Posted by: Jack | April 16, 2008

The world food crisis

Over the last year it’s become more and more clear that there is a huge humanitarian/environmental disaster unfolding across the world. The crisis is in food production.

There’s been quite a lot written in recent weeks in the mainstream press, but a lot of it has taken the actual experience of people around the world confronting this issue as incidental to examining the big global causes.

I’m going to try and pool what I can find from around the internet about the protests and riots taking place around the world as poor people everywhere struggle to keep their families fed. I believe that it’s vital for all of us to try and engage with and understand that the environmental crisis isn’t something that holds a threat for the future, but it’s something that people around the world are forming movements, protests and riots against, mainly in the global south.

Food riot in West Bengal

But first of all, let’s try and look at what it is that’s happening and why on a world scale.

World food prices have risen 75% since 2000. Wheat prices have risen by 200%. Other staple grains, like rice and soya, have all been rocketing in price as well. This doesn’t just affect the price of plant foods-a huge proportion of the grains we grow aren’t used for human food but to feed animals in intensive feed lots for the production of meat for mass consumption. Just today it was reported that the Scottish Government is going to have to set up a special taskforce to try and support the pig farming industry from the price of grain which has gone up 78% in the last year.

The consequence is that the world’s poorest people can’t afford to buy the food they need. More than 73 million people in 78 countries depend on the United Nations World Food Programme to provide them with food.

“Food scarcity means a big increase in the number of people going hungry. Without doubt, we are passing through a difficult period for the world’s hungry poor. We estimate the programme needs an additional $500 million to keep feeding the 73 million people in Africa, Asia and Central America who require its help. We need extra money by the middle of 2008 so we don’t have to reduce rations,” a WFP official was reported as saying.

Why is this happening? The first thing to say is that isn’t poor people’s fault. There’s a brand of “environmentalism” that always wants to pin the blame on poor people, stupid black and brown people having too many babies. Not only do folk with that perspective not have the answers to the problems, but some of them are helping to cause the problems, as we’ll see.

The biggest issue in the world crisis is the unfair relations between the rich countries and the poor ones. The rich world (the US, the EU, Japan, Australia etc.) has been using international organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation to force poor countries’ governments not to protect their local agriculture. This means that they can’t provide any subsidy money to support their farmers, and their farming is dominated by products that can make a profit on the world market.

So instead of growing the food they need to survive, poor peasants become workers on huge plantations of coffee, or tobacco, or cocoa, which is being grown because it’s what the rich world wants and is willing to pay for.

But the rich countries don’t obey these rules themselves. While insisting that poor countries must fling open their doors for us to come in and do whatever we like, their farmers now survive on the subsidies provided them by the US Federal Government or the EU Common Agricultural Policy. This means that our governments use their money to keep them in business, and produce huge amounts of food. This is then sold to the poor world, putting their local farmers out of business (known as dumping).

The subsidies encourage ever bigger and more industrial farms, which depend on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, as well as huge amounts of machinery. So farming comes to be dominated by a few huge businesses, often the same people operating the plantations in the poor world. The richest 20 percent of farmers in Britain get 80 percent of the subsidies from the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy.

In the 70s and earlier the west encouraged poor countries to take out loans from western banks to develop their economies, but now the debt from these loans, and the interest on the debt, has ballooned to a level that they will never be able to afford to pay back. Instead of focussing on farming to meet their own needs they are forced to grow cash crops that they can export in return for the rich world’s money.

The kind of farming that goes on in the average US farm or third world plantation is absolutely dependent on oil. Historically, farming has relied on the soil community, all the millions and billions of bacteria, fungi, worms, insects and other creatures that keep the soil alive and nourished enough to provide the food that we need. Crops need healthy soil, water and energy to grow.

In the past our crops depended on the sun for their energy. We had to live within the limits of the energy we could get from the sun each year, depending on it to fuel our crops. Energy isn’t created or destroyed in our universe-it changes form. So the energy that comes from the sun is converted to chemical energy by plants, and that energy is converted by our bodies into the energy we use to walk around, talk and do everything that we do.

But every time energy changes form some is lost in the process-no system is 100% efficient, and most are nowhere close it. So for most of human history the most sensible thing was to eat plants and let food from animals be a bit of a luxury. It just wasn’t efficient to grow crops to feed to animals to feed to ourselves-too much energy is lost in the process.

But in the last 200 years we’ve suddenly discovered marvellous new sources of energy-fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are the remains of ancient plants that have been crushed and compressed under the ground. Its energy that came from the sun over millennia concentrated and made available to us. Energy that took millions of years to build up can suddenly be released and used in just one.

That’s has a huge impact on farming. Industrial agriculture uses huge fields to grow monocultures of one profitable crop, instead of rotating crops and using ecology to produce food sustainably. But if you have a huge field of one crop it makes a hugely inviting target for a disease or insect that preys on that crop. So you have to start using poisonous chemicals to kill of pests, which are ultimately derived from oil via the petro chemical industry.

But the chemicals don’t just kill of the creatures you want to get rid of. They’re poisons, and they kill lots of friendly insects who we relied on to help us before, as well as earth worms, song birds etc etc. What had been a complex system of different organisms that ultimately produced our food becomes a dead wasteland. Dead land can’t produce living crops.

The zombie soils are kept alive by energy from fertiliser. Again these are derived from oil. The more artificial chemical inputs we use, the more we depend on them as the soil becomes more dead and can only produce with our help.

The other key element in modern agriculture is huge mechanisation-tractors, combine harvesters, crop sprayers etc. All these machines are fuelled by oil.

Farm machinery in China

Many areas where we farm are dependent on artificial irrigation-water is brought there by human machinery, again fuelled by oil.

So this basically means that we’re eating oil two or three stages removed. And this is one of the big reasons behind why food prices are rocketing around the world-oil prices have been rising steadily for a few years, and we’re beginning to see the effects in oil dependent agriculture. Oil prices are rising because of the war in Iraq, and problems in lots of other oil producing countries, from the Niger delta to Saudi Arabia. But many scientists are starting to think that there might be a bigger underlying reason: the world’s oil is running out.

Some are even predicting that by 2010 we’ll have reached the peak of how much oil we can produce. This doesn’t mean there’s no oil left, it just means that what is left is the hardest and most expensive oil to get. It would stop making sense to try and get it because we’d use more oil extracting it than we’d get from it. If this does happen soon then it’s going to cause a huge crash in oil based farming.

In the meantime, the oil price rise is starting to feed through to fuel prices. If the oil that makes the fertilisers and fuels the tractors is rocketing in price, then so will the food it produces. According to the World Bank, fertiliser prices have risen 150% in the past five years. The cost of fertiliser contributes over a quarter of the overall cost of grain production in the US, which is responsible for 40% of world grain exports.

Of course, we all know by now that burning the amount of oil and other fossil fuels that we do now is causing a much bigger problem-climate change. The effects of this are already being felt around the world. Last year Australia experienced its worst drought for over a century, and saw its wheat crop shrink by 60%. China’s grain harvest has also fallen by 10% over the past seven years.

According to the UN an area of land the size of Ukraine is being lost to farming because of drought and deforestation. Many scientists are predicting that in the course of this century the melting polar ice caps might cause sea levels to rise by a metre or more. If that happens almost a third of the world’s crop growing lands would be flooded.

Drought in South Carolina, USA

Peak oil and climate change are increasingly being recognised by the powerful people in the world as being a carbon energy crisis. For 50 years or more the British and US governments have allowed the car industry to dominate how we move ourselves around, shutting railways, tramways and building new motorways. Where I live in Glasgow the city is cut through by a horrendous motorway. With so many people now facing no choice to be dependent on cars, the price of petrol is a big political issue, as the fuel protests by farmers and lorry drivers in 2001 showed.

One of the solutions to these problems that is being heavily promoted by US President George W Bush, backed by the British government, and the Brazilian President, has been biofuels. This means using high energy crops to produce fuel for cars instead of people. Just this week in the UK the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) came into force. This is a government directive requiring 5% of all fuel sold in the UK to be produced by biofuels.

The idea that this should be promoted while people across the world are starving is absolutely criminal, and it helps rich governments get away from taking the steps they really need to tackle climate change. The more land that gets used to feed cars instead of people, the more expensive it gets for poor people to eat.

Another consequence of mechanising agriculture is that you need to employ less people on farms. The policies forced on third world governments by the west encourage huge farms operated by agribusiness. This means chucking poor peasants off the land and their smaller, more ecologically friendly farms.

This means that more people move to the cities, and throughout the world now huge slum megacities are growing up, from Mexico City, to coastal China, to Lagos and Cape Town. For the first time in world history more people live in cities than in the countryside. This has been really well described by Mike Davis in his book ‘Planet of Slums’.

Karl Marx wrote about “the metabolic rift” in the 19th century. This basically means that people who don’t spend their lives interacting with nature don’t understand natural limits, and our society doesn’t live within those limits anymore. The huge numbers of people living in the world’s shanty towns without any kind of stable income are showing this in practice-feeding, employing and above all controlling them is a huge headache for the world’s powerful people.

The Communist Manifesto calls for “abolishing the division between town and country” and 150 odd years later this is a more key demand than ever. Around the world, if they are to survive, poor people are going to have to fight the governments, agribusiness corporations and other powerful forces that are ripping them from the land. Poor peasants have always produced most of the world’s food, and once we can’t fuel our agriculture with oil any more they’ll need to be again.

The alternative is the food riots we’re seeing around the world, as people who live in the planet of slums, and struggle to make ends meet however they can, can’t afford to eat.

We need to focus on producing food that meets people’s needs in a way where we work together with natural systems, instead of killing them off and using our technology to replace them. This means stopping farming cash crops and biofuels, and switching to organic production of basic foods.

Like I mentioned earlier, one key thing that will need to change is what we’re eating. Putting it bluntly we eat too much meat. We’re now eating way more meat than ever before. In the second half of the 20th century livestock production increased fivefold, and now uses the largest proportion of our agricultural land. We grow food not for ourselves, but our animals, losing energy in the process.

The world’s 6 billion people now share the world with 1 billion pigs, 1.3 billion cattle, 1.8 billion sheep and goats and 15.4 billion chickens at any one time.

One of the hidden causes behind the food crisis is that newly rich middle classes in China and other parts of the industrialising world want to adopt what they see as the American diet, a sign of affluence and success-huge quantities of beef, milk, chicken etc.

An chicken factory farm

We need to start organising now for a revolution that seeks to feed poor people and make humans live within ecological limits. We need to give poor people the land to produce the food they need. We need to work with nature instead of against it. We need to eat less meat. And we need to start developing a society that uses less energy and more efficiently so that we aren’t dependent on oil or biofuels.

The kind of ecosocialist society we need to build would depend less on the oil industry, petro chemicals and artificial materials like plastic that can’t be broken down by natural cycles. It will be a society with agro-ecology at its heart. We’ll use far more natural materials and food production will be central to most people’s lives.

If we don’t, and we follow the plans of our current world leaders, the results will be genocidal. Billions of landless poor people will die of starvation, our farming land will be lost to environmental degradation. It’s happening right in front of us right now. Unless we’re willing to let it just happen we need to get organised and do something now.


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