Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Balancing Food and Fuel

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday,  April 20 / 08

Zack Gross

Last week, the World Bank announced that our planet faces an emergency situation. 

The overall price of staple foods such as wheat, rice and corn, have increased overall by 83% in the last three years.  This trend is driven by high oil prices, poor weather, increased purchasing (our growing world population and increased buying power in China and India), and reduced food production area due to the use of land to grow crops for transport fuels. 

Thirty percent of the US corn crop will soon be earmarked for ethanol production, while other countries, including poor ones, are also contributing large tracts of land and crops to bio-fuel production. 

Desertification in China and sub-Saharan Africa, changing rainfall patterns and more frequent flooding are significantly impacting on global food production.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) are responding, in part, to protests and food riots in many countries in recent days – Egypt, Haiti, Ivory Coast and the Philippines, to name a few. 

While rice exporters such as India and China have begun to restrict selling aboard, those who are buyers, such as Bangladesh and Afghanistan, are suffering without. 

Global leaders, such as US President George Bush, are throwing money at under-funded programs – the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has a $500 million shortfall – and are warning of mass starvation and war over meagre resources.  Even the wealthy nations are at risk, says Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, long an advocate of African development, fears that the current crisis – if it lingers – will roll back recent progress toward the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. 

Smallholders in poor nations need help to boost production while the impact of rapid growth in bio-fuels production urgently needs to be examined, says Brown.  For the first time in decades, he says, the number of people facing hunger worldwide is increasing.

The main losers in this situation are the urban poor.  Haiti, one the world’s poorest – half the population lives on less than a dollar per day - and most politically unstable countries, has witnessed violent demonstrations that led to five deaths and numerous injuries in its main cities.  

In Ivory Coast’s economic capital, Abidjan, a similar story of demonstrations and destruction was played out and President Laurent Gbagbo canceled several days of customs duties to attract food imports to his nation.  WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran, speaking to the African Union and Economic Commission for Africa, said: “We are seeing more hunger than ever before.  Often we see food on the shelves but people are unable to afford it.”

The British Broadcasting Corporation, on its website, asked families around the world to report on their change in eating habits in relation to the current food crisis. 

A middle class Guatemalan family reported that they had reduced their meat consumption from five times to twice per week.  Shops have fewer customers and prices increase daily.  The rise in corn prices due to ethanol bio-fuel production, means that basic foods such as tortillas have gone way up.  Forty percent of their income goes to food.

A British family reports that they spend 10% of their income on food.  The only noticeable price increase they have experienced is in meat. 

An Indian family reports spending 25% of its income on food and refuses to cut back.  Thus, they have less money left over at the end of each month.  Price increases are affecting a range of vegetables, grains, dairy and sugar. 

A Chinese family has seen pork prices rise to where it is no longer possible to have meat every day or as the main course in a meal.  Cooking oil and vegetable prices are up as well, so this family goes to distant early markets and buys local to save money.

A Kenyan family has meat now just twice per week and carefully shops for the lowest prices on other items, such as fruit and vegetables.  Going to fancier supermarkets or eating out at convenience stores is no longer affordable, and regular items such as chicken and potatoes have gone up 50% in a week. 

Finally, an Egyptian family reports that it eats only two meals per day instead of three, as costs have increased 500% in recent years.  This poorer family eats meat only once per week now and relies more on government food subsidies on sugar, rice, cooking oil and tea to get by.  While prices rise, they report, salaries do not.

There are many stop gap ways of dealing with the current food crisis, such as increasing aid money and propping up food programs.  In the long-term, however, world leaders need to deal with trade rules and the bio-fuel binge.  Can our world trade regulations be geared to supporting the poor farmer and consumer, and not just the wealthy country and corporation?  And, can it be understood that using crop production land for fuels will impact on food availability for a hungry humanity?  Many critics even question whether the move to bio-fuels actually does help the environment, given the massive clearing of lands, the use of fertilizers to grow bio-fuel crops, and the emissions created in manufacturing the fuels.

As with many global challenges, this one is complex.  No one simple action will suffice.  A food and fuel plan for a sustainable future is necessary.

Zack Gross is program coordinator at the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC), a coalition of 36 international development organizations active in our province.

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