The tsunami-like shock of soaring world food prices following the increase in the demand for oil is a dramatic illustration of the interconnectedness of the world. An additional 100 million people of already vulnerable populations have been plunged into poverty and hunger. Even in affluent U.S.A. the poorest fifth of the population spends about 15% of the family budget on food. A Nigerian family spends 73%. Not much left! Food riots have broken out in Haiti, Egypt, Somalia, and other poor countries.
The President of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, has warned that as many as 33 countries are at risk of social unrest. Sometimes there is not enough food, sometimes food is available, but the poor cannot afford to buy. With the increase of malnutrition and hunger, disease spreads — and travels.
Why is this happening? The interconnectedness of world resources has a number of causes. Oil prices are rising because of a growing worldwide demand for energy from the newly prosperous middle classes in the huge populations of China and India, as well as other mid-level countries. More cars on the streets; more meat on the table. Animal protein uses up large amounts of grain for food.
Government subsidizing biofuels such as ethanol has caused land formerly used for growing food to be diverted to energy needs. This is often wasteful since these biofuels use up much energy in production. But the damage doesn’t stop there. Domestic farm support by the U.S., Japan and the European Union benefits large agribusiness with highly mechanized production, at the expense of poor countries who cannot compete in price or productivity. In 1960 Africa was an exporter of food. Today the continent imports 1⁄3 of its grain. Rising costs of energy and fertilizer can only make this discrepancy worse. Speculation in international markets is the estimated cause for 30% of the increase in food prices.
The increase in production of biofuels, the response to the growing demand for oil, is having profound and disturbing effects. Only recently thought of as a solution to the limits on oil resources, the rush to biofuels is having unexpected consequences. More than 20 countries are planning to boost production of biofuels over the next decade. President Bush has signed an energy independence bill mandating the use of 36 billion gallons of agrifuel by 2022, a five-fold increase over present levels. The US government subsidies for ethanol and biodiesel will be 13 billion this year and will approach 100 billion in the near future. The US plans to treble maize production for the booming ethanol industry which is converting enormous amounts of food into fuel, 81 million tons in 2007, 114 million tons in 2009, 30 % of the entire US grain harvest.
WE ARE GROWING FOOD TO FEED CARS INSTEAD OF PEOPLE
The shockwave of rising prices has come faster than anyone predicted. President Bush has proposed an increase in food aid, with a plan to buy a quarter of the food from local farmers in countries already receiving aid. This is welcome and an improvement, though the donation still undermines local agriculture. The plan still requires mostly food purchased in the US and transported in US ships.
The UN has responded quickly to this rising and worsening international crisis. The Secretary General has established a top level task force to tackle immediate food shortages and escalating prices. In a recent speech he blamed some of the problems on “the new craze of biofuels derived from food products.” He urged instead research and investment in a new “green revolution for increase in crop yields.”
The UN’s World Food Program (WFP), already feeds 70 million people in about 80 countries. WFP sends out 30 ships on the high seas, 5000 trucks on the ground, and 70 aircraft delivering food to the hungry. WFP is an amazing operation! The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has developed a $1.7 billion program to provide seed for farmers in poor countries. This program is building both supply and productivity by expanding support for local small farmers
WFP depends on voluntary contributions from nations, organizations, and individuals. If you want to help, log onto www.wfp.org. Above all, what is needed is far-sighted planning. The poor are suffering from the energy decisions of the rich. It is to our own self interest and a political necessity to respond to this moral challenge.
Phyllis Ehrenfeld, President of the National Service Conference of the AEU and NSC Representative to the UN.
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, IHEU Representative to the UN