Monday, April 28, 2008

The Global Food Crisis: A Hydra-headed Monster

Who Wants to be President?

I have a long list of critical issues requiring immediate attention when a new U.S. president takes office in January, the length and nature of which will make FDR’s “Hundred Days” plan look small (getting out of Iraq, caring for veterans, dealing with war crimes charges against Bush administration officials, developing an appropriate strategy for combating terrorism, turning the economy around, moving on a plan for universal health care, undergirding Social Security, restoring civil liberties, re-establishing international credibility, cleaning out politicized and crony-corrupted federal agencies, repairing the crumbling infrastructure, to name a few). But, as someone who worked with an NGO on the world food crisis of the 70’s, I’m not sure any of the problems listed above cloud the future more than the current global food crisis. Who would want to be president and face this problem?

Listen to Likbir Ould Mohamed Mahmoud‘s
story. Even before taking the butcher knife to the she-goat's throat, he knew it would only make things worse.
The goat was a living bounty in this parched city on the Sahara's edge, providing the sweet milk that filled his family's stomachs at breakfast time. But as soaring food prices worldwide have hit the poorest nations of Africa the hardest, he has been forced to join many of his neighbors in slaughtering or selling off one of their only sources of wealth -- their livestock.

By sacrificing the she-goat last month, the 39-year-old day laborer and goatherd traded the family's morning milk for dinner meat. It lasted a few days. With the family unable to afford skyrocketing prices for basic foods, he said, his two young children now cry in the morning from hunger. One recent morning, he could take it no more. He took the goat's kid -- one of the last two animals in his flock -- to the squalid livestock market here in the hopes of selling it to buy food. "Everything -- the wheat, rice, sugar and animal feeds -- is higher priced than I have ever seen them before," he said. "What will we do? Soon we will have nothing left to sell."
In different ways, a billion other people on this planet share Mahmoud’s plight. You’ve seen the headlines trying to capture the magnitude of the global food crisis: “Unlucky Confluence of Events,” “Unprecedented Tsunami,” “A Perfect Storm,” and others. In its usual understated tone, The Economist calls it “The End of Cheap Food.”

Those who think this problem doesn’t compare to the ones I’ve listed in the first paragraph simply do not see what a hydra-headed monster it is. A challenge for our new president will be to understand the dimensions of the problem and how its tentacles complicate nearly every aspect of domestic and foreign policy.

Let’s say that you are a farmer feeding out a hundred hogs. As the weeks go by, you notice that some hogs are really getting fat and others are losing weight. Because you know that every day you put enough food out for a hundred hogs, your first conclusion is not that there are too many hogs; your conclusion will be that some are staying too long at the trough.

It is not true to say that there are too many people in the world to be fed adequately. As
The Economist put it,
For as long as most people can remember, food has been getting cheaper and farming has been in decline. In 1974-2005 food prices on world markets fell by three-quarters in real terms. Food today is so cheap that the West is battling gluttony even as it scrapes piles of half-eaten leftovers into the bin.
So, while it is not true to say that there is not enough food for the world’s population, it is true to say that there are too many people in the world to consume at the level of those of us in the West. Most of us are staying too long at the trough. Who are we to say that the emerging middle classes in Asia should not eat and waste the way we do?

While true and deadening for a U.S. president, the roots of this crisis are much more complex. On Sunday, the Washington Post began a
major series of articles on the world food crisis that bears close attention through the week. The first article cautions about simple explanations.
No single factor can be blamed for the global food crisis. An unlucky confluence of events over the past several years contributed to the soaring prices.
Teacherken’s article in DailyKos summarizes causes and effects of the crisis:

1. Trade Restrictions
Cause: Major exporting nations introduced/increased export taxes, bans and other restrictions to keep down domestic prices
Effect: These further strained already tight supplies adding pressure on prices.(Among the nations with such restrictions are Russia, China, Indonesia, Ukraine and Egypt).

2. Increased Demand in Asia
Cause: Economic development and income growth in emerging countries, especially China and India, are changing diets away from starchy foods toward more meat and dairy in China, where per capita meat consumption is up 40% since 1980.
Effect: More grain needed to feed livestock, thus less for human food. (7-8.5 pounds of grain for one pound of beef, 5-7 for one pound of pork, and as per capita consumption has gone up by nearly half, the population has gone from .98 to over 1.3 billion).

3. Weather
Cause: Heat waves, droughts and excessive rain in grain-producing countries taking toll on crops in recent years.
Effect: World cereal stocks have fallen. (true even in US, from 71.7 million metric tons in 2006 to a projected 48.1 in 2008)

(Drought inAustralia : The Deniliquin mill, the largest rice mill in the Southern Hemisphere, once processed enough grain to meet the needs of 20 million people around the world. But six long years of drought have taken a toll, reducing Australia’s rice crop by 98 percent and leading to the mothballing of the mill last December. …many scientists believe it is among the earliest signs that a warming planet is starting to affect food production.)

4. Biofuels
Cause: The push to produce biofuels increasing demand for corn, with US, exporter of 66% of world's corn using increasing amounts for ethanol.
Effect: Corn prices up more than 50 percent since last year, causing European nations to turn to less expensive sorghum to feed livestock, driving up the price of a grain heavily used by poor people (from 98/metric ton in 2004-5 to 191 in 2007-8).

(The Economist put it this way: “But the rise in prices is also the self-inflicted result of America's reckless ethanol subsidies. This year biofuels will take a third of America's (record) maize harvest. That affects food markets directly: fill up an SUV's fuel tank with ethanol and you have used enough maize to feed a person for a year. And it affects them indirectly, as farmers switch to maize from other crops. The 30m tonnes of extra maize going to ethanol this year amounts to half the fall in the world's overall grain stocks.”)

5. Fuel Prices
Cause: All the chart offers is "Rising Fuel Prices." Of course, we know our actions in Iraq are a major contributor to that rise, but so is increasing motorization of the developing world, especially China.
Effect: Costlier to produce/transport grain (from Gulf Coast to Japan up from 60 to 110 per ton, and 97% more to ship to Europe. Those figures do not begin to address the increases in planting and plowing, nor in the use of petroleum based fertilizers.)

Beyond the suffering caused by severe hunger and malnutrition, there are other consequences of the crisis:

The food price shock now roiling world markets is destabilizing governments, igniting street riots and threatening to send a new wave of hunger rippling through the world's poorest nations. It is outpacing even the Soviet grain emergency of 1972-75, when world food prices rose 78 percent. By comparison, from the beginning of 2005 to early 2008, prices leapt 80 percent, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. Much of the increase is being absorbed by middle men -- distributors, processors, even governments -- but consumers worldwide are still feeling the pinch.

The convergence of events has thrown world food supply and demand out of whack and snowballed into civil turmoil. After hungry mobs and violent riots beset Port-au-Prince, Haitian Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis was forced to step down this month. At least 14 countries have been racked by food-related violence. In Malaysia, Prime Minister
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is struggling for political survival after a March rebuke from voters furious over food prices. In Bangladesh, more than 20,000 factory workers protesting food prices rampaged through the streets two weeks ago, injuring at least 50 people.

Don’t expect the world food crisis to go away before January; expect it to [ loom larger] and more catastrophic.
Although the cost of food is determined by fundamental patterns of demand and supply, the balance between good and ill also depends in part on governments. If politicians do nothing, or the wrong things, the world faces more misery, especially among the urban poor. If they get policy right, they can help increase the wealth of the poorest nations, aid the rural poor, rescue farming from subsidies and neglect—and minimise the harm to the slum-dwellers and landless labourers. So far, the auguries look gloomy.
The question is not really who would want to be president and confront this intractable problem. We already have three candidates. The question is who we think will be best able to deal with the vast array of critical problems that require immediate and long-term attention? Who will have the cross-cultural sensitivity necessary to understand the problem’s global dimensions? Who has a mind that can grasp and interpret the new complexities of our time? Who will have the courage to advocate for unpopular measures for the long-term good of all?

Although the president will promise to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” this crisis requires a president who will look beyond the United States to the rest of the world. More than at any time in the past, we require a president who has the breadth of vision and compassion to see and act with the well-being of the entire planet in mind, for only in so doing can this president fulfill the pledge to defend this country.

Note: In part 2 of this diary, which I hope to get out by Wednesday, I plan to explore how measures to address global warming interface with the world food crisis.

- Milo

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