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Book of Matthew: World food crisis

Published: April 11, 2008
Section: Opinions


The world is facing a major crisis, but you may or may not have noticed it. I guess it’s kind of hard at Brandeis; we buy most of our food with meals and points, rather than actual money. However, if any of you have been off campus recently, I’m willing to bet that the food you bought was more expensive than usual.

You are not alone. The World Bank recently estimated that global food prices have risen 83% over the last three years, the most destabilizing increase since the Soviet Union bought massive amounts of US grain during the “Great Grain Robbery” of the 1970’s.

Thanks to the recession, Americans, who already spend about 10-15% of their income on food, will be hit hard by these prices. Some will have to apply for food stamps, and almost everyone will have to cut down on personal spending in order to get by. In short, the economic situation is not likely to improve.

But the story does not end here. What America will face is nothing compared to what citizens of poorer nations will have to deal with. People in Ghana already have to dedicate 60% of their income to purchasing food. In Bangladesh, it is 70%. These are the kinds of people who cannot afford to keep up with food price inflation. They will be forced with a choice, whether to starve or riot, and given that choice it is likely that most people will choose the latter. Unfortunately, this will lead to even greater instability in the third world, and open the door for even more extremist factions that the world cannot afford.

You may be wondering how all this could be possible, and there are several causes. The first, and most obvious, is population growth and development. The world population is currently greater than 6.6 billion, almost double what it was in 1970, and demand for food is increasing rapidly. In rapidly industrializing countries such as China and India (both of which have populations of over a billion), many more people are accumulating wealth, and choosing to buy food instead of grow it. This is simultaneously increasing food demand will decreasing supply.

Oil is another large part of the problem, because unfortunately, oil is a key to the agricultural process. Fertilizer requires fossil fuels to be made, and food cannot be grown without it. Also, once the food is grown, it still must be transported to consumers. This is difficult to do when gas costs over $100 a barrel.

Furthermore, oil has contributed to the problem through global climate change. I have to say; one of the greatest tragedies in this world is the fact that in the time it took for enough people to believe in global climate change, we could have acted to prevent it. But we did not, and whether we like it or not, this phenomenon is causing damage all over the world. Australia, for example, normally harvests 25 million tons of grain each year, the second-largest grain harvest in the world. But, it is currently in the midst of the worst drought in its history, and in 2006 only yielded 9.8 million tons. I’m sure you can all see why global wheat stocks are at their lowest levels since 1979.

At this point in the equation, we throw in the politicians. They were pretty quiet as this crisis unfolded, but now they’ve finally realized that voters care. About global climate change and energy independence, that is. Now I’m not complaining; I care about those issues too. I just wish Americans had the capacity to care about more issues.

But it really doesn’t matter too much, because the politicians have decided to take the least helpful, yet most profitable path. That would be biofuels.

I have to admit, I used to think biofuels were a great idea. What could be wrong with homegrown energy? Sure, some experts warned that it would take too much of the corn harvest, but I didn’t believe them. I knew the US government has paid some farmers not to grow corn since FDR was president, so I assumed that if we needed more corn, we could easily grow it.

Never assume, folks.

Agribusiness in this country must be more influential than I thought. It has to be. Because even though the government has mandated that we use more corn-based ethanol, it is still paying farmers not to grow corn. Ironically, this practice still yields that exact same result that it yielded during the Great Depression: corn prices rise. This will keep farmers happy. It will keep giant agribusiness happy. It will keep the ethanol business happy. It will keep well-connected politicians happy. But that’s about it. The rest of us, we’re just going to have to deal with higher prices.

As someone who has little faith in campaigns to “spread awareness,” I regret to say that this is the best solution that I can think of. People all over the world need to understand that there are several reasons why their food is getting more expensive. They need to understand that even when we acknowledge these problems, we won’t be able to solve them until we come together with that as a common purpose.

It’s not like we have much of a choice. We all need to eat.