Why are Worldwide Food Prices Skyrocketing?


Nepal food crisis, August 2009. Photo Courtesy Center for American Progress Action Fund

   Chapter 6 of our book, Enough of Us: Why we should think twice before making Children, deals with human sustainability. In it we discuss the global food crisis. Some of the friends to whom we showed the book doubted there is really such a crisis.

            Walk into any supermarket and the abundance of food that we take for granted – if you really look at it – borders on the obscene. But a recent article in The Week magazine (March 4, 2011) points out some amazing facts.

            Fat cat Americans (and we do mean fat) spend about seven percent of their incomes on food. But Egyptians, for example, spend one quarter of their income on food. In January the price of wheat worldwide was twice what it was the previous June. Whether or not climate change is real, there has been a plethora of lousy weather across the globe. A historic heat wave in Russia destroyed half of its wheat crop last summer. Monumental rain storms devastated corn crops in Iowa and Illinois, the two states with the greatest production. Epic flooding ruined Australia’s wheat crop. A drought in Northern China resulted in a dustbowl. Now China is importing wheat.

            All these factors contribute to skyrocketing staple food prices. And that has resulted in an additional 44 million people living below poverty levels in the past year.

            But wait, as entertainer Al Jolson was famous for saying, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! The population of the world increases each day by more than the population of Durham, North Carolina. Next month, the Earth’s human population will hit seven billion. Add to that 219,000 new humans, net, each day.

            And they need to eat. Not only that, but more people are entering the middle class. And that means they’ll have appetites for things that until now were the domains of rich Americans like us. They want meat and dairy products. According to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), it takes as much as 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat. It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat, while growing 1 pound of wheat only requires 25 gallons. But we’ll deal with water issues another day, as we will deal with energy.issues relating to grain and livestock.

            China now consumes twice the meat that the United States does, but only a fraction of our consumption per person. And then there’s fuel-versus-food. Year to year more of our corn and other grains are going into fuel production.

            In the last three years ethanol production has risen by one third. Where does ethanol come from? If your answer is, “The gas station,” go to the back of the class. In fact, 40 percent U.S. corn production goes into ethanol, which goes into gasoline. That’s enough food to feed everyone in the United States, Canada, and Australia for a year.

            According to the The Week article, this past year’s extreme weather is likely to become the new normal. And while overpumped aquifers are being drained away in the grain belts of the Western United States, China, India and the Middle East, agricultural experts expect demand for agricultural products to soar over the next four decades.

            The recent revolutions in Egypt and other North African countries are partially related to the cost – or shortages – of basic foods. Will food shortages lead to more hunger, poverty and even food riots? Who knows?

            But we Americans are rich. So why should we give a damn? Let’s keep driving cars, eating like pigs, consuming the world’s resources and producing more fat-cat babies. After all, it’s not our problem.

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