What happened to the food?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.