04 May 2008

Tortilla, chappati and bread riots, The Pasta Boycott and The Tomato Strike.

'There are those who say we should not open our windows, because open windows let in flies and other insects. They want the windows to stay closed, so we all expire from lack of air. But we say, `Open the windows, breathe the fresh air and at the same time fight the flies and insects.'

Deng Xiaoping, October 1986

In my life I have never faced starvation. I have never gone hungry, no matter how little money I earned, I was still fortunate enough to be able to have a meal on the table and a roof over my head, running water, power and even a TV. I am one of the lucky ones, as are most Aussies but rising food prices are currently at the forefront of the news. It has prompted few local food bloggers to reveal how much they spend on nutrition or to showcase the going price for certain items around Australia. But no one is really looking at why there has been a rise in the prices of basic food items.

When Deng Xiaoping 'opened China's window' he expected to be greeted by the odd bug and some"evil winds". But was the rest of the world prepared, that a plague of hungry locusts would fly out of his window to descend on the global food market?

Twenty years on, while happily ensconced in my cocoon of Epicurean contentment, flagging my delight in my ethicurean ways - and able to afford to dine in restaurants regularly - my heart sinks to the pit of my stomach on a daily basis. I read of the consequences of the growing world population. Globally we are getting hungrier and food is becoming significantly harder to attain in many parts of the world.

On domestic TV there are bulletins about the rising price of food, as though we are the only ones affected. There are stories of Aussies having to choose between putting food on the table and paying a mortgage. But amongst them there are those who will buy cigarettes and alcohol over providing nutritious meals for their family. There are those who would sooner pay $2.50 for a 100g packet of chips than $4 for a kilo of potatoes and who are crying poor. They're the lucky ones. At least they have a home, a choice, access to education and to social security.

The fact is globally, food prices really have risen by 60%. In Senegal they have risen by 100%, and this is not scaremongering. While lower income Australians are experiencing some discomfort, in Egypt eleven people have died of exhaustion waiting in queues for subsidised bread - at 1c a piece, others died in a food riot. And they are about to protest again, with the activity mainly organised through Facebook - which means that it is an issue which is not confined to the disenfranchised overseas. In Haiti five have died and twenty have been injured in similar circumstances.

I am crestfallen that people have died in bread riots and food riots from Venezuela to the Ivory Coast and Bangladesh. I am angry that the hungry have been imprisoned for speaking out about it in both Egypt and some of the former Soviet states. I feel for those involved in the Tortilla Riots, and for the Italians who boycotted their staple dish of pasta because the price has risen by 30% in a short space of time.

I am shocked that the 1.5million Palestinian residents in Gaza who earn $1.20 or less a day must spend 66% of their income just in order to eat something. That's an even higher percentage than the Somalians who currently receive food aid. I can't bear the thought that many children in the world no longer have schooling or access to healthcare because feeding them at least a meagre meal has become the priority over education. Instead they spend hours in food queues every day.

The Buddhist in me feels stricken by what I hear. I am torn between my fortunate circumstances and the plight of others. It weighs heavily on my heart. Compassion is, after all, what Buddhism is about.

I have been flat out with work and family, but late at night when I normally might have shown you some food porn and presented some mildly distracting epicurean diatribe, I have felt uncompelled to write posts about what I have been eating. Cooing and flapping my arms about what has been consumed in the various latest Melbourne gastro-palaces has begun to feel crass and insular. So I have retreated from my frivolous feed reader of food blogs to think, and to learn about what is going on with those less fortunate and why this is occurring.

My starting point was to look at grain. Many have said that this crisis has come from issues pertaining to grain. But because there is rarely one single cause of dire situations I began to look beyond my own circumstances to see what was going on.

The locusts
I mentioned above have come in the form of new demand for dairy and meat consumption caused by the rising affluence of the enormous populations of China and also of India where consumers have shifted up from eating 20kg of meat each a year to 50kg. It is now fashionable for those with new wealth to consume more western oriented products, unfamiliar to the traditional diet. With the world population growing by more than 70 million people a year, and as incomes rise, so many more people are now enabled to consume dairy, meat and poultry products.

This huge growth in demand for beef, pork and poultry has been met with supply and demand issues, so prices have naturally been forced upwards. In order to produce more meat cheaply and quickly, grain - wheat, rice, soybeans and corn - is used to feed livestock. Farmers now feed about 200m-250m more tonnes of grain to their animals than they did 20 years ago.

Calorie for calorie, you need more grain if you eat it transformed into meat than if you eat it as bread: it takes three kilograms of cereals to produce a kilo of pork, eight for a kilo of beef. So a shift in diet is multiplied many times over in the grain markets. Meanwhile grazing cattle and sheep in pasture is costly, less reliable and the animals take longer to mature, which does not help to answer demand, and again can contribute to making meat even more expensive.

So, the demand for meat has also resulted in a higher demand for grain and hence higher prices for both the stock and their feed.

Climate Change
, Global Warming - higher temperatures, floods, cold snaps, frost - soil erosion, falling water tables and drought have taken their toll on crops around the world, with poorer harvest yields than anticipated being the consequence.

Saudi Arabia and Israel have been affected by the falling water table, China and Khazakhstan are suffering from poor planning which has lead to significant soil erosion. In northern China the desert is spreading so rapidly into farming areas that 24,000 villages have been abandoned as a consequence. But we're not just talking about grain in this instance, other food stuffs have reacted badly to climate change with normally hot regions experiencing cold snaps and vice versa, with resulting higher prices from smaller harvests.

Surprsingly 2007's total cereals crop was 1.66 billion tonnes. It was the largest crop on record and 89m tonnes more than the 2006 bumper harvest
. But that still fell well short of demand. We can't produce enough to meet consumption, so the dreaded words 'genetically modified' are nudging into the equation to produce more hardy, fast growing crops. The downside of this though is that in some cases these plants can have a negative effect on the eco system and their predators can begin to attack other plants, while native flora and fauna can also be detrimentally impacted.

The next contributing factor is the steep rise in the production of the Biofuel Ethanol which is made from maize/corn. In the USA a third of the current maize crop was purchased by the government, leaving less available for food products and stock feed. The demand and higher prices created for maize also resulted in farmers ditching wheat and soybeans in order to grow corn. The shortfall in corn has resulted in higher prices in processed foods that rely heavily on corn syrup.

The global cereal shortfall would be made up were the USA to stop producing Ethanol. They could in fact follow Brazil and make a greener option from sugar cane, but Government subsidies and tariffs are preventing this from happening. The Sugar industry has sunk a great deal of money into the Republican party and this is one of the payoffs for their support. Politics is definitely a contributing factor, with some farmers overseas encouraged not to produce crops, with paid enticements from the US government on offer to governments in countries with competitive markets, in order to secure the futures of American farmers, with good prices in US markets.

So why is ethanol so big? Well, it was thought of as a way of countering the record global oil and energy prices. Regardless, the cost of fuel is still having an impact on food prices given our reliance on freighting food all over the world and for their use in manufacturing processes. As a consequence even fertilizers are also now more expensive, impacting on the cost of food production.

Australia has announced that it will donate $30million to the United Nation's World Food Program from the Federal Government's aid budget. It's a mere drop in the $808 million required to fill shortfall in funding for the World Food Program but I feel comforted that we can do this. We are after all the lucky country, with a wonderful selection of local produce available to us even if we were not to ship anything in from overseas.

It's a sobering point, but do you bit to support your local farmers and the local economy. Eat simply, go for sustainable, organic, local and ethical goods where possible and avoid buying everything you possibly need at the supermarkets.

If you click on the title of this post, you'll find that I have linked it back to the Financial Times multi media feature on the subject and accompanying articles. So if you are interested in the subject matter, this should give you further stimulation beyond what I have paraphrased from various other sources.


Anonymous said...

An excellent but sombre post sticky.
I too, have been a bit overwhelmed at times by the enormaty of this looming crisis. In fact it has made me quite anxious thinking about what is in store for us all in the next few years. Combine this with the possible calamity of big oil imploding & the shit will really hit the fan.
It depresses me.

grocer said...

Back in November, I posted about this.

Since then the "global credit crisis" has masked these issues from the media for the meantime.

unless we adjust our own expectations of what we consume, we will be COMPETING FOR FOOD with the world's emerging economies.

I sincerely hope that the silver lining to this cloud is that people re-evaluate what they eat, where it comes from, and how it gets there...

...before it's too late!

stickyfingers said...

Gobbler there is always light at the end of the tunnel and this will mark a change in shifting global fortunes. Australians will be fine in the long run. But that is something I will use my marketing and trendspotting crystal ball to explain at a later date.

Grocer - in the words of Vicky Pollard,"Yer-but-no-but, yerrr."

Interestingly the price of wheat is lower today than it was in 1974. Since then government subsidies in many countries have kept food cheap and most people, not realising this, have taken it for granted.

In developed countries many of those subsidies are still in place and instead of capitalising on the benefits of them to feed one's family better, the family income is shown to be diverted into more recreational activities, consumer durables and convenience foods, bringing into play further issues such as obesity and a decline in social mores.

Less developed countries are feeling the advance in prices much more significantly and local subsidies are not high enough to assist them.

I think perhaps what is happening to us in middle class Australia and in the USA is that we are now paying what we should do for our sustenance. It is time for us all to be less insular in terms of our concerns, time to think globally - not just in terms of the environment but also in terms of sustaining the growing population of the planet.

The issue is how do we encourage industry and governments overseas to spend more money to responsibly develop under-utilised tracts of land in order to better feed countries less fortunate? It is time for World leaders to be less seduced by corporations and to be accountable for the negative global impact of some of their policies.

Something indeed must be done, reclassifying investment ratings is far less urgent than changing our apathy towards the rest of the world and our support of US policies that also have an undesirable impact on our farmers.

purple goddess said...

"Something indeed must be done, reclassifying investment ratings is far less urgent than changing our apathy towards the rest of the world and our support of US policies that also have an undesirable impact on our farmers."

Hear, Hear.

stickyfingers said...

Thanks PG.

What blew me away when I was researching this was the fact that on average, everyone in the developed world consumes the equivalent of an SUV filled with grain annually. And if the USA had made ethanol from sugar cane rather than corn, there would be no shortfall in the demand for cereal and less reliance on oil for fuel. Or if the US had bought ethanol from Brazil instead, a major element of this food crisis would have been averted.

For those who have skimmed over this, I realise that this kind of content can be upsetting, but like a child, it is in human nature to need to touch something hot in order to be warned not to do it again.

I will follow this post with something lighter. We experienced some open hearted generosity on the weekend that I'd like to share.