Food is the first thing; morals follow on.
At the beginning of this decade, when hunger was less desperate than it is today, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that between 5 million and 6 million children died every year from malnutrition. In 2002, the group reported that of all the human beings on the planet, one in six suffered from chronic hunger. Since then, as subsistence farming disappears and grain prices rise, things have gotten worse.
The past few years have seen global food prices—especially grain prices—pushed steadily upward by the rising costs of oil-based production and distribution; by the removal of food grains from the market in order to produce fuel grains; by the growing demand for food, especially meat, in a few large developing countries; by the diminishing stock of food reserves in the developed countries; and not least by unregulated speculation on grain futures markets.
On top of this, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that global corn reserves amounted to about 30% of annual corn consumption at the end of 2001, while at the end of last year, those reserves had fallen to 12% of annual consumption. This shortfall has made corn even more expensive.
The price of corn on the Chicago Board of Trade (a commodities exchange in which investors speculate on the future prices of corn, soybeans, wheat, etc.) has risen by 50% over the past year. The World Bank estimates the global price of rice to have doubled since last Christmas, and food prices in general to have risen by 83% in three years, about half that increase coming in 2007.
According to the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, a growth of only 15% in food prices in 2008 is likely to drive some 15.7 million Latin Americans into a position of desperate food insecurity (“indigence”), and another 15 million into moderate insecurity (“poverty”).
In April, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon ominously warned against “social unrest on an unprecedented scale” as a result of the growing global food crisis. Already, there have been food riots in Haiti, where many have been reduced to eating mud cakes for breakfast, and Prime Minister Jacques Edoard Alexis has been forced to resign.
Meanwhile, a volatile standoff exploded in Argentina between export-oriented farmers and the social democratic government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, which has sought to raise taxes on farm profits and place controls on grain exports (mostly corn and soybeans) in an effort to increase subsidies for the poor and increase food supplies at home.
In Mexico, unrest is growing in the countryside over the displacement of small-scale farmers by agribusiness, and in urban areas over the spiraling price of corn and corn tortillas, the Mexican staple. After years in which low commodity prices drove many family farmers out of business—and to New York, Chicago, and North Carolina in search of employment—the dramatic rise in grain prices is making an adequate diet harder to come by. According to the research arm of Mexico’s largest bank, BBVA, the country imported 23.6% of its corn last year, 50.2% of its wheat and 75% of its rice. Mexico is no longer self-sufficient in food, and food prices are rising at double the rate of wage increases.
In the midst of all this, a group called La Vía Campesina, an international advocacy group for small- and medium-scale sustainable agriculture that coined the term food sovereignty, has argued that the crisis can only be resolved if governments begin to reverse field and support small-scale peasant agriculture, reconstruct their national food economies, regulate international markets, and respect the right to eat as a basic human right.
Until then, we should take heed of Brecht’s prescient advice to moralists, politicians, and economists: “First sort out the basic food position, then start your preaching; that’s where it begins.”
Fred Rosen is NACLA’s senior analyst.