What hap­pened to the food?

Element - - Cover Story -

Back in 1995 there was rea­son to be­lieve that hunger was in de­cline. Ac­cord­ing to the FAO, be­tween 1969 and 1971 there were 878 mil­lion hun­gry peo­ple on the planet, about one in four of the pop­u­la­tion. This steadily dropped over the next 25 years, un­til in 1997 there were ‘only’ 788 mil­lion starv­ing. Af­ter that the numbers steadily rose again un­til 2007, be­fore sky­rock­et­ing into to­day’s much more volatile and un­sta­ble sit­u­a­tion. So what hap­pened?

Cli­mate change

The wrong weather at the wrong time ru­ins crops. Ru­ined crops can ruin poor farm­ers, who may not have the abil­ity to re­plant in fu­ture years. Cli­mate change is cre­at­ing in­creas­ingly er­ratic weather pat­terns and in­creas­ing the num­ber of ex­treme weather events.

Land grabs

One of the most shock­ing rea­sons some peo­ple in poor coun­tries can­not grow food is be­cause their own govern­ment has sold their land from un­der them into the hands of over­seas in­vestors. In some ar­eas this has dis­placed hundreds of thou­sands at a time. The land is of­ten turned over to in­dus­tri­alised farm­ing and plan­ta­tions, worked by ma­chines and a few skilled for­eign labour­ers. Or left idle, as a ‘land bank’, un­til it might turn a profit for its new own­ers.


Many of the most pop­u­lar biofuels take per­fectly good hu­man food and turn it into fuel for ma­chines. Nearly 40 per cent of the U.S. corn crop is used to make fuel ethanol. Sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions are aris­ing in places like Malaysia, In­done­sian, Colom­bia, Benin, Kenya and Ghana. This re­moves valu­able agri­cul­tural land from the food chain and binds food pric­ing to ris­ing oil prices.

Food Spec­u­la­tion

His­tor­i­cally, food trad­ing was di­rectly linked to real sup­ply and de­mand, or trans­ac­tions where a farmer sells his crop to a trader be­fore it is har­vested to guar­an­tee a price. But now con­tracts to buy and sell foods have be­come ‘de­riv­a­tives’: just an­other bar­gain­ing chip in the global stock ex­change casino. They are traded and split up in a be­wil­der­ing num­ber of ways, and their price can sky-rocket or nose dive on the ba­sis of no more than ru­mours about weather or pol­i­tics, or when a big fi­nan­cial player loses a big bet. Peo­ple sud­denly find their crop is worth half what it was yes­ter­day, or noth­ing at all, or that they can no longer af­ford their sta­ple foods. And food be­comes more ex­pen­sive, as the de­riv­a­tives tend to gain more value the more they are traded. Some es­ti­mates sug­gest that 70-80 per cent of trans­ac­tions on the in­ter­na­tional bulk food mar­kets are now this kind of spec­u­la­tion.

Peak Oil

The world’s com­plex long-range in­ter­na­tional in­dus­tri­alised food pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion net­work re­lies al­most en­tirely on the avail­abil­ity of fos­sil fu­els. That’s what pow­ers the planes, trains, su­per­tankers and trucks that de­liver raw ma­te­ri­als and food, as well as the trac­tors, com­bine har­vesters and other ma­chin­ery that work the land. In ad­di­tion, much of the world’s ni­tro­gen fer­tiliser is syn­the­sised from fos­sil fu­els, as are a many dif­fer­ent forms of pe­tro­leum-based pes­ti­cides. The cost of all of this is ris­ing, push­ing the price of food out of reach of the poor­est peo­ple in the world.

Photo: istockphoto

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