We have heard plenty about the dangers of peak oil, global warming, banking meltdowns, and global pandemics, but the most critical crisis of all, that of food, looms largely unnoticed.
When we have thought about a food crisis it has usually been in terms of there not being enough food. But in recent times a new specter has raised its head. The food is there, but the price of food is rising so fast that the world’s poor can no longer afford it. They can no longer afford the most basic commodity of life.
In the last three years, the global food prices have doubled. The fastest rises have been in the staple cereals. In the last year (2007), the price of corn went up by 30%, rice by 74%, soya by 87%, and wheat by 130%. The people most hit by such increases are the world’s poor. Some have to spend 80% of their income on food. What happens when they have to pay even more? The answer is beginning to hit the news—food riots in Haiti, strikes and protests in Egypt, 30 million in Bangladesh at risk of starvation.
There are several reasons for the rise in food prices. The most basic is supply and demand. Increasing numbers to feed without similar increases in supply, pushes up prices. Higher oil prices mean higher food production costs—farm equipment, fertilizers, and transport. Droughts in major wheat producing areas such as Australia and Kazakhstan have had major impact on supply. As growing numbers in India and China rise out of poverty, diets change. Hundreds of millions of people are wanting to eat more meat and dairy products; yet producing one pound of beef takes ten times that amount of grain, forcing the price of staple foods even higher.
Added to these, there is the crazy idea of alleviating global warning by growing biofuels. Leaving aside the question of whether this does or does not result in a net reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide, every hectare of farmland given over to growing biofuels, is a hectare not growing food. To think that growing food for cars should take precedent over growing food for people shows just how crazy some people have become. Those governments, such as the USA and UK, who have jumped on the biofuel bandwagon are about to have a very rude awakening as the food crisis begins to take center stage.
What can be done? The factors pushing food prices higher are here to stay (for a good while at least). The impact on the world’s poor (and soon, the not so poor) will increase. More and more people will not be able to afford to eat, or not afford much else. Instead of rising out of poverty they will sink back in. Increasingly, the problem will be seen as economic; the food is there, it just costs too much.
We are heading inexorably towards a time when the nations of the developed countries will have to subsidize the food of the world’s poor. Right wing conservatives in the US baulk at the idea of social welfare in their own country, and without large numbers dying of starvation in the USA they can get away with that, but when the world’s media shows food price riots across the world, and people starving by the millions. attitudes will begin to shift. The laissez-faire free market ideology that lies beneath rising food prices will have to be overridden. In its place—as far as food goes at least—we will have to move towards a form of global social welfare. Anathema as that may be to some.