From subsistence farmers eating rice in Ecuador to gourmets feasting on escargot in France, consumers worldwide face rising food prices in what analysts call a perfect storm of conditions.
'A revolution of the hungry is in the offing.'—Activist Mohammed el-Askalani
Freak weather is a factor. But so are dramatic changes in the global economy, including higher oil prices, lower food reserves and growing consumer demand in China and India.
The world's poorest nations still harbour the greatest hunger risk. Clashes over bread in Egypt killed at least two people last week, and similar food riots broke out in Burkina Faso and Cameroon this month. But food protests now crop up even in Italy. And while the price of spaghetti has doubled in Haiti, the cost of miso is packing a hit in Japan.
"It's not likely that prices will go back to as low as we're used to," said Abdolreza Abbassian, economist and secretary of the Intergovernmental Group for Grains for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
"Currently if you're in Haiti, unless the government is subsidizing consumers, consumers have no choice but to cut consumption. It's a very brutal scenario, but that's what it is."
No one knows that better than Eugene Thermilon, 30, a Haitian day labourer who can no longer afford pasta to feed his wife and four children since the price nearly doubled to $0.57 US a bag. Their only meal on a recent day was two cans of corn grits.
"Their stomachs were not even full," Thermilon said, walking toward his pink concrete house on the precipice of a garbage-filled ravine. By noon the next day, he still had nothing to feed them for dinner.
More crops planned for U.S., Canada, Europe
In the long term, prices are expected to stabilize. Farmers will grow more grain for both fuel and food and eventually bring prices down. Already this is happening with wheat, with more crops to be planted in the U.S., Canada and Europe in the coming year. However, consumers still face at least 10 years of more expensive food, according to preliminary FAO projections.
Among the driving forces are petroleum prices, which increase the cost of everything from fertilizers to transport to food processing. Rising demand for meat and dairy in rapidly developing countries such as China and India is sending up the cost of grain, used for cattle feed, as is the demand for raw materials to make biofuels.
What's rare is that the spikes are hitting all major foods in most countries at once. Food prices rose four per cent in the U.S. last year, the highest rise since 1990, and are expected to climb as much again this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As of December, 37 countries faced food crises, and 20 had imposed some sort of food-price controls. For many, it's a disaster. The UN's World Food Program says it's facing a $500-million US shortfall in funding this year to feed 89 million needy people. On Monday, it appealed to donor countries to step up contributions, saying its efforts otherwise have to be scaled back.
In Egypt, where bread is up 35 per cent and cooking oil 26 per cent, the government recently proposed ending food subsidies and replacing them with cash payouts to the needy. But the plan was put on hold after it sparked public uproar.
"A revolution of the hungry is in the offing," said Mohammed el-Askalani of Citizens Against the High Cost of Living, a protest group established to lobby against ending the subsidies.