I have been personally concerned about the headlines reporting on food shortages across the world. I must admit it has filled me with fear from time to time, can it happen here. I live a relatively good life here in Norway. My thoughts are more often on losing weight then hunger. However I also am very much aware that we live in a global world now, very little of the food which graces our table is locally grown. When that balance is upset all of us can suffer.
A world wide food shortage of proportions not seen in our lifetimes is on our doorstep. In Dhaka recently 10,000 Bangladeshi textile workers clashed with police in a protest triggered by food costs. In Haiti, demonstrators recently tried to storm the presidential palace after prices of staple foods leaped 50 per cent. In Egypt, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal and Cameroon there have been demonstrations, sometimes involving fatalities, as starving people have taken to the streets. And in Vietnam the new crime of rice rustling, when crops are stripped at night from fields by raiders, has led to the banning of all harvesting machines from roads after sunset.
But what are the factors that led to this shortage? What has triggered the price rises that have put the world’s basic foodstuffs out of reach for the worlds poorest peoples?
One factor is the decision by the US government, made several years ago, to give domestic subsidies to its farmers to grow corn that can be distilled into ethanol, a biofuel which can be mixed with petrol. This policy helps limit US dependence on oil imports and gives support to the nation’s farmers. However it also takes over land, about 20 million acres, that would otherwise have been used to grow food crops. Other nations, including Argentina, Canada and some European countries, have adopted similar biofuel policies.
In addition there is the problem of climate change. As the levels of carbon dioxide rise in the atmosphere, meteorologists have warned that weather patterns are becoming increasingly disturbed, causing devastation and drought in many areas. Some politicians see climate change as the most pressing challenge facing the world while others say that biofuels, grown to offset fossil fuel use, is taking food out of the mouths of the world’s poorest people.
Then we have the growing wealth of China. Once a relatively rural economy, China has become increasingly industrialised and its middle classes have grown accordingly. As a result there is a doubling in meat consumption in China. As the country’s farmers have sought to feed more and more animals, more and more grain has been bought by them. Many don’t realize that increased production of meat causes increased use of grain.
And finally there is the issue of vegetable oils. Soya and palm oils are a major source of calories in Asia. But flooding in Malaysia and a drought in Indonesia has limited supplies. In addition, these oils are now being sought as bio-diesel, which is used as a direct substitute for diesel in many countries
The moral of the story here is the world is a complicated place, and nothing we do, or overdo so to speak is without consequences. It is positive that we will use biofuels, it is positive that China is boom, but the consequences to the world have to be measured against these gains.