Saturday, 12 April 2008

Feed the world

The perfect storm of climate change, peak oil and the natural desire of those in the developing world to imitate a western lifestyle is coming to a head.

According to The Independent, rising food prices have provoked unrest around the world, as the poorest people in developing countries suddenly find themselves, once again, unable to get enough to eat:
This week crowds of hungry demonstrators in Haiti stormed the presidential palace in the capital, Port-au-Prince, in protests over food prices. And a crisis gripped the Philippines as massive queues formed to buy rice from government stocks.

There have been riots in Niger, Senegal, Cameroon and Burkina Faso and protests in Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Egypt and Morocco. Mexico has had "tortilla riots" and, in Yemen, children have marched to draw attention to their hunger. (1)
The cause isn't that there isn't enough food - there is always enough food - but, inevitably, that there isn't enough food in the right places. Instead of giving food to hungry people to eat, we are giving it to cows and hickens so that rich people can eat meat instead of grain. As the independent poitns out, it takes 8 kilos of grain to produce 1 kilo of beef (2). In the developed world, we've been squandering food like this for decades, but the practice has now spread to the developing word, where the rich are aligning their tastes with western norms, and eating more meat:
Diets are changing radically in nations such as China, India, Brazil and Russia, here economic growth has boosted meat consumption. In China, it is up by 150 per cent since 1980. In India, it has risen by 40 per cent in the past 15 years. The demand for meat from across all developing countries has doubled since 1980. (3)
This has a parralel in the devloped world, where food crops are now being used for bio-fuels as well as cattle fodder - food being used for almost anything except eating, infact. This further drives up the price. It is very nice that rich westerners can tell themselves their doing their bit for the environment by running their car on a bio-fuel mix (though Heaven forbid they do something more effective like stop using it so much!), but not so nice that this is making it impossible for the poorest and most vulnerable to eat. Still, they're only little brown people and far away. Hortense and Tarquin don't need to trouble themselves over that. By filling up the 4x4 with bio-fuel, they are doing their bit, I'm sure.

Climate change factors in again, as it makes it more difficult to grow crops, as droughts, floods and other climactic ills destroy crops and arable land:
Floods in central China this year displaced millions of people and devastated rice and corn crops. Overall China's grain harvest has fallen by 10 per cent over the past seven years. Last year, Australia experienced its worst drought for more than a century, causing the wheat harvest to fall by 60 per cent. The UK wheat harvest is expected to be 10 per cent down this year, partly because of the flooding.

Worldwide, an area of fertile soil the size of Ukraine is lost every year because of drought, deforestation and climate instability. (4)
On top of that, rising fuel costs make it more exensive to move food about, so even when there is food available for those that need it, it is harder to get it from where it is to where it is needed. Again, this is a result of the developed world's oil habit - we've created a world which is almost totally dependant on a transport system that is becoming impossible to run.

None of this is anything new or supsrising, of course. The wealthy and the powerful have always expropriated more than their fair share from the mouths of the weaker and powerless. When Marx was writing Capital, 150 odd years ago, he considered reports of the near starvation of workers receiving barely enough sustainance to keep them alive (5). Now, of course, in the developed world, things have got somewhat better. But the tragedy is that it isn't the result of a genuinally socialistic amelioration of poverty and want, but a displacement - the old injustice has been out sourced , like so much else, to the'developing world,' where cheap goods are manufactured by workers with no rights and living on wages that would have the worst Victorian factory owners feel queasy, so that people in the 'developed world' can delude themselves that they are living in a comfortable, wealthy society. The poorest of western proles can enjoy a Big Mac, without having to think about the people being forced closer to starvation by our addiction to luxury. In the west, we're all part of the aristocracy of labour.
1 - 'The other global crisis: rush to biofuels is driving up price of food,' by Paul Vallely in The Idependent, 12th of April, 2008.
2 - ibid.
3 - ibid.
4 - ibid.
5 - In Capital, by Karl Marx, published in english in 1887. In chapter 25, 'The General Law of capitalist Accumulation,' in the subsection, 'Illustrations of the General Law of Capitalist Accumulation,' he comments on the finding of various reports into the plight of 'The Badly Paid Strat of the British Industrial Class.' Courtesy of

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