Gwandoya. His name was an African Luganda name for “met with misery”. His mother awoke for the sixth time that day due to his screeching cries. She picked him up again gently from the decrepit crib and held him to her chest, singing him lullabies and caressing his face, but all to no avail. She knew he was hungry. Silently, also for the sixth time that day, she asked God, why must they always be hungry?
The global food crisis is devastating, but not unstoppable. We can find a solution. But in order to do that, we must first ask a critical question about the food crisis: why?
Mean and Green
The problems that have presented themselves over the past decade have been less than simple, with the dangers of nuclear war, the atrocities of terrorism, the mayhem of the economic crisis, the urgency of pollution, and the need for world energy generation. With the recent discovery of biofuels, the energy generation problem has been temporarily solved. However, to our dismay, this has engendered yet another unfortunate series of events, beginning with the devastating universal food crisis.
Firstly, what exactly are biofuels? Biofuels are fuels derived from creatures that have been dead for a relatively short period of time. On the other hand, fossil fuels, which many of us may be more familiar with, are derived from organisms that have been dead for a long period of time. As one can see, biofuels will take less time to form, which is why it is a sustainable source of energy. Biofuels, unlike fossil fuels, also do not speed up the process of global warming, and so therefore are a clean energy source.
Most biofuels are produced from crops like corn, maize, sugar cane, and wheat. Thus, there is one evident drawback of biofuels: they require vast amounts of crops that could be used to feed starving people. In other words, using biofuels to fuel one’s car is in fact directly stealing food from others’ hungry mouths.
The Other Side of the Story
Due to their environmentally-friendly nature and the skyrocketing prices of oil, biofuels have been an increasingly popular alternative source of energy in the United States and Europe. In fact, it has been estimated that about 33% of the corn crop produced and 11% of the maize crop produced in these countries are used for biofuel production.
The rapid increase of petroleum oil prices has done nothing to alleviate the burdens of the food crisis. Because of these price increases, many governments have begun encouraging their citizens to switch to biofuels as their main source of energy. In fact, more than twenty countries now legally require the use of biofuels. Recently, the European Union declared that it hoped to replace 5.75% of all traffic fuels with biofuels by 2010 and 10% of all traffic fuels with biofuels by 2020. Due to the immense popularity of biofuels, many governments have also begun to encourage farmers to replace food crops with energy crops. This plan is contrary to the plan the government should be implementing, since studies have shown that in order to support the increasing population, humans will need to increase food production by more than 50% by the year 2050.
There is no true way of measuring the actual amount of impact the production of biofuels has on food prices. Thus, there are many beliefs as to how much food prices are affected by biofuels. National governments suggest that biofuels only account for 3% to 4% of food price increases, while the International Food Policy Research Institute believes this percentage to be as high as 30%. The World Bank even suggests that biofuels contribute to over 75% of food price increases. But no matter what the actual percentage is, it is indisputable that biofuels are exacerbating the situations of the food crisis.
Fluctuations of Oil Prices
From Crude Oil to Cooking Oil
Currently, the primary concern of car drivers is not being able to keep up with the ever-increasing oil prices, as the crude oil prices have reached record highs. It is not only the price of crude oil that is being affected though; even the price of the cooking oil we use every day is soaring. For example, during a limited time promotion for cooking oil in Chongqing, China, the stampede that rushed to purchase the oil left 3 killed and 31 more injured. With these exponentially rising prices of oil, people have begun frantically searching for a potentially cheaper energy source.
Oil is very closely connected to food as it allows for transportation of fertilizers and crops, and provides energy for farming machinery such as tractors. Any change in oil prices thus directly affects food prices.
Why, Oh, Why?
Why, oh, why are prices of oil so high? This is mainly due to a supply and demand issue. Basically, the demand for oil is now a lot larger than the supply available for various reasons, such as large foreign deposits running out, restrictions of foreign drilling due to political of economical reasons, and the lack of extra deposits to satisfy the demand of large oil guzzling nations.
In addition, instability in mass oil producing countries has led to a decline in amount of oil available. Outbreaks of war and violence significantly affect oil supply, which is evident in many regions such as Kuwait, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria’s oil rich delta.
The rate of investment in the oil mining industry in the long term also affects the prices of oil. When less money is invested into the industry over a long period of time, the amount of oil available becomes more limited, and this in turn raises prices drastically. When war or fighting erupts in these nations, speculators and traders often raise prices as they panic about a decreasing supply, sending a deadly blow to both the global oil market and our oil-obsessed society.
Despite the fact that prices of oil have begun dropping over the past few months, we cannot believe that our troubles are over. The false security that this may provide is certainly tempting but we must face reality: oil prices are fluctuating, and with them, so are food prices. With these unpredictable fluctuations of oil prices, it can be considered only foolish to believe that the oil crisis is over and food prices will be dropping to a normal level soon, for the truth is, there is still a long way to go.
Every Nation for Itself
Currently, many developing and developed countries are beginning to impose trade barriers on agricultural commodities: China and India have imposed export bans on rice, while Russia, Argentina, and Kazakhstan have imposed export bans on wheat. High tariffs, which act like extra taxes, have also been put on food and petroleum. These artificially high prices created by the government are actually only putting more strain on the food prices.
Export bans, the most notable trade barriers, are meant to improve domestic security and isolate domestic markets from the effects of high prices. An example would be the export bans on food and oil India imposed in 2008. India’s goal was to assure domestic security, but the stockpiling of food had led to global shortage, while food prices hiked. When major exporting countries impose this type of trade barrier, consumers have to turn to other countries for supply, and the remaining exporters eventually pull out from the market, worsening the situation.
Growing Demand for Food
One of the largest causes of the food crisis is the ever-increasing human population. Currently, countries like China and India have tremendously rising populations that need more and more food every year. China’s 1.3 billion population and India’s 1 billion population, are both estimated to rise by 300 million each by the year 2050 and 2023 respectively. Also in Sub-Saharan Africa, the 642 million population is expected to rise to 1.4 billion within the next 25 years. With the significant rise of the population comes more demand for food, and even now, the effects are felt.
The amount of land available for farming also decreases as the population increases. Land previously used for farming has been used for city development in order to accommodate the growing population. For example, China’s grain harvests have been falling for the past 4 to 5 years because much of its farmable land is being urbanized to support the growing population.
In addition, right now, in many rapidly developing countries, consumers are changing their diets to a more protein-based diet. In 12 Asian countries, there has been an estimated 55% increase in demand for protein foods. Unfortunately, livestock and protein foods require more food and resources. For example, in the U.S alone, these animals consume half the amount of water consumed nationwide and 70%-80% of the food produced.
Global Farming Subsidies
Watering the Wrong Seed
Global farm subsidies have been causing major problems for the farmers in developing countries. In the EU, wheat farmers receive 35 pounds per ton of wheat, while farmers in developing countries receive little or none at all. Furthermore, the size of the firms matters, as large corporations receive much more subsidies than small-scale farmers.
In many countries, subsidies mean overproduction for large corporations. Those corporations will then send the food to developing nations, which will force the local farmers out of business because the excess food is sold at artificially low prices. Developed farms use advanced technology to increase output to record high levels, while the poor farmers can only yield a moderate amount, and can not afford to lower prices.
Also, with the current high prices, farmers opt for improved seeds and equipment so they will produce and earn more. It has been estimated that $300 billion per annum of subsidies are given to agricultural sectors by the national governments in developed countries. The owners of larger farms benefit greatly while the small-scale farmers do not gain anything. This not only jeopardizes the small-scale farmers by increasing competition, but also brings social imbalances.
Thus, if these subsidies are used on improvement of food delivery instead, food aid policies will increase in efficiency and the problems of the food crisis will be more quickly solved.
Opposition to Genetically Modified foods
The majority of the general public will choose organic food over genetically modified foods because humans feel safer eating foods their ancestors had eaten centuries ago. So although GM foods can help alleviate the current food shortage problem, many countries including Spain, Paraguay, and Thailand have imposed sanctions on GM foods.
Most of society opposes increased dependence on GM crops mainly because this technology is still shrouded in mystery. For example, in May 2005, a biotech company called Monsanto tested the safeness of GM crops by feeding mice GM corn for 90 days. The results were alarming, for the experimental data reveal that there were small changes in kidney size and blood composition. By small, they were insignificant and barely detectable, but it still resulted in public uproar. Confidence in GM foods dropped when there were problems such as allergies caused due to GM foods in Brazil, Australia, and the United States.
At the same time, people do not want to support large biotech corporations that seek to cooperate and form a combined monopoly, then raise seed prices at will to earn more profit. These companies begin to sell seeds of terminating crops, or crops that are sterile, so farmers will have to buy seeds every year from these companies. This does nothing to help improve our conditions, for the prices of the seeds will decrease production levels.
Bigger, Brighter, Better!
Despite all the shortcomings of GM crops, there are still many redeeming features, qualities that help stop the food crisis. Many crops are naturally pest-resistant and require less care, mechanical input, and fertilizers than conventional crops. They can also be less susceptible to bad weather, poor soil quality, and other hostile conditions, so production costs will be decreased, and food will be cheaper and more plentiful. Furthermore, GM crops can be altered to have more nutritional value, which will help those malnourished in developing countries. Currently, the amount of land used for cultivation of GM foods has increased from 17,000 km2 to 900,000 km2, but this is still far from enough to satisfy global needs. If large amounts of land are used for GM crops, there will definitely be a significant increase in food levels, easing the food shortage.
Poor food-aid policies
Help or Hurt?
Tons of food are being shipped from countries in Europe and North America, and from organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations every year to countries in Africa, South America, and even Asia. These efforts since the 1950s have certainly helped fill the bowls of a myriad number of people all around the world. However, even so, millions of people are still living every day hungry. This certainly calls to question the actual efficiency and effectiveness of our food aid efforts.
Transportation for food aid is pricey, which is a major reason why food aid is so inefficient. It is estimated that the amount of food supplied has dropped 50% since the 1960s because of such transportation costs. With the current oil prices, it is estimated that about 30% of the funds set aside for food aid has been used just for transporting it. This inefficiency in transportation has cost millions of lives.
When nations ship food aid to the poor countries, they often just dump the food into the local markets without considering the consequences. As a positive effect, there is more food available for the people, but as a negative effect, these cheap, subsidized foods imported from foreign countries squeeze the local farmers out of their jobs. As a result, though there may be much available and arable land in the poor countries, farmers do not have the incentive to compete their local food with the imported food. It is thus ironic how the food aid, intended to increase a nation’s food supply, actually lowers the production even more, and further increases the need for imported food “aid”.
The Real Deal
A good example of this would be the repercussions Indonesia experienced in 1998. In 1985, Indonesia received a gold medal from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) for achieving self-sufficiency. Sadly, just thirteen years later, it became one of the largest recipients of food aid. Analysts asked, how did Indonesia, from the acme of self-sufficiency, drop to the nadir? The main reason was the Asian financial crisis, which caused thousands to lose their jobs daily. There was enough food for the people; they just did not have enough money to buy it. Food-exporting countries saw this as a great chance to dump cheap food into the Indonesian market and earn huge profits. As a result, many Indonesian farmers were forced out of the market, and Indonesia experienced the economic consequences of food aid. This “aid” had the opposite of the intended effect, and brought much suffering to the unfortunate recipients of it.
Declining stocks of food grains
The ever increasing population is already starting to strain food stocks, and the food supplies are decreasing. Many are already panicking due to the present circumstances, so they buy as much food as they can in order to store for the future, resulting in mass bulk purchases. This further results in a scarcity of food in the market, and even less food in the reserves.
The significant increase in demand for food directly raises the food prices. The buffer stock schemes put in by the government can be used to explain this. Buffer stock schemes are mainly the storing of certain commodities to achieve economic stabilization. These schemes are designed based on the idea that when stocks of grain are high, shocks could be absorbed without affecting the prices of commodities much. When stocks are low, it is very possible for small supply or demand shocks to affect the price greatly. Many large organizations set price floors that are typically above the point of equilibrium between supply and demand. At the point of the price floor, there will be a surplus since supply exceeds demand at this level. This surplus will be reserved and used to satisfy the excess demand when there is not enough supply to meet the rising demand and stop the commodity prices from fluctuating. However, at this time, when we do not have large stocks of such commodities, the market will not be able to respond as quickly to the change in demand. The market will then lose control and fluctuate limitlessly. By studying this phenomenon, one can understand how food prices can rise so much today.
Out of Our Hands
Although most of the causes of the food crisis are directly related to human activity, Mother Nature still plays a small role in this global tragedy. In recent years, extreme weather patterns have contributed to a large dip in the amount of crops harvested in countries such as Australia and Morocco. This drop in supply has drastically reduced the amount of food easily accessible to the public. The resulting increase in aggregate demand has caused prices too, to soar.
Feeling the Heat
The worst of these shocks occurred in Australia, where persistent droughts have heavily damaged the country’s farming sector. Australia was once the second largest exporter of wheat, right behind the United States. However, seven long years of drought and water shortage have led to a shocking 98% decrease in annual rice harvests. The drought in Australia has also encouraged producers of rice and other staple commodities to sell their land and equipment to growers of less water-intensive crops like grapes. Such a shortage in supply has only put further strain on the consumers in Australia, not to mention the countries that import rice from Australia.
Besides Australia, China, with its ever increasing consumer demand, has also been affected by hostile weather conditions. Droughts and floods throughout northern and southern China have put pressure on the production of staple commodities like wheat and grain. A lot of land has been rendered unusable because of the droughts and floods, leaving the country to consider other options like importing its food. China’s increasing population is also slowly but surely introducing a steady increase in demand on the global market. Therefore, it has become increasingly vital for huge consumers such as China to control domestic demand and turn to more viable and effective solutions in lieu of importing.
Many other regions around the world including North America, Eastern Europe, and Africa, are “feeling the heat” as well. The rapid deterioration of maize harvests in South Africa aptly highlights the urgency of the matter at hand. The disruption of natural production in South Africa has reduced the already low food supply in Africa to alarming levels. With humanitarian crises and malnutrition ubiquitous in Africa, the dwindling food supplies in areas hit with natural disasters has unfortunately been another obstacle in eradicating the many problems in the region.
Gwandoya’s mother did not know why. She did not know why there was never enough food, why they could never be rid of hunger, why they were met with misery. All she knew was that she and her son were hungry. So she got down to her knees on the bare floor of the mud hut, clasped her hands together so tight the blood drained out of them, and prayed with all the energy she had left: “Please, God, do not let us be met with any more misery. Please, do not let us be hungry. Please.”