there have been several important crop failures around the world and among major global grain producers, including: Argentina (drought), Australia (heavy rains may impact output), Canada (heavy rains); EU (dry conditions), Kazakhstan (drought), Pakistan (flooding), Russia (drought), Ukraine (drought), United States (drought). Moreover, South America experienced drought and dry conditions as result of La Nina, while China suffered from severe dry conditions and the rest of Asia experience delayed and erratic rains. In Southern Africa severe rains and flooding continue to cause problems.

According to the International Grains Council, “World production is expected to decline by 3.8 percent, to 1,726 million tons: the wheat estimate is lifted […] but the maize total is cut. By far the biggest fall in grains output was in drought affected Russia, with big reductions too in the EU, the US, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.”