Sunday, January 30, 2011

Food Riots, 2011

In 2008, a spike in food prices resulted in food riots around the world; the government in Haiti was toppled. Rice stocks were particularly hard hit and some exporting nations cut off their exports. The recession brought prices down while record crops allowed some stockpile rebuilding.

2010 saw a dramatic worsening of the situation. Severe droughts in China and India, Canada and Australia, record heat and fires in Russia and the Ukraine, and floods in Australia and Pakistan all cut crop outputs. Stockpiles plummeted. Russia and India reacted by banning grain exports to keep domestic prices down.

By December the global price of food hit a new record high. Corn prices climbed 94% since June, soybeans are up 51% and wheat was up 80%.

The result has been a fresh round of food riots in January. Food riots began in Algeria at the beginning of January and quickly spread to Tunisia where they became serious enough to force the president to flee the country.

Egypt has experienced the most dramatic riots, sparked by rising food prices—Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat--but fed by years of oppressive and corrupt rule. The riots in Egypt were followed by nationwide protests in Yemen demanding that their president step down. Other countries that have seen food riots include Morocco, Jordan, Mozambique and Chile.

The crisis may worsen through the year. Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, recently warned that rising food prices are “a threat to global growth and social stability,” and that, for the first time in living memory, the world is just “one poor harvest away from chaos.”

Even the United States faces rising prices. Dennis Conley, an agricultural economist at the University of Nebraska, claims that food reserves in the US are disturbingly low: “I haven’t seen numbers this low that I can remember in the last 20 or 30 years.”

Global Warming and climate change are likely to continue to hamper food production, meaning that the food crisis will become a chronic condition.

If there is to be an answer, it may come from a Worldwatch Institute report issued in January which argues that world hunger can only be cured by a move away from industrial farming toward local food projects. Small scale projects increase local self sufficiency and reduce food waste associated with industrial agriculture.

The report argues that the best way to ensure that everyone gets enough to eat is to change what kind of food is produced and improve its distribution: less meat production, use of more environmentally sustainable agricultural methods that do not rely on petrochemicals, and more local and regional production of food. Many of the farms and organizations highlighted in the report seemed to be having the most success reducing hunger and poverty with work that had little to do with producing more crops, and more to do with eliminating waste.

With populations continuing to grow and with industrial farming methods depleting the soil, these new innovative farming methods will be vital in the future.