Global Food Crisis 2008
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Food prices have been rising for a while. In some countries this has resulted in food riots and in the case of Haiti where food prices increased by 50-100%, the Prime Minister was forced out of office. Elsewhere people have been killed, and many more injured. While media reports have been concentrating on the immediate causes, the deeper issues and causes have not been discussed as much.
On this page:
Rising food prices
Reporting for the Institute for Food and Development Policy (also known as Food First), Eric Holt-Giménez and Loren Peabody summarized the rises:
Food price index data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization show sharp rises in recent months for some food types:
The BBC’s food price statistics as well as Holt-Giménez and Peabody (cited above) both note the sharp rise in basic cereals:
But the crisis was not a sudden one. Prices have been rising for quite some time now, and perhaps earlier warning signs were missed or ignored?
Food prices or overpopulation?
Holt-Giménez and Peabody summarize the issue quite well:
The overpopulation argument seems like an obvious one, but when considering who consumes what, in what quantities and whether much use of resources are actually productive or not suggests that there may be other issues, though overpopulation concerns could become real at some point.
- A lot of land goes into producing products that could be considered unnecessary or excessive in their production (e.g. tobacco, sugar, beef, biofuels, urbanization, etc).
- Some 80% of the world’s production is consumed by the wealthiest 20% of the world suggesting an inequality in resource use due to social, economic and political reasons, and perhaps less because of Malthusian concerns about population sizes outstripping resource availability in most cases.
- Furthermore, while many go hungry an equally large number are considered obese.
These aspects are discussed in more depth on this site’s sections on consumption, hunger and population and poverty and hunger.
Causes: short term issues and long term fundamental problems
How has this recent crisis reached this point? As Holt-Giménez and Peabody note, there have been
angry demonstrations against high food prices in countries that formerly had food surpluses.
Immediate factors for the food crisis
A number of immediate factors include the following:
- Droughts in major wheat-producing countries in 2005-06
- Low grain reserves (according to Holt-Giménez and Peabody, we have less than 54 days worth, globally)
- High oil prices
- A doubling of per-capita meat consumption in some developing countries
- Diversion of 5% of the world’s cereals to agrofuels.
The above range of issues have been the subject of much mainstream media attention. For example, there has been some debate as to how much of an impact the recent rise in biofuels has actually contributed to the rising prices.
Deeper, long term causes of the food crisis
However, as Holt-Giménez and Peabody importantly add, all these causes
are only the proximate causes of food price inflation. These factors do not explain why—in an increasingly productive and affluent global food system—next year up to one billion people will likely go hungry. To solve the problem of hunger, we need to address the root cause of the food crisis: the corporate monopolization of the world’s food systems.
What the authors are alluding to is the following:
The dominance of the richer nations and companies in the international arena has had a tremendous impact on agriculture, which, for many poor countries forms one of the main sources of income. A combination of unfair trade agreements, concentrated ownership of major food production, dominance (through control and influence in institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and the World Trade Organisation) has meant that poor countries have seen their ability to determine their own food security policies severely undermined.
Policies such as structural adjustment demanded by these institutions meant most developing countries had to not only cut back on health and education, but food stamps and other support for the very poor. Trade barriers and other support mechanisms for local industry were also often required to be removed, allowing foreign companies to more easily compete, often being at an advantage as they would typically be larger multinationals with more resources and experiences.
By comparison, richer countries have hardly reduced their barriers in return. In addition, most poor countries were strongly encouraged to concentrate more on exporting cash crops to earn foreign exchange in order to pay of debts. This resulting reduction in biodiversity of crops and related ecosystems meant worsening environments and clearing more land or increasing fertilizer use to try and make up for this.
Increasing poverty and inequality thus fueled corruption making the problem even worse. Food dumping (while calling it aid) by wealthy nations onto poor countries, falling commodity prices (when many poor countries had to compete against each other to sell primarily to the rich), vast agricultural subsidies in North America and Europe (outdoing the foreign aid they sent, many time over) have all combined to have various effects such as forcing farmers out of business and into city slums. Meanwhile, crop biodiversity dwindled during the promise of the Green Revolution, which also increased chemical input, environmental degradation and felling of forests to bring more land into production.
Food security has reduced as a result and many countries are less able to do things if they want to. Holt-Giménez and Peabody are worth quoting again, this time on the impacts of concentrated ownership:
Genetically modified foods also increasingly came to be seen as a technical savior. If it worked, food could be grown with higher yields and in places where natural conditions are usually unfavorable. With increasing threats of climate change, it would seem this technology is potentially more important.
Yet, environmentalists from rich countries have raised concerns about the effect on nature if some GM varieties cross-breed with natural varieties, the effect on other aspects of biodversity etc. Technically, some have found that promised high yields are not always the case.
From developing countries the concern has been the ownership of this technology, typically private companies from rich countries. They have attempted to patent resources that developing countries have long used freely and tried to use techniques such as preventing farmers from keeping seeds for future years (which they naturally do) through
terminator technology (which would appear to go against the claim of addressing world hunger).
These concerns go to the heart of food security and accountability to their own citizenry. In addition, what such technologies will not address, however, are the political, economic, social and environmental root causes and choices that govern what is grown, why, how it is priced, and why even when there is enough food, so many cannot afford it.
As professor Richard Robbins notes, food is a commodity:
The above is a gross oversimplification and these deeper issues and causes have been discussed on this web site for a long time. Rather than attempting to explain those all again here, as well as the above links, refer to this site’s Food and Agriculture Issues section for a series of articles covering these aspects.
Eric Holt-Giménez and Loren Peabody, mentioned above, also provide a useful summary at From Food Rebellions to Food Sovereignty: Urgent call to fix a broken food system, Institute for Food and Development Policy, May 16, 2008
Cornfield in the Evening, courtesy of Michel Mayerle
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