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World Hunger Inc. June 2, 2008

Posted by Andreas in Politics, Society, South Africa, Sustainable Living.

Here’s another article I wrote for the Big Issue. A slightly edited version appears in the magazine which is still on sale, so go buy it, please!

World Hunger Inc.

During the devastating famines that ravaged parts of Africa in the 1980s pictures of painfully emaciated, malnourished and starving Ethiopian children confronted well-fed newspaper readers in affluent countries on a daily basis. With their vacant, near-comatose stares, their swollen kwashiorkor bellies and sinewy, stick-like limbs, the very definition of the term “flesh and bones”, these poster children of human misery and the globalised reach of mass media gave rich First Worlders a small but gut-wrenching inkling of what it must feel like to be truly hungry.

More than two decades later, it is hunger itself that has been globalised as poor countries in Africa, South America and Asia are experiencing the first pangs of a growing worldwide food crisis. According to the World Bank, global food prices have risen by 83 percent in the last three years, affecting such staples as rice, maize, wheat, beans, cooking oil and soya. Within the last 12 months the price of wheat increased by 130 percent, that of soya by 87 percent and the market price for rice has doubled over the last few months alone.

The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has warned that world grain supplies are at their lowest since the 1980s. Josette Sheeran, the Executive Director of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), who talks of a “silent tsunami” of hunger sweeping across the planet’s poorest nations, recently told the European Parliament that her organisation’s ability to deliver food aid to developing countries is increasingly being affected by the crisis. In Southern Africa, the WFP estimates that more than 35% of the populations of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Madagascar and Angola and over 36.5 million people in the region as a whole are now undernourished.

South African’s are also starting to feel the pinch. Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni has cited the continuing rise in the cost of food staples including bread and rice as a key driver behind further interest rate hikes and Trevor Manuel has called on people “to plant every piece of arable land”.

From Senegal and Egypt to Bolivia, Uzbekistan, Indonesia and Yemen, desperate and starving people have taken to the streets in protest against skyrocketing food prices. Food riots in more than a dozen countries have met with a brutal police response, leading to a number of fatalities and hundreds of injured.

Although children, the elderly and women in poor countries that are net importers of staple foods are most vulnerable to the crisis, industrialised countries are no longer immune. High world food prices are starting to bite in Japan, a country that imports more than half of its food requirements, and in the USA there have been reports of people hoarding stocks of grains, while some major retailers have limited purchases of rice, cooking oil and flour. In the UK, the Daily Mail reports that food prices are rising at 15.5 percent annually, more than six times the official rate.

Quite suddenly, it seems, the global food crisis has joined climate change, the rising oil price and the looming prospect of a worldwide financial meltdown as perhaps the most immediate major issue facing humanity. But what are the reasons for the shortages and ballooning prices of food?

Many commentators blame what they call a “perfect storm”, an unfortunate coincidence of a number of apparently unrelated causes with cumulative and disastrous consequences. These include the current boom in biofuel production, global warming, world population growth, the high oil price, increasing rates of food consumption, particularly in populous China and India, and a reduction in investments in agriculture.

Bio-ethanol and biodiesel are being massively promoted as supposedly eco-friendly alternatives to petroleum-based fuels. In the last five years, worldwide biofuel production has more than doubled to over 37 billion litres per year and new laws require US biofuel production to be ramped up dramatically to nearly 57 billion litres per annum by 2015. Encouraged by government subsidies and tax breaks, the rush to plant maize for bio-ethanol in the US Midwest has been likened to a new gold rush.

The dilemma is that large-scale biofuel production reduces the acreage of land available for food cultivation and contributes to inflated crop prices. Lester Brown, the President of the Earth Policy Institute (www.earth-policy.org), calculates that the amount of grain required to make enough bio-ethanol to fill the tank of an SUV would be sufficient to feed a person for a whole.

Biofuel advocates counter that the negative hype is exaggerated and that biofuels have become a convenient scapegoat for high crop prices. The FAO and the International Food Policy Research Institute, however, estimate that they have contributed between 10 and 33 percent to recent price increases and the EU is now reassessing its 2010 target for 10 percent biofuel use in transportation.

The rising oil price has been identified as another culprit for the upward spiralling cost of food, because much of modern agriculture is a strictly industrial affair, heavily dependent on vast amounts of petroleum products from diesel and petrol for tractors and harvesters to synthetic fertilisers. The fact that food production these days is a long-distance international business that involves many miles of transport and long periods of storage and refrigeration only adds to these costs.

The effects of global climate change are also starting to take their toll. In Australia, for example, more than five years of drought have decimated the country’s wheat output and cut its rice crop by 98 percent. Flooding and dry spells in Malaysia and Indonesia have reduced South East Asian supplies of palm and soya oil, which are major sources of calories in the region. In addition, palm oil is increasingly being diverted towards biodiesel production and prices have jumped by nearly 70 percent in the past year.

Scientists predict that things will only get worse, with climate change leading to more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns, an increase in weed and pest outbreaks and sea level rise affecting many of the globe’s prime low-lying crop growing centres. While a moderate rise in temperatures could initially result in increased grain yields in high-latitude countries like Russia and Canada and possibly even a net increase in global food production, global warming threatens to cripple agriculture in many regions.

The continued growth of the world’s population, forecast to reach 9.2 billion by 2050, is putting increasing strain on global food supplies. Many analysts point to the growing middle class in China and India and particularly to their changing eating habits. Chinese per capita consumption of meat, especially pork, has grown by more than 150 percent since 1980. Since it takes as much as eight kilograms of grain to make just one kilogram of meat, such a massive increase in meat-rich diets necessitates considerable increases in grain production and China’s growing grain imports have been implicated in helping to push up prices.

It would be unfair to only blame China and India, however. Their role models for profligate consumption are the citizens of the world’s developed countries and the majority of them continue their hedonistic lifestyles heedlessly: the planet’s richest 20 percent consume 16 times more food than its poorest 20 percent.

Clearly, all of the factors outlined above have contributed towards the current global food crisis, but is this “perfect storm” of unrelated causes all there is to the story? What has been largely under-reported in recent press outpourings on this topic is that there are several political and structural causes that may be more fundamental to the problem.

Activists like Raj Patel, the author of “Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System”, argue that the real cause underlying the current crisis is to be found in the way global food production is managed. Fewer and fewer enormously powerful transnational corporations control much of the world’s trade in food: only six companies own 70 percent of the global wheat trade, for example, and as heartless as it sounds, their bottom lines are calculated in profits, not in the number of starving children.

Industrialised countries in Europe and North America have long been criticised by Third World nations for heavily subsidising their agricultural sectors. In many cases, tax breaks and subsidies result in western farmers producing food at costs that are substantially higher than market prices.

Developing countries, on the other hand, have been forced for decades to abandon similar support for their own domestic farming sectors by global financial and trade institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Unable to compete with their state-subsidised First World counterparts on the global food market, they have been “encouraged” to open their economies to cheap imports from the north and to invest in so-called export-led growth, by growing cash crops such as coffee, cocoa, flowers and tobacco.

The result? When world prices for such cash crops dropped through the floor, many Third World nations were left with a dangerously diminished capacity to feed themselves and a dependency on foreign food aid, frequently in the form of subsidised North American or European grain – a vicious cycle that has led to growing poverty and the ever widening chasm between the world’s haves and have-nots.

Ultimately it is this trend towards deepening global impoverishment that lies at the heart of the food crisis. “We are seeing a new face of hunger”, says the WFP’s Sheeran, “we are seeing more urban hunger than ever before. We are seeing food on the shelves but people being unable to afford it”. It is ironic that while the presidents of the World Bank and the IMF, Robert Zoellick and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, have been widely quoted as expressing their concern about the crisis, few reporters have confronted them about their own organisations’ considerable culpability in the disaster.

In April this year, a comprehensive UN-sponsored study of the state of world agriculture confirmed that many of the root causes are systemic and require urgent change. The report notes that while more than 850 million people suffer from hunger, the world actually grows enough food for everyone. It is critical of the role of biofuels and suggests that genetically modified crops, which have in the past been presented as the answer to world hunger, play only a minor role in feeding the poor.

Importantly, the study also points out that our current system of food production and trade has resulted in serious ecological degradation and has contributed to a very unequal distribution of wealth, climate change and the food crisis. It calls for a reform in international trade laws in order to enhance sustainability and food security as well as for a removal of subsidies in developed countries.

In responding to the report, a group of international civil and environmental groups including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Third World Network pointed toward some possible solutions: “this is a sobering account of the failure of industrial farming. Small-scale farmers and ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current food crisis and meet the need of communities”.


1. ayesha - June 2, 2008

Food crisis has been the root cause for the existing poverty in under developed countries like ethiopia .Although the UN is trying to eradicate poverty through its end poverty 2015 millennium campaign , it needs the support of people who can particiapte and help the UN in whiting off the poverty.

2. Allen Taylor - June 2, 2008

Nice writing. You are on my RSS reader now so I can read more from you down the road.

Allen Taylor

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