Kenya’s poorest-paid city workers usually flock to illegal streetside stalls to find an affordable breakfast. Partly obscured by smoke rising into the morning air, security guards, drivers and many others cram trestle tables in search of the capital’s cheapest food, although it is no longer as cut-price as it was.
“The price is going up slowly but surely, but we can still afford it,” says Godfrey Nganga, a 40-year-old driver.
The relatively relaxed attitude of Mr Nganga contrasts with the food crisis of 2007-08, when a spike in agricultural prices triggered food riots in poor countries in Africa, including in Kenya’s capital, and elsewhere in Asia and Latin America.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation, the UN body in charge of global food policy, is drawing comfort from the absence of widespread riots, usually the defining element of a food crisis.
The FAO’s food price index, a basket tracking the wholesale cost of wheat, corn, rice, oilseeds, dairy products, sugar and meats, has jumped to a record high, surpassing in December the peak of the 2007-08 food crisis.
Yet so far, unrest has been limited. Mozambique witnessed disturbances after the government announced in September a 30 per cent price rise for bread. Food skirmishes have also emerged in Bolivia, where the government is removing subsidies, and India, after a sharp increase in onion prices prompted national outrage.
To an outsider, the relative calm, compared with riots in more than 30 countries three years ago, is striking. But a closer look reveals big differences to the situation then, differences that make clear why the world is not facing a crisis.
Abdolreza Abbassian, at the FAO in Rome, says the price of rice, one of the two most critical staples for global food security, remains below the peaks of 2007-08, providing breathing space for 3bn people in poor countries. Rice prices hit $1,050 a tonne in May 2008, but now trade at about $550 a tonne.
The surge in the FAO food index is principally on the back of rising costs for corn, sugar, vegetable oil and meat, which are less important than rice and wheat for food-insecure countries such as Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Haiti.
Three years ago, a large number of poor countries had harvested mediocre crops, forcing governments to tap the global market to bridge the shortfall in domestic production. This pushed up domestic prices and triggered riots.
Food aid and agriculture officials say that as long as African and Asian countries do not need to import produce, the impact of rising global prices will remain limited. But a string of bad crops, perhaps because of poor weather, could change that outlook.