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As global prices rise, a food crisis looms

Posted on Wednesday, June 1st, 2011 at 2:25 am

Author: GlobalComment Editor

Gc contributor: Emily Manuel

One of the most under-reported factors behind the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt was the rise in food prices in the Middle East over the last year.  It’s simple, really: hungry people become desperate very quickly, yet governments and markets forget this simple lesson all too frequently.  A new report from Oxfam details the looming crisis, predicting even greater unrest for the future.  They estimate that worldwide water demand will increase 30% by 2030, and by 2050, “there will be 9 billion people on the planet and demand for food will have increased by 70 per cent.”

In February, the President of the World Bank Robert Zoellick said on Bloomberg television, that “there’s no doubt that we’re seeing rising food prices just as we saw a couple of years ago and it puts stress on the most vulnerable.  People often in developing countries spend half or three quarters of their income in food, so they’ve got little margin.” For people in wealthy countries, the rise in food prices may be more easily absorbed.  Yet even in those, there may be significant food insecurity–the United States reported a record 14.6% of households experienced some form of food insecurity in 2008.

The Guardian reports today about the growing crisis in Guatemala, a leading agriculture exporter which struggles to feed its own people:

“The food is here,” Oxfam’s country director, Aida Pequera, says, “but the main problem is distribution. Land is concentrated in very few hands. The big companies pay very little tax. Labour conditions on plantations are appalling. It’s a classic case of how a very productive country with high rates of exclusion, especially among the indigenous population, cannot feed its own people.”

Driving this increase in food prices are increases in oil prices – a cost passed on to the consumer – and the influence of the volatile stock market.  Globalisation, too, has been a significant factor, with the Global North creating many shortages with many unethical practices.  Oxfam reports that the world’s grain trade is a distinct monopoly, with three agribusiness firms (Cargill, Bunge and ADM) controlling an estimated 90% of grain trading between them.

It is worth underlining the fact that it is not the production of food here which is the problem–it is the inequity of capitalism which artificially creates food crises by putting the needs of capital ahead of food producers.

Complicating this bleak picture even further is the influence of climate change.  Any form of weather event can be a disruption of production or distribution–from widespread flooding, tsunamis or even volcanoes–and with a clear increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, the potential for calamitous famines is great.

Even worse, climate change can decrease agricultural production capabilities over time.  The American EPA predicts that precipitation will decrease in most subtropical land regions by as much as about 20 percent–a significant change for many vulnerable areas.  “An increase in average temperature can lengthen the growing season in regions with a relatively cool spring and fall, adversely affect crops in regions where summer heat already limits production, increase soil evaporation rates, and increase the chances of severe droughts.”

Taken together, the combination of social and environmental factors makes for a potentially terrifying future–yet this is not necessarily a given.  The governments of countries rich and poor have become accustomed to living with poverty and food insecurity, but as much as anything, this reflects the oligarchic preference for multinational monopolies, and a lack of imagination in social organisation.

Oxfam points to the programs in Brazil and Vietnam which have dramatically decreased hunger. Brazil’s fourth largest city Belo Horizonte once had 11% of its population in hunger, but has transformed this with programs like markets with fixed costs for staples and “people’s restaurants” selling local food for under 50c a day.  The cost of these programs was a mere 2% of the city’s budget.

The city achieved this in part through Brazil’s unique “participatory budgeting,” a process that involves large amounts of the population having an input into the city’s budgeting (thirty thousand of the city’s 2.5 million in Belo Horizonte’s case)–creating governments that are directly accountable to their populations not merely once every four years at the ballot box, but in the daily exercise of economic power from which citizens are normally excluded.

Food security is a human right, and it is not one that should require riots and revolutions to acquire.  Yet unless there are widespread, collective changes in social organisation, grassroots social movements will continue to emerge to address this growing need.  Even with the considerable challenges facing the world in the next forty years, we have the technology to produce enough food to feed that world – but will we have the political will to distribute it fairly?

Photo by Fir002, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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