Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

A Human-Made Disaster: 10 Factors That Led to the World Food Crisis (and How to Keep It from Happening Next Time

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

A Human-Made Disaster: 10 Factors That Led to the World Food Crisis (and How to Keep It from Happening Next Time

Article excerpt


The writer of the biblical book of Revelation, commenting on a Roman food crisis, expressed outrage that a day's wage was not enough to feed a laborer's family. Part of the problem was that local grain production had been undercut by cheap Egyptian imports and the greater profitability of livestock feed, while the province of Asia saw food staple prices rise because grain was less profitable than wine.

Sound familiar? It should--because the current crisis of world food prices, which has sent 100 million people into poverty, is a mostly human-made disaster.

The problem today is not a lack of food--it's that it's too expensive. Many of the world's poor were already paying up to 80 percent of their income for food; in the last year, rice more than doubled in price, wheat nearly doubled, and corn went up by two-thirds. And the sad truth is that human beings set things up this way.

Here are 10 factors--most of them preventable--that led us to the global food-price crisis we're in today:

1. Fossil-fuel-intensive farming models. It's long been obvious that, as our planet's accessible oil and gas supplies dwindle, their price will go up. Yet for the last several decades, the U.S. and other rich countries have pushed a farming model in which farms are large, heavily mechanized, and geared for export to distant markets. This model ran into the ground many of the small-scale, local farms that had the ability to grow food locally and sustainably (and that, in the global South, had provided some kind of subsistence for former peasants who have now become hungry urban slum dwellers).

Export-oriented factory fanning slurps up huge quantities of fossil fuels--to transport massive amounts of food halfway around the globe, to run mega-tractors, and to make non-organic fertilizer %: using natural gas. So the price of food is linked to the shifting, and rapidly rising, price of crude oil--which has gone up more than 80 percent in the last year.

2. Biofuel production. Food prices are tied to oil prices both going and coming, because rising fossil fuel prices--combined with massive government subsidies in the U.S. and Europe--make it more attractive to convert corn and soy into agrofuels. To fill one SUV tank with com ethanol takes 450 pounds of corn---enough to feed a person for a year. (Don't count on an environmental payoff, either--many estimate that factory farming, distilling, and transport of ethanol together burn roughly a gallon of gas per gallon of ethanol produced.) U.S. ethanol production is estimated to have caused at least half of the rise in world corn demand for the last three years; corn is displacing wheat acreage on many U.S. farms.

3. Rising meat and dairy consumption in the U.S., China, and India. Most commercial livestock is raised on feed grain, and it takes up to eight pounds of grain to make one pound of meat. Many news stories blame this problem exclusively on India and China, which are consuming more meat as more of their citizens rise out of poverty. Instead of simply blaming Asian appetites, however, the U.S. should take a hard look at the example it sets and its own ever-increasing meat consumption per person--now up to 222 pounds per year, 78 pounds more than in 1950.

4. Poor nations' dependence on imported staples e and the volatile world market. Before the neoliberal craze of the past two and a half decades forced many poor countries to gut their farm policies, most grew enough food for their own people and then some. In 1960, the developing nations of the world produced $7 billion more in farm products than they imported each year. But during the 1990s, surplus changed to deficit, which reached $11 billion per year by 2001.

As we're seeing now, the big problem is that markets can fluctuate wildly--and, when the commodity is daily bread, the brunt of those fluctuations is borne by those least able to bear it: the poor. …

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