SYDNEY?From the rice paddies of Asia to the wheat fields of Australia, the soaring price of food is breaking the budgets of the poor and raising the specters of hunger and unrest.
A billion people in Asia are seriously affected by the surging costs of daily staples such as rice and bread, according to Rajat Nag, director general of the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
?This includes roughly about 600 million people who live on just under a dollar a day, which is the definition of poverty, and another 400 million who are just above that borderline,? he said.
The World Bank last month estimated that 33 countries were threatened with political and social unrest because of the skyrocketing costs of food and energy.
Across Asia, workers made a campaign against high food prices their May Day battle cry last week in marches through cities including the capitals of the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.
While the demonstrations were mainly peaceful, concern is growing over the potential for political instability and unrest if high prices persist.
?Once people get hungry they start also getting quite desperate and take desperate measures,? Damien Kingsbury of Australia?s Deakin University told Agence France Presse.
India?s top farm scientist and architect of the 1960s ?Green Revolution,? Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan, has said India needs a second agricultural revolution to boost food supplies or face huge social turmoil.
Experts blame the high food prices on a confluence of factors, including increased demand from a changing diet in Asia, droughts, the rising use of crops for biofuels, and growing energy and fertilizer costs.
In Australia, which usually ranks second after the United States as a global wheat exporter, several years of drought have cut harvests to just 13 million tons last year from an average of 22 million tons.
So while consumers are struggling, Australian farmers are not getting rich on the backs of the poor, according to National Farmers Federation chief executive Ben Fargher.
?It?s been the worst drought in our history and many, many farming families are under significant financial and emotional stress and it will take our communities a long time to recover,? he said.
And even in a relatively prosperous country like Australia, people are feeling the squeeze in the supermarkets, prompting the government to launch an inquiry into how to stem rising grocery prices.
Impact on countries
Around the rest of the region, the impact varies from traumatic to minimal.
Afghanistan. Millions of Afghans are finding it ?problematic? to meet their basic food needs with prices of the staple, wheat, doubling in some areas over recent months, the World Food Program has said. About 400 people demonstrated in eastern Afghanistan last month, blocking a key road linking the eastern town of Jalalabad to the capital Kabul and demanding the government step in to control prices at food markets.
Bangladesh. One of the world?s poorest nations, Bangladesh has been hit by a doubling in the price of rice in the past year, and many low-paid workers say they have been forced to make do on only one meal a day. Last month, about 20,000 garment workers rioted near the capital Dhaka for higher wages to cover food prices.
Cambodia. Soaring rice prices have forced the World Food Program to indefinitely suspend a program supplying free breakfasts to 450,000 poor Cambodian schoolchildren.
China. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told a meeting of the State Council last month that high prices were the biggest problem in the domestic economy. The finance ministry announced a special 100-percent duty on exports of fertilizers and the raw materials used to make them in order to ensure domestic supply over the plowing season and ?guarantee this year?s grain harvest.?
India. A general strike against spiraling food prices paralyzed Kolkata on April 21 as thousands of police were deployed across West Bengal state to stop protests turning violent. New Delhi has slashed food duties and banned exports of lentils and other staples, and has pledged ?to sacrifice revenues to control prices.?
Indonesia. Anger over rising food prices was a focus for some 10,000 Indonesians who took to the streets of the capital Jakarta for Labor Day rallies. High prices for rice, cooking oil and soybeans helped drive Indonesia?s annual inflation rate to 8.17 percent in March.
Japan. In resource-poor Japan, which relies on imports for 60 percent of its food, companies have hiked prices on everything from beer to beef, mayonnaise and ?miso? paste made from fermented soy beans in recent months. Although Asia?s largest economy has been struggling for years to end deflation, rising food and commodity prices have not been welcomed because of the pain they inflict on small businesses and low-income households in particular.
Malaysia. Anger over rising prices was a major factor in March elections which saw the ruling coalition lose a third of parliamentary seats and five states in its worst results in half a century.
Nepal. Nepal last week banned the export of grains as prices soared. ?There is a high possibility of food crisis in a poor country like ours where domestic production is not enough,? said Hari Dahal, a spokesperson at the Ministry of Agriculture.
North Korea. North Korea?s food crisis has already seen some people starve to death in remote rural towns, according to an aid group which works in the impoverished communist nation. Prices of staple foods have almost tripled over the past year.
Anger over shortages
Pakistan. Analysts say public anger over food shortages, particularly wheat flour for the staple roti bread, was a factor in the defeat of President Pervez Musharraf?s allies in elections in February.
South Korea. Rising rice prices abroad have almost no impact on South Korea, which imports less than 5 percent of its annual consumption and heavily subsidizes its rice farmers.
Singapore. Singapore is the wealthiest economy in Southeast Asia but charities say inflation is driving more people to join queues for free meals. Consumer price inflation reached 6.6 percent in January-February.
Taiwan. Taiwan is self-sufficient in rice so international prices have no impact. However, domestic rice prices hit a 26-year high earlier this year due to typhoons affecting the harvest.