By Marie Haka
Thousands of people took to the streets of Haiti this past April, protesting, looting, and clashing with police, killing at least six people and injuring dozens more. Similar protests have erupted all over Africa, in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal and South Africa.
Many restaurants in the United States are revising their menus to reflect the cause of these protests: skyrocketing food prices. Costco and Sam’s Club have placed a limit on how many bags of rice shoppers can buy, and many consumers are turning toward cheaper dietary options and even eating less.
“In America, there are people who are skipping out on meals and families who are giving things up,” said Raj Patel, a food systems author. “They’ve been forced to because of astronomical prices.”
Hard workers around the world are struggling to stretch their paychecks to cover inflated food prices, and food riots are expressing the hunger pains of those who just cannot make ends meet. What is being called the “world food crisis” is devastating the world’s poor and affecting people on every continent.
There are already over 800 million undernourished people in the world, and the dramatic increases in food prices are hitting them the hardest and adding more to their numbers. While the sources and solutions of the crisis are hard to pinpoint, the consequences are blatant.
*Food Prices Hit Home*: Derrick Cheng’s family owns Chicken Salsa, a restaurant in Saratoga, Calif. He does a lot of the grocery shopping and has noticed the price increase, especially when buying fresh produce. These increases had to be passed on as a 10 to 15 percent increase in their menu prices.
According to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), cereal and bakery products increased by 4.4 percent in 2007 and are projected to rise 7.5 to 8.5 percent again this year. Corn has risen 35 percent in price over the past year, milk rose 7.5 percent, and eggs rose 29 percent.
Dario Dickinson owns the Food Bin and Herb Room, a local Santa Cruz market that specializes in organic foods. Dickinson noted that besides regular inflation, not all food prices are rising dramatically. He has, however, noticed the huge price increases of a few staple items.
“Certain items, particularly milk and bread, have really gone up, and eggs as well,” Dickinson said. “Inflation is always an issue, but just over the last year we have noticed the more dramatic rises.”
For some, these increases have put more pressure on the organizations that provide food to those who cannot afford it.
Sheila Bongiovanni is the food service director at the Homeless Services Center in downtown Santa Cruz. The center serves breakfast and dinner to between 200 and 300 adults at each meal, and provides three daily meals to children and disabled adults living at the Rebele Family Shelter as part of a federally funded nutrition program. Bongiovanni has seen more people in need of their services since food prices began rising so quickly.
“I’ve noticed more people coming in, in need of all of our services,” Bongiovanni said. “I have heard a lot more people saying ‘I just became homeless,’ so I think the economy in general is driving people here.”
Without the support of private donors and local grocery stores, Bongiovanni said that they would really have trouble feeding their clients.
“I am being asked to really cut back because of rising prices,” Bongiovanni said. “I am really concerned because milk prices have gone through the roof.”
Bongiovanni lamented that the high cost of living in Santa Cruz, combined with a waning economy and high food prices, are putting a lot more people on the street.
*Origins of the Crisis*: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is struggling to help people through the food crisis. Daniel Gustafson, director of the North American Liaison Office of the FAO, explained that there are countless issues that have added to the current food crisis.
Firstly, low world food stocks make for a smaller than normal cushion for fluctuations in the market. The FAO, in a May 15 press release, cited climate change as negatively affecting agricultural production through drought, floods, harsher winters, cyclones, hurricanes and earthquakes.
There is also growing demand from the densely populated developing world for all food products, but especially meat and dairy.
The list also includes a weakened U.S. dollar, rising unemployment, and food crops that are being diverted to biofuels. Investors and buyers have speculated about future food stocks and artificially driven prices even higher.
Gustafson said that both the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the FAO are working to provide emergency relief around the world, but are being stretched thin as exorbitant food prices and natural disasters are making their job less feasible. They are also working with countries to come up with strategies to increase future food production — such as investing in sustainable local agriculture and providing training and equipment to potential farmers — as part of a long-term solution to the crisis.
Many food system experts insist that much more drastic action is needed by the world’s governments to address the systemic, institutionalized problems in the global food market.
Patel, a writer, academic, and activist for reforming the world’s food system, believes that the current food crisis is not a sudden surprise, and that many people in the industry have seen this coming for a long time. A reduction in social protections and the destruction of local productive capacity have made a food crisis unavoidable.
“Farmers have been talking about the inevitability of this for ages, particularly small, sustainable, independent farmers,” said Patel, who spoke about the current food crisis at a Fair Trade Market event put on by the Education for Sustainable Living Program on May 5. “It’s not that there’s any shortage of voices about the food crisis. What we have seen is a failure of governments to listen.”
In addition to the reasons mentioned above, Patel cited price-fixing as a possible contributor to the food crisis. In this context, he said, price-fixing is when corporations artificially augment prices to increase their profits, an illegal practice in most countries. Several countries around the world are currently investigating the role of this form of price-fixing in creating high food prices.
“There are at least three criminal investigations under way around the world right now, in Spain, the United Kingdom and South Africa,” Patel said. “I think it would be reasonable to expect that similar behavior is going on in the United States, but that our government does not really care to investigate that, so we cannot prove it.”
Patel also explained that the U.S. government’s support of large businesses and mega-farms is incredibly detrimental to food production in other parts of the world.
“The trouble with that is, of course, that those mega-farms then receive all this money, produce tons of food, and that food competes with farmers in developing countries who are then wiped out,” Patel said.
Problems with the food system are institutionalized through historical legacy and current governmental policy. Many experts agree that changes within the U.S. food policy could help improve the global food system.
Julie Guthman, an associate professor of community studies at UC Santa Cruz, explained that sustainable farming is part of the solution to the food crisis, but a number of U.S. governmental policies are working against this by subsidizing certain crops, encouraging technological innovation that promotes overproduction, and the use of environmentally unsound chemicals.
“One of the reasons why there is hunger around the world is that farmers have been put out of business because the U.S. is dumping our surplus food elsewhere,” said Guthman, who teaches classes about the world food system. “What happens when you sell food cheaply or give it as aid abroad, is farmers in those countries cannot compete and they go out of business or they don’t bother to grow. That has been happening for a long time.”
Unsustainable energy policies are also a huge factor in the food price crisis.
Karen Jetter is a research economist for the University of California Agricultural Issues Center at Davis. In a testimony she gave to the State Assembly Committee on Human Services Informational Hearing about the food crisis on May 15, Jetter stressed the ever-rising price of energy and our dependence on oil as a major factor, noting that the price of oil has risen 20 percent in the last year alone.
“Energy is used throughout the agricultural industry from fertilizer and pesticide production to fueling equipment, and it is used to process crops and transport them to markets, and to heat or cool stores,” Jetter said. “These higher energy costs are then passed on to consumers.”
The USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates that energy and transportation costs account for about 7.5 percent of the total average retail food dollar.
*Fixing the Food System*: The pinch being felt from the food crisis is not going totally ignored by the world’s heads of states, and the United Nations will be holding a food summit from June 3 through 5 in Rome. Leaders in the United States are also trying to relieve those affected most by the crisis.
On May 14, the House of Representatives passed a Farm Bill with over a two-thirds majority. The Senate followed suit with wide support the day after, guaranteeing that President Bush will not be able to exercise the veto that he had promised to use. The bill includes a $10.3 billion increase in spending on nutrition programs for the needy and support for rural development and conservation programs, but does not address the issue of uneven farm subsidies in this country.
Experts agree that temporary aid is needed to relieve those who cannot afford a healthy diet, but insist that more long-term solutions are necessary to push the food market back in the right direction. The ability to afford or produce food is necessary for people to meet their nutritional requirements.
“The issue is always about getting income into people’s pockets. You want to give out food aid when things are really dire, but the first thing is not to undercut their incomes, and U.S. trade policy and food aid policies are undercutting farming incomes around the world,” Guthman said. “It’s not about a lack of food — it’s about a lack of income.”
According to Patricia Allen, director of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) on campus, our lifestyles and consumption habits strongly influence the world food system. The center seeks to promote sustainable and environmentally sound food systems, and works to further issues of social justice in relation to the world food system.
Promoting food models that work harmoniously with the environment and provide fair returns for workers involved in producing food are important to improving the food system.
“These things sound very basic, but they’re not basic in the American agro-food system,” Allen said. “Workers are some of the poorest, and it’s one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. It’s really unconscionable that the people who harvest our food are often the least able to afford it.”
Allen suggested actions that the everyday consumer can take to relieve the crisis, such as supporting safety net programs like food stamps and child nutrition programs, growing food in place of a lawn, and talking about food issues. Pushing for more research on sustainability is also part of a long-term solution.
There are also things that people can change in their daily routines to help relieve the crisis, such as wasting less food and not speculating about future food prices.
“At the moment, recognize that it probably is not necessary to over-stock in expectation that food supplies will be short,” Gustafson said. “Food prices are likely to stabilize as the 2008-2009 crop year comes into harvest, but they are expected to remain high relative to previous years.”
In order for the world food system to truly change and work in favor of the people, Patel believes that citizens must demand change.
“For the past 20 or 30 years we’ve been lulled into the idea that we should be afraid of our government,” Patel said. “We certainly need to be more activist citizens than we have so far been able to be, and in places where there has been active citizen involvement, things have been going relatively better.”