by Marion Nestle
Feb 16 2011

More doom and gloom about world food prices

Everyone seems to be worried about world food prices these days, apparently for good reason.

According to the World Bank, rising prices have pushed 44 million more people into poverty. Its Food Price Watch report for February does not contain much good news.

The USDA is projecting equally bad news for the prices of agricultural commodities.  These are expected to reach record levels through 2020.

Time Magazine says biofuels are a big factor in rising food prices.

And the United Nations is warning that climate change is the ultimate driver of this problem as well as other causes of world instability.

The good news is that all of this leaves plenty of things for food advocates to work on.  Get busy!

  • Pete

    The situation would be even worse without Biotechnology!!!! One of the key beenfit of GMOs is that it keeps food prices relatively low. We can’t say the same about organic… I am not against organic. There is a market for everyone but you are not goi9ng to feed the world with organic.

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  • Joseph Docu

    Just a comment to respond to the commenter above about gmo food, so what happens when when the oil runs out/triples in price?. We won’t be able to make the fertilizer or pay for the fuel costs that are such a large part of food cost inputs. What happens then? Forced depopulation (i.e. starvation?)

  • Pete

    @ Pete

    How will GM foods keep prices low when companies monopolize a commodity? Should the patent holder for the only Soy bean resistant to their own toxins dictate the price of such a widely used commodity?

    If GM advocates were about feeding the world they wouldn’t want to patent everything. Feed the spin to someone else.

  • Doc Mudd

    Doom and gloom? How so?

    For several years now, Michael Pollan and his elitist disciples have complained that “food is too cheap”.

    So, now that’s fixed and we should all live happily ever after, right?

  • Sheila

    community gardens, anybody?

  • Cathy Richards

    The issue with food prices is, at least within the North American context, of priorities.

    Consumers insist on cheap food, driving to box stores to find it, so suppliers seek out cheaper sources, and bargain with farmers for cheaper prices. Farmers lose, suppliers win, consumers go to Wallmart, gas consumption and prices go up, farmers pay more for fuel but get paid the same or less…you can see the vicious cycle.

    We pay less for food than we ever have relative to our average income. But we whinge and moan when prices of food increase while we spend thousands on monster homes in suburbs that are constructed over former farms, big screen tv’s, smart phone bills, and too many vehicles per household so we can drive to the box stores that sell processed food.

    As you can see, discussions over the rising cost of food drive me crazy.

    We reap what we sow. And we ain’t been sowing very much that’s healthy for us or for the land or for our farmers/ranchers.

    From a recent article in Ontario:

    “While the cost of food has increased in Canada over the past 30 years, Canadian food is still the most affordable on the planet. A generation ago buying food took over 20% of our income, but today, it represents approximately 11% of our paycheque. ”
    (Bette Jean Crews, President of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Commentary #3629)

    Of course, in developing countries the cost of food relative to current income is much higher, but nonetheless it is still typically decreasing relative to historical income.

  • Cathy Richards

    @Joseph — too true. But I don’t think that most people are aware that oil is essential to converting potash to fertilizer. The bigger the monoculture farm, the more fertilizer is needed and the bigger the tractor — oil oil oil.

    Wars are fought, people die. Mostly to grow grain crops with 70% of the crop going to feed animals that should be grazing instead of eating out of bins. This is a huge part of why consuming less meat/milk would help to reduce greenhouse gases and improve water access — the impact of cow belches is minimal compared to the fuels and water used to grow the food that makes the cows belch.

    Trying to think of a situation where a war might be fought over accessing sunlight for energy….maybe we’d fight for the raw materials for solar panels for buildings and electric transportation, but not for growing food since sunlight in a field is free. At least until corporations figure out how to put a solar shield over the land and charge us to open it up.

  • Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser spoke at USC in California last week. Key facts:

    1. Hunger is about food access, not food yield.
    2. American farmers produce twice as many calories as we need.
    3. We eat about 12.5% of what is grown. We throw away about 12.5% , and the rest is used as animal feed.

    One of the best reasons to wean off grain fed animals and dairy products (even if they are “organic”) Yes, it will cost more, but my bet is

  • Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser spoke at USC in California last week. Key facts:

    1. Hunger is about food access, not food yield.
    2. American farmers produce twice as many calories as we need.
    3. We eat about 12.5% of what is grown. We throw away about 12.5% , and the rest is used as animal feed.

    This is one of the best reasons to wean off grain fed animals and dairy products (even if they are “organic”). Time to eat grass fed meats, pastured chicken and eggs, and dairy products from grass fed livestock. Yes, it will cost more, but it’s time we wean ourselves off the illusion of cheap food. The medical bill from eating such a poor diet is trumping any savings at the grocery store.

  • Subvert

    Working within the confines of this existing system is, sad to say, not going to fix anything… Capitalism has hit the fan, and we all need to decide if we risk and sacrifice a bit for the good of mankind, or die a slow painful death as those in control watch and wait to feed off of our remains.

  • Kemp

    It’s a tough situation. World food prices, when indexed for inflation, have been at historic lows. They’re starting to rise again for the first time in a long time. Low commodity prices are bad for farmers – who make up two-thirds of the world’s poorest. However, high food prices are bad for the other third of the world’s poorest who live in cities….

    Some links on this:

  • Gesa Maschkowski

    At that point I would like to mention some promising projects: The Center of a New American Dream, cofounded by Juliet B Schor. Juliet is author of “Plentitude”, providing a strategy for living that gives people more time, more creativity, and more social connection.

    There is another inspiring review of the German Center on Sustainable Consumption and Production CSCP, analyzing 23 international best practices on consumer oriented environmental projects and initiatives

    “Nothing can be done without hope and confidence” (Helen Keller)

  • Anthro

    I can’t do any better than Cathy or Subvert in defining the problem.

    What am I doing about it? Last night we planned our upcoming garden. We have a city lot with not much area open to full sun, so we are concentrating on stuff to can for the winter: green beans, tomatoes, beets, carrots. We are also looking at reviving the idea of a root cellar for storage. I have been buying up canning jars from thrift stores as I got rid of a lot of mine after the kids left. I still have the canner and the pressure canner, luckily. Even though we got busted for chickens, we are going to get two more and keep them closer to the house and in the basement at night instead of the garage (where their clucking apparently annoyed some neighbors).

    We are going to pick and can fruit from local orchards as we are too old to wait for more fruit trees to mature (we have an apple tree). We are already mostly vegetarian and don’t use much dairy. If we can save on produce, hopefully we can still afford coffee beans, olive oil and peanut butter. If dried beans go up a lot, I might think about growing them as well. I used to always can lots of tomatoes and never had to buy any canned tomato products the following winter–we ate a lot of pasta and Italian sauce in those days.

    Sadly, I don’t think farmers’ markets are the whole answer because their prices are pretty much the same as the markets and will go up the same as well. We will still do CSA for the season, but will be growing a lot more to put aside for winter.

    Flour for bread is just going to cost more I suppose, but we don’t eat a lot of it; it will be much harder on families, of course, but baking your own is still going to be cheaper than buying quality bread at $4 to $5/loaf. By the way, it takes 30 seconds to mix my bread and another 30 to get it in the bowl and into the fridge to raise overnight and then 40 minutes to bake. I think its faster than those bread machines.

    If our government is not going to act on climate change, ethanol and ag subsidies, or commodity hoarding by greedy traders, I am forced into a “me” mentality to look after myself. I will continue to support progressive policies, but that doesn’t seem to be working. However, I have to go now because I am on my way to Madison to join my brothers and sisters in resisting the hatchet job our new Tea Party Governor is trying to do on the public employees of our onetime famously progressive state.

  • Eating ORGANIC (or at least without agro-toxics and without the DEVIL of food bio tech) locally produced, unprocessed food, meatless can help people around the world as well as here. I challenge anyone to do it for under $130 a month in the US….Around the world it is easier if all of us help local poor farmers to produce their own food (and more), so they do not depend on foreign prices. So I can live in the US with $500 a month and in Mexico (for example) with $200 or less. Traveling around the world to really help the poor with very little money has been a rewarding and much healthier (and cheaper) experience…..
    Your are right Dr. Nestle, food advocates can make a difference!

  • Cathy Richards

    @Anthro — I agree with you (of course! because you agree with me 🙂 !)

    My only minor is rebuttal is about farmer’s markets. They don’t solve all problems (apparently we are inefficient gas users when we flock to farmers markets), but they do put more money — relative to amount sold — in the farmers’ pockets, cutting out many of the middle men.

    We might pay a bit less or a bit more, but the farmer’s profit margins are hopefully better, which hopefully keeps the land in use for food production instead of being sold to developers for the farmer’s retirement fund. (Why don’t farmers get pensions just like politicians, police, soldiers, etc??!)