Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Cost of Food

"...[Some farmers are] wary of the talk that suggests a new reality has taken hold in world markets and that the rise of India and China will help him prosper for years to come. 'I've been farming since 1977 and we've heard that before. We were told there'd be a shortage of grain to feed the world, but it's never really happened,' he said. 'It'd be nice to believe that, but they've been wrong before, haven't they?'"
The Globe and Mail,
"The World's Hottest Commodities are in your Cereal Bowl" 16 February 2008

I won't pretend that I understand economics, because, well, I don't. But I haven't studied morality either and I can still tell you that the words of this Canadian farmer, disappointed that not enough people are wrestling with starvation to flush his pockets, is more than a just little messed up. During the first eight months of my travels, the cost of wheat on world markets has nearly doubled. Corn, rice, pulses, just about everything is going up in prices. Reasons include a whole bunch of factors, but it all comes down to increased demands caused by ethanol, increased consumption because of growing populations, rising affluence, and decreased supply caused by bad weather, damaged crop lands, and shifting crop patterns. The price of food is one of those issues most Americans don't care about. Modern Americans (a year ago) paid less for their food than anybody has ever anywhere. Prices going up small amounts isn't a great crisis to most Americans, but it is for many people worldwide.

While a bit disturbing, the above quote is a good way to look at the odd struggle I have been trying to work my head around for the past couple of months. It is important to have reasonably low food prices (they need not be rock-bottom or people end up being a nation with a bunch of tubbies) but they also need to be high enough for farmers to be making more than bear-bones incomes. Such a thing is possible, but the messy nature of seasonality, transport, tariffs, and duties all make it difficult for both to be happening at once. While I was in Mexico and India I was reading about and talking to farmers in about their struggles to simply survive. Because of debt cycles, many are unable to afford the food they have grown themselves. The world's poorest can work (and some seem to) 24/7 and still not afford to put enough food on the table. It's an idea I had heard before, but had never really been able to begin to grasp until I began these travels (and will easily admit that I still am nowhere near understanding). For a majority of the world, food is not a given. Coming back to the developed world this spring and working in France, it's been interesting to see how concerns about mass starvation seem to make infrequent appearances as headlines. The current food crisis is more frequently addressed in economic rather than human terms thanks to the luxury of distance. Proposed solutions are to just throw money at starvation rather than address the root causes of the food shortfalls.

It's tough to gauge just where all of this is going. If the French press and what I can gleam of the US press off the internet is any indication, there actually has started to be some discussion that massive starvation is a problem, but self interest of the industrialized seems to quickly take over in most news stories. I wish I had the time and opportunity to read all the news stories which have been popping up about the increase in food pricing recently. This is a huge story, and there's way more than someone could ever address in a couple paragraphs... but if current trends continue the story will get coverage in the middle of the paper and the effects on policy and consumption by the big spenders will be minimal.

More than ever, I am realizing the cost to others of living an easy life and the great peace I am afforded by being able to always find something to eat. I continue to be confused about how to balance the equation.

No comments: