Joachim von Braun, the director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington DC, explained the reasons behind rising food prices to the State Department on May 6. His powerpoint presentation, (sent to me by a colleague) cites three reasons: high demand, high energy costs, and misguided policies, among them growing food for biofuels and–a new one–neglect of agricultural investment. Keith Bradsher and Andrew Martin provide evidence for this last suggestion with an article about how the lack of investment in rice research is hurting the Philippines. Andrew Martin writes in the New York Times about the extraordinary amount of food Americans waste every day–roughly one pound of food per person per day. He cites an estimate from the USDA that recovery of just one-fourth of the waste could feed 20, million people a day. The proverbial food for thought?
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The New York Times writes today that India’s politicians, economists, and academics are responding to the charge that increasing prosperity in their country is responsible for the global rise in food prices. No way, they say. Like Vandana Shiva (see previous post), they cite other reasons: the West’s diversion of crop land to produce biofuels, agricultural subsidies that undermine agriculture in developing countries, trade barriers that do the same, high consumption of beef and oil resources, and high degree of food waste, along with the decline in the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar. Time for some leadership on all sides, I’d say.
Alexandra Lewin, a doctoral student at Cornell, is working with Corporations and Health Watch in Washington, DC, which “tracks the effects of corporate practices on public health.” Her latest contribution is an analysis of the effects of higher food prices on school lunch programs. Given the impossibly small amount of money schools have to work with, they will surely, she says, “find it ever more difficult to say no to an easy source of revenue: soda, cookies, and other junk food. Here we go again.”
On the other hand, Dan Barber, the fabulous chef of Blue Hill in Manhattan and Stone Barns, writes in the New York Times that higher food prices now “could lead to better food for the entire world.” Market forces, he says may well force more attention to the benefits of small farms “bringing harvests that are more healthful, sustainable and, yes, even more flavorful.” This, of course, is what Michael Pollan and Alice Waters were quoted as saying a month or so ago. I hope they are right.
The rise in food prices is blamed on a perfect storm of three factors: high oil prices, food grown for biofuels, and rising demand for meat in developing countries, particularly India and China. Vandana Shiva takes exception to this last accusation. The “crisis” is one of the least attractive result of globalization and corporate control of the food supply, she argues. The Washington Post has been running an excellent series of articles. The Post adds a fourth factor: the serious drought in Australia caused by global warming. If you were wondering what was meant by “global food system,” here it is.
The Oakland Institute has issued a short and useful policy brief on the social and political impact of rising food prices. I’m on the road this week and regularly reading USA Today delivered to hotel rooms. Its story yesterday about bread shortages in Egypt is surely an indication of the need for deep policy analysis followed up by immediate policy action.
So what’s going on with food prices? In the last year, milk is up 17%, dried beans 17%, cheese 15%, rice and pasta 13%, bread 12%–and eggs 25%. The last time I bought a quart of milk at my local anything-goes corner store, it was $2.40. Why? For eggs, it’s clear: growing corn for ethanol drives up corn prices and chicken feed. For eggs and everything else we have the perfect storm: increased demand (from China), decreased supply (ethanol), and higher fuel prices. I’m sure there are other reasons too, but these will do for a start. This is why food systems matter.
Today’s Observer (London) lays out the causes and consequences of what’s happening to global food prices. Not pretty. The bleak forecast: price increases of 10% to 50% leading to “a war between the 850 million chronically hungry of the world and the 800 million motorists – all fighting for the same food crop.”
Here’s something worth reading: The Economist‘s take on food prices. This business magazine minces no words. The rise in prices is the result of “America’s reckless ethanol subsidies.” Higher food prices, it says, can do good or harm depending on how governments deal with them. The issues are complicated. This is one way to look at them. Are there others?