Rising food prices may spur Arab unrest, warns World Bank

Millions in poverty worldwide as prices of basic food items soar, seen as trigger factor in Arab protests

Price hikes could push thousands across the Arab world into extreme poverty, the World Bank said

Price hikes could push thousands across the Arab world into extreme poverty, the World Bank said

Rising food prices have pushed an estimated 44 million people into extreme poverty since June and could spur fresh political unrest in the Middle East, the World Bank has warned.

The bank’s food price index, which measures a basket of food commodities, increased 15 percent from October to January. Prices are now just three percent below their 2008-peak, which sparked food riots across many poor nations including Egypt and Yemen.

“Global food prices are rising to dangerous levels and threaten tens of millions of poor people around the world,” said Robert B. Zoellick, group president of the World Bank.

“The price hike is already pushing millions of people into poverty, and putting stress on the most vulnerable, who spend more than half of their income on food.”

The soaring cost of basic food items was seen as a trigger factor in the political unrest sweeping the Arab world, toppling leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. Zoellick said the rising prices may aggravate the situation.

“I'm concerned that higher food prices add to stress points and could add to the fragility that is already there anytime you have revolutions and transitions,” he told reporters at a press conference in Washington.

Wheat prices have almost doubled while the cost of maize increased 73 percent between June and January, said the bank. Sugar and edible oils have also gone up sharply. 

In 2008, the bank warned 100 million people would be pushed into extreme poverty - which it defines as living on less than $1.25 a day – if food prices continued to rise.

Following the 2008 food crisis many Gulf states, which import vast amounts of food for their growing populations, looked to acquire agricultural land abroad in a bid to increase food security and damp inflation.

In May 2008, the UAE private equity firm, Abraaj Capital, said it was working with the government to secure agricultural investments in Pakistan. Other large deals include Saudi’s acquisition of 500,000 hectares of land in Tanzania, and the UAE’s purchase of 400,000 hectares in Sudan.

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, up to 20 million hectares of farmland has been offered up to foreign buyers since 2006, at a value of up to $30bn.

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