Today is World Food Day, founded in honour of the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organisation, which was set up to develop food security for the people of our planet. Yet, while securing some advances in its 67 years if existence, its objectives are as far from being fulfilled as ever. And the outlook is not good.
2012 has seen yet more terrifying changes to our global climate – the entire Greenland ice sheet melting, to wildfires across Europe, floods in Asia and the worst drought in the central USA since the 1930’s “Dustbowl”. It is this last event that may, for now, be the one with the greatest impact – the Obama Administration expects that production of wheat, maize and soybeans will be the lowest for decades. With the USA the largest producer in the world of these staples, this environmental disaster is set to drive global food prices sharply upwards. In the last two months alone, cereal wholesale prices have risen by 60% and the FAO has warned of a return to the shortages of 2008, when the cost of US staples rose by over 120% on 2005 prices.
The effect in 2008 was a 12.8% increase in UK food prices and lurid speculation in the gutter press about hoarding tins and buying a shotgun, but in many poor countries, with food costs already far higher in real terms, scores of people were killed when riots ensued. Burkina Faso saw food prices rise by 65%, while impoverished Haiti saw a 50% increase. Worldwide, several hundred millions went hungry for the first time.
Climate was one of several causes: but other factors included the impact of “food futures” speculation by the international City traders, whose betting on higher future food prices led to many physical food traders hoarding stocks in anticipation of a price hike. This was a self-fulfilling process and one which no action at all has been taken to curb. Speculation has also led to a modern land grab in Africa and Latin America, where the Chinese and Arab governments compete with the likes of Richard Branson and Nicola Horlick in snapping up millions of acres of prime agricultural land, anticipating food shortages as the gold rush of tomorrow. And so, with the next 12 months likely to see more malnourishment and starvation, the self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe may shed crocodile tears at best as children’s development is stunted and the corpses of the starved are committed to the dust.
Few deny that with increasing competition for dwindling resources, the coming decades will see a perfect storm which will seriously disrupt and even destroy the Earth’s ability to feed humanity. Yet food supply projects, current among them work by the Government BIS and the Chatham House think-tank, still predicate the solution on elusive and likely counter-productive technological fixes such as genetic modification. Moreover, they specifically exclude fostering national self-sufficiency in food supply, quixotically clinging to the alleged virtues of a globalised food chain. Needless to say, land ownership is not even contemplated as an issue.
In “The Enigma of Capital”, David Harvey has characterised the impact of humans on the environment as “creative destruction”, which has hastened exponentially under capitalist industrialisation with irreversible damage to our biosphere. But he warns, “The Revenge of Nature signals the existence of a stubborn, recalcitrant and unpredictable physical and ecological world that, like the weather, constitutes the environment in which we have our being.”
Our species is sleepwalking towards disaster – yet the coming food crisis could serve as a wake up call. In a world where so many are chemically addicted to superficially cheap “food“ peddled by McDonalds, KFC and our grasping supermarket chains, ecosocialists will have to work hard and loud to expose the vested interests at the root of the problem. But our message of self-sufficiency is one with which many people may increasingly identify. If we can demonstrate the multiple benefits of local, sustainable food production and just distribution, we can show that a better world is still possible.
This bulk of this article originally appeared in the Green Left "Watermelon" Autumn Green Party Conference print edition.