Friday, April 18, 2008

The Food Crisis

Reports of food shortages, food riots, and dwindling stockpiles have burst into the media in recent weeks, though warnings have been around for some time that diminishing farmland, climate change, and more recently the diversion of cropland to biofuels, would inevitably collide with growing populations, growing wealth, and the growth of grain intensive meat eating.

With consumption outstripping growth for six of the past seven years, grain stockpiles have fallen to their lowest levels since world wide record keeping began in 1960. In the United States, wheat stockpiles are at 60 year lows.

Rice has been particularly hard hit. Two years of severe drought in Australia, formerly a major rice exporter, have virtually eliminated the country's rice crop, while a plant disease has cut production in Vietnam. Since rice is the major source of food for many of the world's poor, these losses have had serious consequences.

Food riots have already toppled the government of Haiti. Shortages and price increases have caused unrest in India, Egypt, Indonesia, Peru, Haiti, Pakistan, Thailand, Burkino Faso, and Mauritania. The World Bank estimates that 33 countries face possible social unrest because of increasing food and energy prices. The U.N. proclaims that we are entering a new era of hunger.

The food and energy crises are unfolding in very similar ways; prices are rising in the world's richer countries while the poorer countries are experiencing shortages. Part of the problem comes from growing control over world food production by a handful of multinational corporations which is magnifying the problems in poorer countries. These corporations have chased indigenous peoples off their lands in South America, Indonesia and parts of the Far East, using tactics that range all the way up to murder. Jungle and rain forest land has been slashed and burned to make way for new plantations.

People in richer nations spend a smaller portion of their income on food so they are not as impacted by price rises. However they will not be immune from the problem indefinitely. The U.S. food supply is vulnerable in the event of disaster. Most of the nation's grain supply is shipped around the country on only two railroads, while little is stored in the event of disaster.

In both the cases of food and energy, the country has been asleep to the serious problems that loom ahead.