Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Eat All You Can

Food prices are rising across the world. Un-noticed in many northern hemisphere countries, 2010 has so far globally been the warmest on record and the prolonged drought in Russia especially has led the US Department of Agriculture to predict a 5.5% reduction in wheat production this year alone. At 642 million tonnes, it will fall around 25 million tonnes short of consumption, depressing grain reserves globally by just under 10%. These statistics of course mask the vast inequalities in global food distribution - western consumers will have to pay a little more for their breakfasts, but many in the poorest nations will go hungry, unable to afford the grains produced in the fields around them. Instead the food will be exported to rich nations by the supermarkets and multinationals, many of which have bought up vast tracts of agricultural land in the Third World. Britain imports nearly 40% of its food - much of it from poorer countries where the same people who harvest our pineapples and grains cannot afford the items they farm for us.

From http://www.farmlandgrab.org/
 This forecast has been preceded by widespread speculation on the world markets in buying food futures in anticipation of scarcities making the food industry more profitable. Ultimately, although millions may starve in poorer countries, lower food supply equals higher profits for the same investment, an attractive proposition for our commodity traders.

The futures trade in food has been growing apace. Just as other sectors of the financial markets have been facing a squeeze following the banking crisis and the global recession, the rising cost of food has offered a lifeline to the stockbroking fraternity. This is a trend likely to continue as a combination of population growth, global warming and resource scarcity make the historically low cost of food enjoyed by western countries over the last few decades a thing of the past.

But of course, with the Common Agricultural Policy keeping prices artificially low in Europe and supermarkets maintaining a stranglehold on both domestic and international production of food, western consumers are insulated from all this, for a time at any rate. In the UK, just 4 large supermarkets - Tesco, Asda (Walmart), Morrisons, and Sainsburys supply three quarters of Britain's food. With government rules on monopolies set aside for this sector, they are frequently accused of abuse of suppliers - the milk industry in particular complains about prices set below the cost of production, while smaller local shops are routinely undercut and put out of business by predatory marketing. For now, this conspires to provide consumers with food which, in real terms, is pretty much the cheapest it has ever been.

Although the current projections are that there will be a rise in overall food prices in the UK of 4% during the coming winter, this is trifling compared to the real cost of food around the world, in financial, human and environmental terms. And it is as nothing to the projected crisis of rising demand outpacing supply over the next two decades - the World Bank, for example, estimates an 85% rise in demand for meat and dairy products by 2030; while at the same time, the supply of phosphorus, a vital mineral in modern agriculture, is likely to become increasingly scarce. The rising price of oil, again a vital in both the production and transportation of food, will further hit the cost of food to the extent that consumers across the world will be affected, and of course those on lower incomes will suffer by far the worst.

For example, while Americans spend on average slightly less than 10% of their incomes on food, the average for people in middle income countries like Ukraine or Syria is 35%, while in poor states it is much more, around 55% A study in 2006 found that the average Tanzanian has to spend 71% of their income to purchase a diet of slightly less than 2,000 kcals per day compared to the gut-busting US average of over 3,750kcals (Britain comes in at 3,450 - nearly 1,000 more than the recommended amount for a man). It is plain to see who will be hardest hit, at least initially, in the scarcities ahead.

A bit of fun or an insult to humanity? - the 105lb burger
But it is a fool who thinks that western society will be able to insulate itself. Morally wrong, and utterly delusional, is any argument that the current state of affairs can continue for much longer. The truth is that many world systems of food and water supply are nearing exhaustion. For now, supermarkets like Sainsburys are able to provide supposedly ethically produced, environmentally friendly organic fruit and vegetables to their customers by buying up precious agricultural land in the Caribbean. Following the spike in food prices in 2008, many western food producers or their proxies, including rich states like Saudi Arabia, began to purchase land in Africa and South America in an attempt to guarantee their own food supplies.

Yet do we seriously think that this "global land grab" can continue? Will people in the host countries obligingly starve in order to respect foreign landowners property rights? Or will we end up with military intervention to guard our food supplies in a similar way to the intervention in Iraq for oil or Afghanistan for lithium?

In a world of plenty, one billion people
go to bed hungry each night.
And behind all this, the global food industry rips off producers and consumers alike, destroying small scale agriculture to create destructive behemoths like the 8,000 cow dairy unit, and crushing small, local food suppliers. They flood the market with cheap, addictive and unhealthy food, destroying individuals' self-esteem and damaging their health with calorific crap.

The existing systems of ownership, production and distribution are both unfair and inefficient - nearly a fifth of Britain's food is thrown away; water leaks out of pipes around the world to the tune of billions of gallons every day; one in five people go to bed hungry, while a similar number are substantially overweight with associated illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease at record levels.

This is what the average US family of four THROWS AWAY
 each month. source - NY Times
The world is at a crossroads. The banking crisis, the fuel crisis and the political crises associated with these will without any doubt be joined by other major and increasingly disruptive crises of supply over the coming decade - food, water and fuel, the staples of civilised life. One specialist, a former British government adviser, predicts a perfect storm by 2030  as global demand for food and energy jumps by 50% and for fresh water by 30%, as the population tops 8.3 billion.

The good news is that there is still time to do something about it: there are many alternatives to what we do now. Energy conservation, development of clean, renewable fuel sources such as solar and wave power, support for more local manufacturing and distribution of goods and services, the fostering of local food production especially small scale - even at the individual level of allotments - could start to make the difference. The Cuban example of learning to feed itself following the collapse of the Soviet bloc is one we should learn from. It has additionally done so using substantially organic production techniques - again a means to avoid the anticipated problem of scarcity of phosphates used in non-organic food production.

Trade needs massive reforms too, as does the international financial system - speculation in vital resources such as food supplies must end. We can no longer allow city traders the right to profit from the misery of the starving - it is a silent, invisible genocide, yet the men responsible are given bonuses rather than jail sentences.

The world that could emerge from such reforms would be safer, more sustainable and fairer by far than the one we have now. Our societies could be more at ease with themselves, more socially just, healthier and peaceful. It is a challenge, but it is infinitely more appealing than where we are headed now - to increasing scarcity and conflict over our dwindling supplies, and to the rapacious destruction of our habitat and perhaps ultimately ourselves.

The choice is ours.

Supermarkets - not always the bargain they seem to be...

1 comment: