Thursday, April 24, 2008

Global Food Crisis: Review (podcasts, songs, reports, articles)

The story of the year has to be rising food prices. The details are complex, so beware anyone who gives you a simple explanation. There are both demand and supply side factors--both of which are explained by Lester Brown in this interview (mp3). On the demand side a rapidly growing middle class is moving from grains to the more typical diet of the affluent; meat and vegetables complimented by grains. If you eat any of the various kinds of grain you get a large amount of energy from your food; to get the same amount of energy by eating meat, you have to feed the animal that provides that meat with a larger amount of grain. For example to get one calorie from a cow you need to feed it 6 calories in the form of grain. A second major demand side force is an ever growing global population. Thirdly, the rapid expansion of biofuels, perticularly for US and European markets is an emerging source of demand. The worlds few hundered million motorists are being pitted against the world billion of poor.

"From 1990 through 2005 the growth in grain consumption was around
20'000'000 tones a year, in the last two has jumped to
around 50'000'000 tonnes a year, the difference being roughly 30'000'000 tonnes
per year of additional grain being used to produce ethanol...stated otherwise,
the growth in world demand for grain these last two years from US ethanol
destileries exceedes the world growth in demand from all other

Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute

On the supply side there are both short term issues such as bad weather in some parts of thw world, and long term issues such as loss of soil qaulity, water table depletion, crop damage due to climate change and shifitng agricultural regions also due to climate change. The relative importance of these factors, now and into the future is very difficult to predict although it is likely that they are all leading in one direction; towards agricultural stress.

The impact of increasing food prices is significant even in the developed world where inflation is not fully reflecting the increasing cost of living for the poor. As staple foods are not optional purchases, rises in these costs are therefore perticularly important for the the most vulnerable in society. In the developing world things are very tough, there have been reports of 'rice rustling' (Thailand), grain truck hijacking (Darfur), strikes over wage stagnation (Bangladesh); and riots in many countries around the world including Egypt, Yemen, Cameroon, Mexico and others. Many of these countries are poor but developing, the problems are even more extreme for refugees and those being fed by the World Food Program which has a limited budget.
"The doubling of world wheat, rice, and corn prices has sharply reduced the
availability of food aid, putting the 37 countries that depend on the WFP’s
emergency food assistance at risk. In March, the WFP issued an urgent appeal for
$500 million of additional funds."


Thankfully, as is apparent from the above, we have plenty of food. If we are currentl deciding to burn large qauntities of it as fuel then we have a nother option, which is highly complex and involves not being complete bastards i.e stop burning food. The other major way that we can solve the problem is by eating less meat; from an environmental point of view the whole topic of vegetarianism is more problematic than helpful. Vegetarianism seems to have its own culture; we dont need people to accept an ethos to solve this problem, mearly to encourage healthier diets with a lower proportion of meat. It is also worth noting that whilst such a move is worthwhile, in general markets do respond well to price signals, and currently meet production is hugely subsidised in the US and Europe (hence 'cash cow'). Perhaps damaging ethanol and meet subsdies should be removed as a first step to resolving this problem. For less obvious and more detailed solutions check out this IIASTD report or briefing.

Related Audio:

  1. Lester Brown on the food crisis.

  2. The Guardian on the 'perfect storm'.
  3. The Bugle comedy podcast on escalating food prices.


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