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Recipe for Catastrophe: Climate, Fuel, and Food

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Food riots turn deadly in Haiti. Food riots fear after rice price hits a high. And so it starts. Globally there has been roughly a 25% increase in food prices. In some areas - such as Haiti - food prices have increased almost 50% in the last year. The poor of the planet who always live on the razor's edge of survival, are getting hit by multiple blows aimed directly at the food supply.

From subsistence farmers eating rice in Ecuador to gourmets feasting on escargot in France, consumers worldwide face rising food prices in what analysts call a perfect storm of conditions. Freak weather is a factor. But so are dramatic changes in the global economy, including higher oil prices, lower food reserves and growing consumer demand in China and India.

The world's poorest nations still harbor the greatest hunger risk. Clashes over bread in Egypt killed at least two people last week, and similar food riots broke out in Burkina Faso and Cameroon this month.

But food protests now crop up even in Italy. And while the price of spaghetti has doubled in Haiti, the cost of miso is packing a hit in Japan. (Food prices rising across the world)


This didn't start with the current economic crisis which comes with the so-called "mortgage crisis." It doesn't start with the recent sky rocketing increase in oil and gasoline. It started with the U.S. turn to bio-fuels production. It has been accelerated by multiple other issues.

The U.S. bio-fuels incentives put not just the U.S. food supply, but the global food supply, in competition with the fuel supply. Farmers (and corporate agriculture) in the U.S. took much of the corn crop to the refinery rather than to the food processing plants. Most of the food price increases seen in the U.S up until about a month ago were due solely to this shift. Globally this policy has increased grain costs, but the new push has also hit the global cooking oil supply. This switch from food (or even cooking oil) crops, to crops for fuel, result in both rainforests and existing fields falling to the more "profitable" crop - that which can be used for bio-fuels.

The global food supply is also being hit by a series of other blows. This includes the continued steep rise in the cost of oil, and climatic disasters.

China was hit hard this winter by horrendous storms in January and February of this year. Those storms hit heavily in Southern China, dramatically impacting the growing area. Poor harvests are among the factors that are creating a rice shortage which is hitting Asian nations hard. Rice prices have increased as much as 70% during the last year alone, The price has more than doubled since 2003.


Wheat crops from Russia to Africa are being hit by the deadly grain virus "rust." If this spreads as currently predicted, it could hit the wheat region of India with devastating consequences.

The spread of the deadly virus, stem rust, against which an effective fungicide does not exist, comes as world grain stocks reach the lowest in four decades and government subsidized bio-ethanol production, especially in the United States, Brazil and the European Union, are taking land out of food production at alarming rates. (Rust to fertilize food price surge)


The fertile Ganges delta and Sundarban Islands (India and Bangladesh) are rapidly disappearing. This is largely due to the glacial melt from the Himalayas caused by global warming. Some of the Islanders have been displaced for each of the last three years, and daily they fight a losing battle against the rising waters (Guardian, 3/30/08). While the assumption in the U.S. is that fuel prices are driving increasing costs (at least partially true), it is food that is driving inflation in India. There was a 7% increase in food prices for the first three months of this year alone.

There are expectations that Asia and Africa face famines (or should we say increasing famine) from global warming.

The United States is not immune to the food catastrophe happening around the globe. Eckholm, writing in the NY Times reported that the confluence of a flagging economy and inflation are driving increased food stamp usage. Since only those near or below the poverty line are eligible for food stamps, growth of usage shows growth in this population. However, it under-represents the number of people who are struggling. The cost of everything is going up while wages remain stagnant (at best). While many folks may hold onto their jobs, the increasing costs are dramatically eroding incomes. We should look for dramatically increasing food bank usage as the various forces at play on the food supply continue to mount.

As much as half the population of the planet faces dangerously increasing food pressures. It is telling that riots regarding food prices are starting to occur (i.e. Egypt and Haiti). These type of events will likely increase. Unfortunately, while riots may result in governments applying some price controls, they will not affect food availability, and food availability is a very real issue in an expanding number of places. At this point, the big nations seem to be doing little if anything to address the growing global crisis. The United States, rather than acknowledging the impacts of bio-fuels incentives, expanded the programs again this year. It is very likely that corn prices may go up by over 50% this year.

Since corn is in almost everything in the U.S. food supply, then that cost will be directly felt come later this year. Of course, that increase will also effect the cost of fuels using corn-based fuels. There is no anticipation that oil prices are going to come down, nor that the economic recession is going to ease in the near future. Therefore this situation is likely to get worse before it gets better - if it gets better.

Further, the situation is complicated by shortfalls in food reserves. Nations have been strong armed by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to switch agricultural production from food for sustenance to commercially exportable crops. The expectation being that sustenance crops would come from outside the country (primarily the U.S. and Europe). This is one reason why changes in incentives and production in the United States have such devastating consequences on grain prices globally (Digiacomo, Bello).

The image of 3 billion people rioting for food will hopefully not become a reality. However, to avoid that scenario governments need to act now - not later. Hesitation or avoidance of the issues driving the growing food crisis will not make it go away. Some things are seen fairly immediately - dramatically increasing transportation costs for example. However, much of the current pricing and shortages are from last year. The situation has deteriorated since then, and certainly for the current and upcoming growing season. We need to get ahead of this problem, or it will hit with crushing affect come late summer to next winter.
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Rowan Wolf is an activist and sociologist living in Oregon. She is the founder and principle author of Uncommon Thought Journal, and Editor in Chief of Cyrano's Journal Today.


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