Food Glorious Food

I wonder how future historians will document it. No doubt, first they’ll carefully put the disaster into context. They might do so by briefly examining Western culture’s propensity for ignorant indulgence fostered by an economy driven by consumerism. Then there was also the dependence on a depleted oil resource from ‘hostile’ governments overseas. They could also argue that their leaders, while having the chance to intervene and co-operate with other nations to resolve the impending disaster, chose not to rock the boat of the status quo, a status quo that kept Western nations on top. And they just might conclude in their introduction that, tragically, political leaders never really failed because they never really tried.

The crisis I refer to is not the projected effects of global warming – as they can still be mitigated – or a possible nuclear stand-off with Iran – which can be totally avoided – but a very real human catastrophe unravelling as I write. Simply put the world has started running out of food.

The shortage has been brewing for about six years now. The first clear indicator was the massive spike in prices over the past three years as seen in the diagram below.

The second, and more alarming, development of the food shortage has been the rioting of the past couple of weeks in reaction to the unaffordable high prices. Throughout the poorer nations of the globe frustrations and hunger have boiled over into chaotic scenes of protests and riots. Haiti alone has seen five people die in riots and dismissed its Prime Minister because of the crisis. (There are also credible claims that the riots in Burma last year were the result of the unaffordable cost of rice).

The World Bank in Washington says 33 nations from Mexico to Yemen may face ‘social unrest’ after food and energy costs increased for six straight years.” The Asia Times reported a week ago.

But the third and most tragic indicator of a total food shortage has yet to materialize and that is mass starvation.

In the coming months we might catch some news items detailing how our cost of living is rapidly rising because of an increase in the prices of staple foods like rice, corn and wheat. In response we’ll grumble a little over an expensive burrito, maybe tighten up the purse strings a little and hope the economy – that distant and complicated power – hurries up and fixes itself. Then, watching the next report, our disgruntlement may quickly turn to sympathy as we witness those people who make up almost three billion of the planet’s population struggle in abject starvation on a scale unseen in modern times.

The quick switch in emotions may reflect a genuine concern for those ‘less-fortunate’, but the more salient reflection is that while even the poorest of the US spend only 16% of their budget on food, those in the poorer nations spend between 65% and 75% on food. These figures are shocking in their own right but, when considered carefully, they also provide more insight into the food crisis than one might think.

Given that Americans and the rest of so-called ‘first world’ spend so little on food the question begs: why is it that we able to spend so little and they so much? Well, the obvious answer would be that they are poor and we are rich. And we are encouraged, through a lack of information not to look any further than that. So while we allow ourselves to sympathize and maybe donate to a charity we tend to accept that’s really just how it is. We are lucky, they are not. Right? Well, no, actually that’s not how it is. Luck has very little to do with it as, in fact, we bear much of the responsibility for their dire situation and this crisis; from laying the foundations for the perfect storm to then helping make that storm possible.

Those foundations were laid over a number of decades and it is time that we took a long hard look at ourselves and ask: If we spend so little on food what the hell do we spend the rest on and how is it made possible? Sure, there’s the house, the car and the odd vacation but, really 80% of our budget? The answer is simple. The cost of our luxury commodities (by which I mean everything from flying to fashionable shoes), is paid little in dollars, pounds and euros; the vast majority of that cost is carried on the shoulders of the world’s poor. From the sweat-shops to the share-croppers to the oil workers, the global economic system, as pioneered and sustained by the western nations, has been a coup for our way of life and the heaviest of heavy burdens for the rest.

Many Americans might have worked extremely hard to earn what they have earned but the simple truth is that others across the world have worked as hard, if not harder, and yet do not even begin to imagine, let alone aspire to, the lifestyle that we embrace on a daily basis. It must be understood that the inequity that the majority of the world’s population suffer under is no result of caprice or the invidious notion that there is a more and a less developed world – that somehow they are not genetically pre-disposed to engineering a strong economy. It really doesn’t come more fallacious than that.

The truth is that this situation, whereby half the world’s population finds itself in poverty, is a direct consequence of our lifestyle and has been enabled by US and European led policy. Of course, there have been numerous instances of corruption and megalomaniacal dictators ruining economies, which continue to this day. We only have check-in with Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Il and the Saudi monarchy to realize that some fault also lies with poor governance. But more often that not we have propped up dictators of such ilk in return for a decent price on the raw materials we need to lubricate our economy. It is no secret that, in the past, the US has staged coups and installed dictators if it looked like we might have to pay higher prices and make sacrifices to our lifestyle (see Guatemala, Chile, and Iran).

More recently though, the west has has tended to veer away from more violent methods and instead successfully advanced its agenda by leading institutions and treaties such as Nafta, Cafta, the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF; enforcing trade treaties that take very little account of the disparities between rich and poor markets. The effect of which is two-fold.

First of all, it all appears legitimate. And that’s because it is. That is, according to the provisions of the treaty which legitimize unfair conditions of trade to suit richer countries. You only need to google American or European protectionism to understand the extent of the disparities and their effects. One might counter but why do they ratify such agreements if it is no good for their country? In response we might either refer back to the likes of any dictator of our choosing or see that for many of these countries they are so poor that they have no option other than to sign on.

Second, and most importantly, by swapping the gun for the pen, it removes both the drama of war and the simplicity of violent struggle from a media dealing in two minutes soundbites. It reduces the risk that the electorate may disagree with such policies by allowing us to enjoy our lifestyle without the hassle of connecting our actions to suffering or having to analyse the business pages everyday.

The cumilation of these conditions has now set the stage for the possibility of an enormous human catastrophe. With greed and short-sightedness in equal measure, we have allowed for the poorest of the planet to go hungry. Because, in addition to setting the conditions for a catastrophe of this magnitude, we have also contributed in giving it the final push over the edge.

The more immediate factors that have caused the crisis include:

i) A surging demand from China’s 1 billion person population for the world’s resources. This includes food, especially meat and dairy products causing farmland to be reduced raise animals. This increase in eating meat also has a knock-on effect for the demand in corn, since the grain feeds much of the world’s meat.

ii) Global warming and over-farming has caused a steady increase in drought.

iii) The world’s biggest agricultural supplier, the US, has reallocated much of its crop from food to energy. Seven years ago 11 per cent of America’s corn crop was was being used for ethanol; in 2007 that figure is close to acheiving the target of 33% .

The third factor is where we come in. (I suppose it also could be argued that we have defined the desirable lifestyle that China now emulates and also significantly contributed to global warming, but that is a debate for another time). Ethanol, an initiative first championed as an alternative to foreign oil by Jimmy Carter, and since supported by the environmental movement as an alternative to carbon emmitting energy, has emerged as a major contributor to this current crisis.

Although most environmentalists now recognize the futility of ethanol, since the carbon emitted from producing it is almost enough to negate the reduction, worried economists and war weary politicians see ethanol as a solution to a huge thorn in the American side: dependence on foreign oil. They believe that providing an alternative to having to sacrifice blood and taxes for our lifestyle would free us from the shackles of US enemies like Ahmadinejad of Iran and Chavez of Venezuela.

Of course, this plan, if taken in isolation, is a good one. It certainly would unfetter us from having to fight wars and negotiate with unfriendly salesmen, just like they say. But this is not a plan without unintended consequences and while the answers and consequences arrive uninvited the important question to which they correspond has been missing in action somewhere: ‘at what cost?’

The poverty and destitution that we already see in poorer countries will undoubtedly get worse as this crisis unfolds. This is fact and demonstrates just how blinkered policy-makers are. The divining rod of self-interest has yet again trumped any kind of considerations for ‘the other’. But there are many critical consequences that should cause government to think twice and reinvest in alternative energy sources like wind, solar and hydro-electricity. And not just for altruistic purposes either, for the effects of this current crisis do not stop at the doors of Africa, Asia and Latin America alone. They maybe the more immediate victims but it is unavoidable that it’ll affect us all eventually.

Time and time again we have seen that nothing incubates terrorism better than the combination of poverty and a sense of injustice – perceived or not. Well, what we have now might be the biggest incubator of all. By consistently enforcing unfair trade treaties such as Nafta, Cafta and also via the WTO, and now limiting the very food that much of the world’s poor depends upon, the West has sown resentment across the globe faster than corn in Iowa.

In addition to the ticking timebomb of terrorism we also face a mass exodus from poorer countries to the much richer North. If conservatives think that illegal immigration is a problem now just wait until people start to die of starvation en masse.

These are just some of the most obvious problems. Others could well include a prolonged global economic depression, and even war. Either way, the future is certainly looking bleak.

So what can we do about it?

In the short term the only way we can attempt to help mitigate the effects of the food shortage is first to put all options on the table. This means seriously looking at GM foods to increase future yield of staple foods and recognize an international emergency so that we can shore up some of the crop destined for bio-fuel. We should also begin diverting investment away from ethanol and into solar, wind and hydro power. There are already ambitious plans to harness solar heat in the deserts of the South-West, but the political will is severely lacking because unfortunately, pioneers in alternative energy have far less influence in Washington than Monsanto and the farming lobby. That the Farm Bill continues to provide bloated subsidies to industrial farmers coupled with the possibility that the government may not grant tax incentives for solar development is a depressing testament to this. But these short-term solutions obviously cannot be achieved without political pressure and this is where we are likely to fail.

Even though there has been reporting on the food crisis, it has so far been within the context of domestic prices on television or the otherwise in the pages of newspapers. The majority of the general public simply doesn’t know it is happening and even the ones who do, they don’t believe it to be as significant a problem as it is because it is framed as a secondary news-item; behind a fire in Pennsylvania or a visit from the Pope.

As I said at the beginning of this entry, the first indicator of the food crisis was the price, the second the riots and the third will be the deaths from starvation. Only then, when the horse is out of the barn, will we start to take notice and be horrified. This is how we conduct ourselves. There is no recognition of the consequences of our actions. Our lifestyle, the western lifestyle that enjoys and has enjoyed so many of the world’s finite resources at a robber baron rate, is unsustainable. Ultimately, the only way we can live sustainably is if we are able to make a dramatic and collective sacrifice to our lifestyle. Only then will we stop watching others starve to death on our plasma T.Vs in high defintion.

It is only when we are all made aware of the issue and its urgency, can we push for such changes. Making small changes at home will count for nothing if there is no pressure on policy makers in Washington. But we have to do it soon.

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~ by oddlyamerican on April 21, 2008.

One Response to “Food Glorious Food”

  1. i have so many things to say about your blog… Not
    sure i can remember them all though. This comes from
    my head though so it may be wrong seeing as how i
    haven’t researched any of it recently.

    1. i don’t think we are running out of food but rather
    that we have a problem with food allocation. We put
    the existing food (corn mostly) towards feeding the
    mass amounts of meat that americans adore, which we
    don’t need to eat so much of, and also towards the
    production of ethanol. (don’t get me started on
    ethanol which uses just about as much fossil fuels to
    grow (nitrogenous fertilizer made from natural gas)
    and process and ship, as we use in gas for our cars.
    Plus all the rainforest burned down to grow it in
    south america. Plus the fact that corn is one of the
    most water needy crops there is..) So lets stop eating
    so much meat and forget mass production of ethanol
    (except that that is where the money is and so i’m not
    sure we can stop those two things)

    2. America (sorry i don’t know about anywhere else)
    subsidizes its corn and rice like crazy and this leads
    to the ridiculous problem of our exported corn and
    rice (and soy maybe) to be below the cost of
    production in other countries. This means that it will
    cost a farmer more to grow these crops than it costs
    to buy them from far away, shipping and everything
    (because we subsidize fossil fuel as well, god we are
    environmental loosers in this country). This only
    leads to other countries becoming dependent on us for
    their cheap food, farmers going out of business, and
    local food systems falling apart. Then people can’t
    feed themselves and we have a problem because we
    decide we want use the corn for “fuel efficient” cars
    that aren’t that actually just use fossil fuel to
    produce the new corn fuel. So instead we should stop
    subsidizing huge farms, stop subsidizing fossil fuel
    and start subsidizing small farms in communities all
    around the world. But its not like that will happen
    either.

    So instead we should do what we can because we at
    least have the knowledge of these problems and start
    buying locally, knowing who grows our food and
    therefore we aren’t putting our money into these big
    companies making a mess of things.

    And that is why you will come to work for the farmers’
    Market with me. Because besides being a wonderful job
    it is really helping to fight global hunger, and
    support our local farmers who are the heros of our
    community seeing as how they work harder than anyone i
    know to provide us with healthy food that is good for
    you and the environment.

    Oh man, I could go on and on. But for now that is what
    i have to say. I can’t wait for you to come back here.

    oh and also NO GM foods. NO. We don’t need more
    yields. We need to start farming more sustainably so
    that we stop ruining our existing farm lands by over
    working them, never putting anything back into the
    land to restore it. We over plow, over fertilize, over
    water and soon there is nothing left for the plants
    that we want to grow there. Then we think “great lets
    modify plants so they can grow in this crappy
    situation we created”. But do we think about fixing
    this problem we made by changing the way work the
    land? Of course not, just get some scientist to patent
    some GM plant that grows happily in this fossil fuel
    landscape (again, nitrogenous fertilizer made from
    natural gas) and we can forget we have a problem until
    we have no more topsoil and the land is even harder to
    to health as it is now.

    ANd thats another thing. GM crops, as well as hybrid
    seeds, are patented by the companies that create them
    and these companies sell their seeds to farmers here
    as well as in other countries, farmers who then become
    dependent on these seeds because they are designed to
    not reproduce on their own. Therefore farmers in other
    countries cannot save their seeds but must alway pay
    for new seeds instead, thus making it more expensive
    to farm. Also, Many GM crops are marketed with a
    pesticide and fertilizer that must go with them like
    round-up ready corn that can be sprayed with all the
    roundup you want and it won’t die, only the weeds will
    (gross that we eat that corn). This means now the
    farmer has to buy the roundup as well making his cost
    greater. So i vote no on GM crops. We need to go and
    help restart local food systems in hungry countries,
    not force them to become dependent on our seeds GM or
    otherwise.

    Ok, I’ll stop.

    Jessica

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