April 5, 2008
“This is the new face of hunger,” said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme, launching an appeal for an extra $500 million so it could continue supplying food aid to 73 million hungry people this year. “People are simply being priced out of food markets. We have never before had a situation where aggressive rises in food prices keep pricing our operations out of our reach.”
The WFP decided on a public appeal several weeks ago because the price of the food it buys to feed some of the world’s poorest people had risen by 55 percent since last June. By the time it actually launched the appeal on March 20, prices had risen a further 20 percent, so now it needs $700 million to bridge the gap between last year‚s budget and this year’s prices.
In Thailand, farmers are sleeping in their fields after reports that thieves are stealing the rice, now worth $600 a tonne, straight out of the fields. Four people have died in Egypt in clashes over subsidized flour that was being sold for profit on the black market. There have been food riots in Morocco, Senegal, and Cameroon.
Last year, it became clear that the era of cheap food was over: food costs worldwide rose by 23 percent between 2006 and 2007. This year, what is becoming clear is the impact of this change on ordinary people‚s lives.
For consumers in Japan, France, or the United States, the relentless price rises for food are an unwelcome extra pressure on an already stretched household budget. For less fortunate people in other places, they can mean less protein in the diet or choosing between feeding the kids breakfast and paying their school fees, or even, in the poorest communities, starvation. And the crisis is only getting started.
It is the “perfect storm”: everything is going wrong at once. To begin with, the world’s population has continued to grow while its food production has not. For the 50 years between 1945 and 1995, as the world’s population more than doubled, grain production kept pace–but then it stalled. In six of the past seven years, the human race consumed more grain than it grew. World grain reserves last year were only 57 days, down from 180 days a decade ago.
To make matters worse, demand for food is growing faster than population. As incomes rise in China, India, and other countries with fast-growing economies, consumers include more and more meat in their diet: the average Chinese citizen now eats 50 kilograms of meat a year, up from 20 kilos in the mid-1980s. Producing meat consumes enormous quantities of grain.
Then there is global warming, which is probably already cutting into food production. Many people in Australia, formerly the world‚s second-largest wheat exporter, suspect that climate change is the real reason for the prolonged drought that is destroying the country‚s ability to export food.
But the worst damage is being done by the rage for “biofuels” that supposedly reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and fight climate change. (But they don’t, really–at least, not in their present form.) Thirty percent of this year’s U.S. grain harvest will go straight to an ethanol distillery, and the European Union is aiming to provide 10 percent of the fuel used for transport from biofuels by 2010. A huge amount of the world‚s farmland is being diverted to feed cars, not people.
Worse yet, rain forest is being cleared, especially in Brazil and Indonesia, to grow more biofuels. A recent study in the U.S. journal Science calculated that destroying natural ecosystems to grow corn or sugar cane for ethanol, or oil palms or soybeans for biodiesel, releases between 17 times and 420 times more carbon dioxide than is saved annually by burning the biofuel grown on that land instead of fossil fuel. It‚s all justified in the name of fighting climate change, but the numbers just don‚t add up.
This is the one element in the perfect storm that is completely under human control. Governments can simply stop creating artificial demand for the current generation of biofuels (and often directly subsidizing them). That land goes back to growing food instead, and prices fall. Climate change is a real threat, but we don‚t have to have this crisis now.
“If more and more land [is] diverted for industrial biofuels to keep cars running, we have two years before a food catastrophe breaks out worldwide,” said Vandana Shiva, director of the Indian-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy, in an interview recently. “It’ll be 20 years before climate catastrophe breaks out, but the false solutions to climate change are creating catastrophes that will be much more rapid than the climate change itself.”
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