Saturday, April 19, 2008

Rising food prices a threat to world peace


School debates were noted for their either/or dichotomies. As 15-year olds, fuelled by heady promises that we were the leaders of tomorrow, we engaged in heated exchanges over whether Africa should opt for socialism or capitalism. We racked our adolescent brains over whether we live to eat or eat to live.

The thing about eating and living has been troubling my mind lately as I see a global food crisis looming in the horizon and casting a shadow right across the world.

The world is accustomed to crises. It is the nature of the planet we inhabit and we have seen them all. Energy crises. The threat of terrorism. The threat of global epidemics like the plague and SARS. One financial or economic crisis after another. And now an imminent food crisis.

Throughout history, individual countries, from Ireland to China to Ethiopia, have known the pain of hunger and mass starvation. Many others only read about it. But all that has changed, and in the last couple of years, even the richest countries in the world have felt the pressure of rising food prices.

No one has been spared. And there seems to be no solution in sight as we haggle over democracy and other fine dreams.

In the last six months, there have been food riots in virtually every continent, from West Bengal and Mexico last year to Egypt and Indonesia. More recently, there have been riots in the poorest countries like Haiti and Burkina Faso. Demonstrations have rocked Cameroon, Mauritania, Cote d’Ivoire, Morocco, Philippines, and been felt across the Gulf States. Italy has seen pasta price protests.

Elsewhere, supermarkets have witnessed panic buying over rumours of imminent price hikes. The IMF warns of an escalation in uncertainty and even the threat of war as millions find themselves unable to afford food.

The situation is worrying, and the threats cannot be treated lightly. Consider that during the last year, the global price of wheat has risen by 130 per cent and that of rice by 75 per cent. At some point in Argentina, it was reported that tomatoes had become more expensive than meat.

In countries like Japan where overall inflation, excluding the price of food, hovers around 1 per cent and the where deflation is a way of life, food prices have risen by an average of 15 per cent in the last 12 months. Given that Japan produces only 40 per cent of its food requirements and is as exposed to global food prices as any poor African or Asian country, the prospects are pretty gloomy.

Food production can barely keep pace with demand, which is caused by the growth in world population in real terms and also the emergence of a middle class in developing economies that wants to eat better than their parents’ generation.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, demand for meat in China has grown by 150 per cent since 1980.

Last year, floods destroyed crops around the world from the UK to China and Australia, and vast sections of Africa. Ten per cent of the UK wheat crop was destroyed in the 2007 summer floods. As a result, prices have continued to creep up.

Cutting down rainforests and devoting agricultural land to bio-fuels might have helped relieve the pressure on diminishing oil reserves, although going by current petroleum prices that remains a moot point, but more profoundly, it has exacerbated the food crisis.

George Bush wants 15 per cent of American cars to run on bio-fuel within the next nine years. This has forced American farmers to divert 20 per cent of the maize crop to bio-fuels, in the process leading to a shortage in food and doubling the price of maize. This has had a dire effect on many Asian, Latin American and African countries that rely on American maize. Blithely ignoring the dangers, India and Brazil, among others, are pledging to take land away from agriculture to bio-fuels.

Two hundred years ago, English political economist Thomas Malthus warned that the exponential population growth rate would get out of sync with the arithmetic growth in world food production, leading to catastrophe.

It was a timely warning even though Mr Malthus could not have predicted how industrial and technological progress would boost food production, and he somewhat overestimated man’s capacity to procreate.

The threat of insufficient food remains. But now, it emanates from factors that, to 18th century people, would have sounded like the stuff science fiction is made of. When Mr Malthus was penning his doomsday scenario, cars powered by two cylinder gasoline engines were yet to start rolling down the streets of his native Surrey.

Sky-high oil prices and extreme weather are not helping either. This leaves us facing a food crisis of unbelievable proportions. It brings into sharp focus that old, popular debate topic about eating and living. It evokes images of man reverting back to his hunter-gatherer days, rummaging for scraps of food in wasted landscapes ravaged by drought and scorched by an unrelenting sun.

Democratic governments, as well as those that keep their people subjugated, could soon find themselves facing uncontrollable political activity. Instability in large economies like India and China could have serious repercussions for global peace. The case of the Haitian prime minister dismissed over food riots should force world leaders back to high school-type debates: to feed people or not to feed people.

Professor Ken Kamoche is an academic and a writer.


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