Flash points over food are getting more common. In the last week or so, protests over food prices and availability have roiled Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Indonesia, Egypt and now Haiti, where already several people have died. Peaceful marchers rallied outside the Presidential Palace, shouting angrily and plaintively, “We’re hungry.” For growing numbers of the world’s poor people, rising food prices are putting staples—mostly grains—out of reach. World food prices have been climbing for more than a year, but 2008 has seen even steeper increases (including in the U.S.) In just a year, global food prices overall have ticked upward by nearly 25%, grain prices by 42%.
What’s driving the increases, and the unrest? Demand for grain to produce biofuels, increasingly urban and affluent populations seeking out more meat and dairy products, most notably in China, which is driving up the price of feed grains to fatten all those animals, and record-high oil prices (industrial agriculture is heavily dependent on oil for transport and to produce chemical fertilizer). Climate change has also played its part as both drought and floods bedevil crops. The realities of rising food prices have captured the attention of a international organizations and the media; New York Times economics columnist Paul Krugman weighed in on Monday in a column called “Grains Gone Wild.” He urged greater support for the World Food Program and other agencies providing food staples to hungry people; the WFP is facing a $500 million budget gap due to the skyrocketing prices.
Of course, this begs some essential questions that aren’t being asked as loudly as they ought to be, at least not yet. Can the industrialized world really scramble food security for millions of people in its pursuit of alternatives to oil? (And when the numbers are all crunched, biofuels don’t reduce our total energy use much at all.) Will poor people’s access to essential grains be choked off so ever more grain can be fed to farmed animals and then, in turn, to the world’s wealthier citizens as flesh and bone?
Haiti provides an object lesson of what may be ahead, if policies and practices don’t change (and not very far ahead of where we are now). A friend who’s living and working in Haiti writes of the current situation: “This place is in total chaos…cooking oil, rice, other staples have doubled in the last 4-5 months…lots of looting, general destruction, smashing of glass, etc….there is a real chance we may be evacuated…[the people] are desperate and hungry….”
“The problem is serious,” the head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said on Tuesday, adding that the riots may well spread; people in poor countries often spend 50 to 60 percent of their income on food. Rising prices mean an even bigger bite—and less to eat.