No more cheap food

2008-03-31 00:00

“This is the new face of hunger,” said Josetta Sheeran, director of the 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 programme decided on a public appeal three weeks ago because the price of the food it buys to feed some of the world’s poorest people had risen by 55% since last June. By the time it actually launched the appeal this week, prices had risen a further 20%, 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 ton, straight out of the fields. Four people have died in Egypt in clashes over subsidised 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 is over: food costs worldwide rose by 23% 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 children 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 has 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 kilograms in the mid-eighties. 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 “bio-fuels” 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% of the fuel used for transport from bio-fuels by 2010. A huge amount of the world’s farmland is being diverted to feed cars, not people.

“It would obviously be insane if we had a policy to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the use of bio-fuels that’s actually leading to an increase in greenhouse gases,” said Professor Robert Watson, former chief scientific adviser to the World Bank and now filling the same role at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in London. But that is the policy, both in Europe and in the United States.

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 bio-fuels (and often directly subsidising 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 bio-fuels to keep cars running, we have two years before a food catastrophe breaks out worldwide,” said Vandana Shiva, director of the India-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy, in an interview last week. “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.”

• Gwynne Dyer’s new book, After Iraq, has just been published in London by Yale University Press.

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