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No politics with food prices

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18.APR.08

The people of the world, the poor especially, are being faced with steep, sometimes astronomical increases in the cost of living, as a combination of international factors take effect.

The most critical of these is the sharp hike in the cost of food, condemning millions to even more hunger and malnutrition than already exists.{{more}} Skyrocketing fuel prices and their ripple effect, the diversion of arable land into the production of biofuels rather than food, changes in weather patterns and rising demand, particularly in China and India, are blamed for this unfortunate situation.

The result has been manifested not only in far higher food import bills (the Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated the world’s food import bill last year at US$745 billion, a 21% increase over the year before), but also in extreme hunger. This, in turn, has fuelled food riots in countries as far flung as the Phillipines, Mexico, Burkina Faso, India and Egypt. In the Caribbean, similar riots have produced one political casualty in the forced resignation of Haitian Prime Minister Jacques-Eduoard Alexis, after unrest there resulted in 5 deaths and 40 persons injured. Meanwhile, Trinidad and Tobago has been forced to employ armed guards for the delivery trucks of the state-owned National Flour Mills after robberies for flour.

Following rushed CARICOM Summits, several Caribbean governments have responded with measures in answer to the crisis. The Vincentian government was among the first offering a cost of living support package to the most vulnerable groups, while in Grenada, food vouchers for the poor were introduced, and in St. Kitts/Nevis, a reduction in food import duties has also tried to ease the burden.

But the realities of the situation are also forcing unpopular, though necessary, measures. Jamaica has proposed a 32% hike in flour prices with a similar increase on the cards in Antigua. Locally, the government has reluctantly agreed to price increases for flour and more hikes are expected to follow. Rice, a staple, the price of which has radically escalated worldwide, is bound to see similar if not greater increases soon.

Oil prices have now reached the unfathomable level of US$114 per barrel. This has led to the new government in Barbados being forced to end a fuel subsidy which was costing the Treasury Bds $8 million a month, and instead to institute immediate increases for gasoline, diesel, kerosene and cooking gas which will further jack up the cost of living.

In the face of all of this, it is easy for Opposition forces to play politics with the situation. The Barbados Labour Party, for instance, has criticised the increases there, branding them as “unnecessary”, while the Opposition PNP in Jamaica has warned that price increases represent “a threat to social stability”. This is all too easy to do but serves no useful purpose. We should rather be educating our people as to the root of the crisis, pointing out for example that while we pay more and more for fuel, it is the oil monopolies that benefit. Last year they raked in US$123 billion and the multinational food companies, and giant supermarket chains are not far behind either. These are the truths which we must get our people to understand, so that we can seek collective solutions. Cheap politics will serve no useful purpose.

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