There is a time for food, and a time for ethical appraisals. This was the case even before Bertolt Brecht gave life to that expression in Die Driegroschen Oper. The time for a reasoned, coherent understanding for the growing food crisis is not just overdue, but seemingly past. Robert Zoellick of the World Bank, an organization often dedicated to flouting, rather than achieving its claimed goal of poverty reduction, stated the problem in Davos in January this year. ‘Hunger and malnutrition are the forgotten Millennium Development Goal.’
Global food prices have gone through the roof, terrifying the 3 billion or so people who live off less than $2 a day. This should terrify everybody else. In November, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization reported that food prices had suffered a 18 percent inflation in China, 13 percent in Indonesia and Pakistan, and 10 percent or more in Latin America, Russia and India. The devil in the detail is even more distressing: a doubling in the price of wheat, a twenty percent increase in the price of rice, an increase by half in maize prices.
Finger pointing is not always instructive. In this case, it may be. The US and various European countries are moving food crops into the bio-fuel business, itself an environmentally unsound business. This, in addition to encouraging developing countries to not merely ‘liberalize’ their agricultural sectors, but specialize in exporting specific cash crops (cotton, cocoa), has done wonders to precipitate the shortages. Consumption in developing economies, added to the vicissitudes of climate change, water availability, and rising fertilizer costs, are others.
Political stability is being undermined. Food shortages are proving endemic. Food riots are becoming common. Riots have been sparked in Cameroon, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Uzbekistan and Yemen. There have been riots over spiraling grain prices in Mauritania and Senegal. In Mexico City, mass protests were sparked by a price hike in tortillas. In Haiti, biscuits are being made from a mud compound. The Somali capital Mogadishu bore witness to the deaths of five people.
Governments, indifferent and incautious to the demands of a hungry public, have already fallen victim to the food crisis. Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis was dismissed by a senate vote in Haiti after skirmishes between UN forces and protesters. The UN commander Major General Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz urged calm amidst the carnage. ‘It is important for the people to have a peaceful life in Haiti,’ he claimed in April 2008. The message then: be peaceful on an empty stomach.
The Bush administration, so often in arrears on the relief front, has earmarked some 770 million dollars or so in funds dealing with the problem. There is one glaring hitch: the money would only start flowing in 2009. ‘There is definitely a lag time when it comes to assistance,’ states the senior manager of the Foreign Aid Reform Project at the Brookings Institute, Noam Unger.
More troubling is the critique offered of the crisis by officials within the administration. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at the Peace Corps conference held at the end of April, targeted various culprits. The audience barely stirred at some of the explanations: distribution, oil prices, and the ‘alternate fuels effort’. They duly woke up when Rice moved on to targeting the export strategies of various countries – India and China foremost amongst them. ‘We obviously have to look at places where production seems to be declining and declining to the point that people are actually putting export caps on the amount of food.’
The problem, for Rice, is rising food consumption. Improved diets within China and India are bothering free market fundamentalists who insist that export caps stifle trade. According to this rationale, Indians are far better off buying the rice from the global market than eating their own in times of crisis. How silly of them to ensure a domestic supply first before shipping off the rest for the global market. Rice is crying foul at such protectionist deviancy, will ‘have a look at it’ and take the matter to the World Trade Organization.
Members of the American public are not so sure. A narrative of catastrophe is gradually building – stockpile or perish. The Wall Street Journal (April 25) was one of the first to issue the clarion call: ‘Start Hoarding Food Americans!’ The paper had various suggestions. Stock up on some products – dried pasta, rice, cereals, canned products. Buy them all in bulk to save. Sit the children down give them a good talking to – no, not about the birds and the bees, but about ‘how our generation and the two behind it, screwed their world into a death spiral through greed and predatory capitalism.’
Solutions suggested by such economists as Jeffrey Sachs, somewhat patchy yet desperately needed, are forthcoming: allow easier access for sub-Saharan African farmers to fertilizers; reduce the amount of crops going into bio-fuel development; shore-up climate change policies.
Sachs, in his work Common Wealth, also advocates the abolition of states in the face of a crowded planet. But it was state regimes besotted by neoliberal economics that brought us here. They can take us back and remedy the damage. Abolishing them would simply absolve their regimes.
In the meantime, the US and some countries in the West may have to brace themselves for a starving army guided by the morality of the stomach. The food riots are coming.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
May 11, 2008