The Guardian 23 April, 2008
Alarm bells ring on food crisis
The warnings are dire: "Imminent wars will break out due to worsening living conditions in poor countries," UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food Jean Ziegler said recently. On top of the planet’s climate change crisis and oil resources crisis, we now have a food crisis that threatens the existing order. The world market price of staple foods has gone up 75 percent in the past two months. Riots have broken out in Egypt, Cameroon, Haiti, Indonesia, the Philippines, Burkina Faso and many other places as hungry people vent their anger at spiralling prices. Emergency grain reserves are seriously depleted.
According to World Food Program Director Josette Sheeran, there are currently 854 million hungry people in the world. The World Bank anticipates that the food crisis will plunge another 100 million deeper into poverty. What on earth has caused the apparent sudden onset of this latest catastrophe? Opinions vary about the relative importance of factors but the usual list includes:
Climate change with its extreme weather events such as flood, drought and cyclonic activity
Decline in stocks of fish
Pressure on water supplies
Skyrocketing oil prices causing rises in fertiliser and transport costs
Speculation by hedge funds
Farmers locking in high prices on futures markets
Chaos in agriculture in places like Russia and the Ukraine where planted crop area is down 12 percent from Soviet times
The increased demand for and interest in biofuels (or "agrofuels") in developed countries
Some of the reasons ventured appear more persuasive than others. Climate change and the effect of unprecedentedly prolonged droughts on wheat crops in countries like Australia and Kazakhstan are plain to see. Australians in living in the south of the country are well aware of the strain on water supplies. There’s no reason to disbelieve fishers reports of declining fish stocks. The addition of 73 million mouths to be fed every year to the current global population of 6.5 billion is an alarming but undisputed statistic.
The inclusion of growing demand from India and China as a major cause is not universally accepted. Some experts point out that meat consumption in China has increase from 20 kilograms per person per year in 1980 to 50 kilograms today.
Grain stocks are being used more and more to feed animals rather than people directly. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation report on the question points out that this increase has been very gradual and that dietary shift "is not the cause of the sudden food price spike that began in 2005."
Speculation is not a new factor in world capitalist food markets, either. Most of the fingers are pointing to the rapid expansion of biofuels as the developed countries begin switching from petrol to fuels derived from raw materials like maize, rye, sugar and palm oil to maintain ease of mobility in the face of declining oil resources.
The European Union has a policy of substituting 10 percent of all car fuels with biofuels in the short-term. US President George Bush has called for an increase in ethanol production to reduce demand for petrol by 20 percent by 2017. These plans are off to a spectacularly successful start but the consequences have been disastrous for many poor communities around the world.
The US usually exports 70 percent of the world’s maize to countries like Japan, Egypt and Mexico. Last year, however, 14 million tonnes (20 percent of the crop) was diverted for ethanol production. Maize prices have gone up 30 percent over the past two years in response. More and more land and water will be used to produce biofuels in the US as producers cash in. The moral dimension of the shift is revealed by UN research which shows that 232 kilograms of maize equals 50 litres (roughly a tank of biofuel) or enough food to feed a child for a year.
In Brazil, 120 million hectares has been earmarked for crops intended for biofuels. In Africa, 400 million hectares will be put under biofuels crops in the next few years. Agribusiness is expected to push poor, often subsistence farmers off the land at an increased rate in the years to come.
A number of solutions have been put forward. These include:
Concerted action on climate change — still being sabotaged by the US
A strategy to slow population growth
Technological fixes — smarter seeds that will give "more crop per drop"
Encouragement to eat less meat
Food aid to grain importing counties hardest hit by the latest crisis — a band-aid that doesn’t address systemic problems
Do nothing — the markets will correct as food production becomes more profitable
The National Farmers Federation in Australia has added its own piece of self-serving advice: developing countries should respond by abolishing tariffs and quotas on our exports. This ignores the history of the destruction of agriculture in many parts of the world by "free-trade" policies imposed by powerful economies like the US and the EU.
The world’s think tanks are busy on solutions. The UN’s Economic and Social Council will meet early next month to discuss the problem. British PM Gordon Brown has put it on the agenda for the G8 summit to be held in June. It was a topic at the 2020 gathering in Canberra last week and Kevin Rudd has returned from his recent overseas visit with a new appreciation of the seriousness of the food crisis. He favours increased food aid.
The usual response of the world capitalist system is to push the cost of its various crises onto the workers in developed countries and put an even heavier burden onto backs of the working people in developing countries. The limits of this strategy are being reached.
"The reality is that people are dying already. Naturally people won’t be sitting dying of starvation, they will react", Jaques Diouf of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation noted. Political developments all over the world, particularly in Latin America, show that the most brutally exploited are saying "enough!" to the grand plans of the leaders of the world’s wealthier countries.
People in developing countries are seeing more and more clearly that capitalist globalisation is as hostile to their interests as it is to those of workers in the wealthier countries.
They know from their own experience that the words of people like Nancy Roman of the UN World Food Program are true: "In the near- and medium-term food prices will be going up, which will bring more hunger. It will be a different kind of hunger. Food shortages in developing countries used to be caused by drought or other similar factors. That’s why people had nothing to eat. Nowadays, most countries have enough food. But it’s so expensive that people cannot afford it.