THE WORLD FOOD CRISIS
The World Food Program’s description of the global food crisis raises the specter of a natural disaster surging over an unaware populace that is helpless in the face of massive destruction. With billions of people at risk of hunger, the current food crisis is certainly massive and destructive.
But the reasons so many people have limited access to food are anything but “natural.” On the contrary, decades of skewed agricultural policies, inequitable trade, and unsustainable development have thrown the world’s food systems into a volatile boom and bust cycle and widened the gap between affluence and poverty. Though hunger is coming in waves, not everyone will “drown” in famine. In fact, the world’s recurrent food crises are making a handful of investors and multinational corporations very rich—even as they devastate the poor and put the rest of the planet at severe environmental and economic risk. The surge of so-called food “riots” not only in poor countries like Haiti, but in resource-rich countries like Brazil—and even in the industrialized nations of Europe and the United States—reflects the fact that people are not just hungry, they are rebelling against a dangerous and unjust global food system.
What happens if we lose power indefinitely — foods that require freezing or refrigeration for long term storage are going to go bad? Emergency food storage in advance will be the only way to feed yourself and your family.
The food crisis is anything but silent, and—as long as we are aware of its true causes—we are not helpless.
The World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the World Food Program, the Millennium Challenge, The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and industrial giants like Yara Fertilizer, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Syngenta, DuPont, and Monsanto, carefully avoid addressing the root causes of the food crisis. The “solutions” they prescribe are rooted in the same policies and technologies that created the problem in the first place: increased food aid, de-regulated global trade in agricultural commodities, and more technological and genetic fixes. These measures only strengthen the corporate status quo controlling the world’s food. For this reason, thus far, there has been little official leadership in the face of the crisis. Nor has there been any informed public debate about the real reasons the numbers of hungry people are growing, or what we can do about it. The future of our food—and fuel—systems are being decided de facto by unregulated global markets, financial speculators, and global monopolies.
For decades, family farmers and communities around the world have resisted the destruction of their native seeds. They have worked hard to diversify their crops, protect their soil, conserve their water and forests, and establish local gardens, markets, businesses, and community-based food systems. There are tens of thousands of highly-productive, equitable, and sustainable alternatives to the present industrial practices and corporate monopolies holding the world’s food hostage, and literally millions of people working to advance these alternatives in this time of need. What is missing is the political will on the part of government, industry, and finance to support these alternatives.
The food crisis is affecting over three billion people—half the world’s population. The trigger for the present crisis was food price inflation. The World Bank reported that global food prices rose 83% over the last three years and the FAO cited a 45% increase in their world food price index over just nine months. The Economist’s food price index stands at its highest point since it was originally formulated in 1845. As of March 2008, average world wheat prices were 130% above their level a year earlier, soy prices were 87% higher, rice had climbed 74%, and maize was up 31%. While grain prices have come down slightly, food prices are still high, and because low-income and poor families are faced with higher fuel and housing costs, they are still unable to buy sufficient food.
The crisis of food price inflation is simply the most recent tip of a slow-moving iceberg. While food rebellions across the globe have only recently made headlines, governments have been promising to end hunger for over 30 years:
The food crisis appeared to explode overnight, reinforcing fears that there are just too many people in the world. But according to the FAO, there were record grain harvests in 2007. There is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone. In fact, over the last 20 years, world food production has risen steadily at over 2% a year, while the rate of global population growth has dropped to 1.14% a year. Population is not outstripping food supply. People are too poor to buy the food that is available. “We’re seeing more people hungry and at greater numbers than before,” said World Hunger Program’s executive director Josette Sheeran. “There is food on the shelves but people are priced out of the market.”
Clearly, global hunger was a growing problem even before the media picked up on the present food crisis. However, the U.S. government, the international aid institutions, and the mainstream media weren’t calling it a “global crisis.” That is because food prices were still on a steady, 30-year downward trend. Development institutions promised that eventually, as the promised benefits from globalization trickled down, the poor would be able to buy the food they lacked.
Not until the dramatic displacement of food crops by fuel crops began in 2006 did the FAO begin to warn of impending food shortages. But in the winter of 2007, instead of shortages, food price inflation exploded on world markets—in spite of that year’s record harvests. As a result, the number of hungry people jumped dramatically to 982 million in just one year. In the United States, 57 million people (a sixth of the national population) classified as “near poor” are now food insecure. The rebellions that quickly spread across the globe took place not in areas where war or displacement made food unavailable, but where available food was too expensive for the poor.
The dramatic reversal of the global trend in cheap food quickly became known as the “global food crisis.” The proximate causes are well-known: