It’s been said that a recession is when your neighbour loses his job; a depression is when it’s your job that goes. This comes to mind as reports have been pouring in over the last while about soaring food prices and food riots in a range of countries.
It’s probably accurate to say that there are not – yet – absolute or irreversible food shortages globally, but the crux is the sharp increases in prices that are literally taking the bread out of the mouths of the people at the sharp end of the food chain – the world’s poor.
It still came as a jolt to read reports that food shortages have actually made it to the land of plenty itself, the US. Wal-Mart’s cash and carry division, Sam’s Club, announced it would sell a maximum of four bags of rice a person to prevent supplies from running short.
This, we are told, followed sporadic caps placed on purchases of rice and flour by some store managers at a rival bulk chain, Costco, in parts of California.
The world price of rice has risen a whopping 68% since the start of 2008, but in some US shops the price has actually doubled in a matter of a few weeks.
There appears to date to be little evidence of panic hoarding by the public but restaurants and smaller retailers were buying up stocks at wholesalers in the strong belief that the cost would go even higher.
Filipino residents in the US were reportedly making large purchases to send to relatives in the Philippines, where a shortage of supplies is causing growing alarm.
Looting and riots in Haiti left at least half a dozen fatalities and forced the resignation of the Prime Minister. In Guyana, an 80% rise in the price of rice and a 50% increase in the cost of chicken sparked protests and strikes by workers.
World food prices, having been stable and in many cases actually in decline for years, are now playing catch-up, with a vengeance. The price hikes are being fuelled by rapidly growing demand from the emerging vast middle classes of both China and India for a more production-intensive diet, i.e. moving away from a strongly vegetarian diet to include much more meat and dairy products.
Production of meat and dairy for human consumption (we in the rich western world have been doing it for a century and more) is an extravagant way to employ finite resources. It takes huge amounts of feed (and fresh water) to fatten animals to produce relatively small amounts of meat, milk, etc.
Feeding animals is one thing; diverting finite food supplies to feed cars is quite another. Biofuel production is adding to the threat of world hunger, with the US in particular in the process of converting a significant portion of its agricultural output into fuel.
There is a rich irony here in the fact that US agriculture uses more energy in the form of fossil fuels than the energy it actually produces.
Climate change and the sheer force of human numbers are combining to tighten the screw several more turns; despite the application of vast amounts of fertilisers and pesticides (at a huge cost in terms of pollution and environmental damage), world food output is no longer able to keep ahead of demand.
The loss in recent decades of tens of millions of hectares of previously fertile soils through erosion, salinisation and desertification are a direct result of our intensive efforts to indefinitely prolong the ‘Green Revolution’. There are limits to all things, and food production is one of them.
Don’t look to the seas to bail us out either. Overfishing, pollution, including eutrophication as a result of the all those nitrates finding their way into the water supply as well as rising sea temperatures as a result of climate change are leading to massive declines in marine ecosystems. The world’s seas may be effectively empty within 40 years, so rapid and profound is the rate of collapse.
As food shortages bite, countries are understandably taking steps to protect themselves. China, India, Vietnam and Egypt have recently imposed limits on exports to keep domestic prices down. Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter, expects to follow suit.
If these countries refuse to export food as they struggle to feed their own populations, it begs the question: what is the western world going to eat? We are massively dependent on imports to sustain our rich palate of food choices – and we’ve been used, thanks to globalisation, to getting our goods dirt cheap from the third world.
This worm is beginning to turn. No matter what cosy deals their governments may have with our multinationals, when people begin starving, all bets are off and things turn very nasty, very quickly.
It’s Wal-Mart today. Dunnes Stores tomorrow?