Friday, April 25, 2008

The Fast We Must Choose

People push to receive food distributed by the Kenyan Red Cross in the Mathare slum in Nairobi.

AFP / Getty

Yesterday I came across this headline in the Business Section of the San Francisco Chronicle: "Global Rice Shortage Now Hitting U.S. Buyers." Costco and Wal Mart's Sam's Club are now limiting the amount of bulk imported rice that customer's can buy. The world food crisis is beginning to affect U.S. consumers.

Perhaps you didn't know that such a crisis was underway. Food riots, violent protests, and regime changes have resulted from the escalating cost of food worldwide. Haiti's Prime Minister was ousted due to protests over rising food prices, and President Musharraf’s drubbing in the recent Pakistani election was due, in part, to similar concerns there. India, Egypt, Vietnam and Brazil are restricting rice exports for fear of shortages in their countries, and widespread unrest has been experienced in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

According to the Chronicle article,

In London this week, the executive director of the World Food Program, Josette Sheeran, warned that more than 100 million people will be pushed into poverty by a "silent tsunami" of sharply rising food prices.

"This is the new face of hunger - the millions of people who were not in the urgent hunger category six months ago but now are," Sheeran said. "The world's misery index is rising."

Why the rising cost of food? What does it portend?

In February, Time Magazine reported that

The forecast is grim. Governments might quell the protests, but bringing down food prices could take at least a decade, food analysts say. One reason: billions of people are buying ever-greater quantities of food — especially in booming China and India, where many have stopped growing their own food and now have the cash to buy a lot more of it. Increasing meat consumption, for example, has helped drive up demand for grain, and with it the price.

There are other problems too. The spike in oil prices, which hit $103 per barrel in recent days, has pushed up fertilizer prices, as well as the cost of trucking food from farms to local markets and shipping it abroad. Then there is climate change. Harvests have been seriously disrupted by freak weather, including prolonged droughts in Australia and southern Africa, floods in West Africa, and this past winter's deep frost in China and record-breaking warmth in northern Europe.

The push to produce biofuels as an alternative to hydrocarbons is further straining food supplies, especially in the U.S., where generous subsidies for ethanol have lured thousands of farmers away from growing crops for food. "The area used for biofuels is increasing each year," says Nik Bienkowski, head of research at ETF Securities, a commodities-trading firm in London. To make matters worse, global stockpiles of some basics have dwindled to their lowest point in decades. Rice — a staple for billions of Asians — has soared to its highest price in 20 years, while supplies are at their lowest level since the early 1980s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the global supply of wheat is lower than it's been in about 50 years — just five weeks' worth of world consumption is on hand, according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization.

As always in a crisis, there are winners. The creeping fear that the world might actually run short of food — no longer simply the stuff of sci-fi movies — has led speculators to pour billions into commodities, further accelerating price rises. In a single day in February, global wheat prices jumped 25% after Kazakhstan's government announced plans to restrict exports of its giant wheat crop for fear that its own citizens might go hungry. Jittery officials in India and Egypt are also restricting food exports. "Prices have risen at a much faster rate in the last few months," says Fazlul Kader in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he coordinates rural projects for the U.N.'s International Fund for Agricultural Development; there, soybean oil alone has shot up 60% in a year.

. . . Last October, shortly before food riots began exploding across West Africa, the WFP's director in Mauritania, Gian Carlo Cirri, flew to a donors' meeting in Senegal and warned Western aid officials that "2008 will be a very dangerous year," with rising food prices increasingly liable to hurt middle-class city dwellers, "who are prone to demonstrating." Similarly, von Braun says he has felt "like a Cassandra" in Washington in recent years, as he tried to warn U.S. officials numerous times that a global food crisis was looming. Even now, he says, "the specialists share our sense of urgency, but it hasn't broken out of that circle yet.

Indeed, you'd think that a global food crisis, and the underlying problems of global warming and unsustainable patterns of agricultural production and consumption, would be a major preoccupation of the current presidential campaign. Yet, we've heard nary a word about it from any of the remaining candidates. As one Newsweek editorialist points out, global warming has been "curiously absent" from the campaign trail.

National polls show that the environment ranks fairly low as an issue that moves voters. In the Pennsylvania primary global warming was such a peripheral issue that exit pollsters did not even bother to measure voter attitudes toward it. Many younger voters wish the candidates would talk more about global warming. But most voters worry more about jobs and keeping fuel cheap. Aside from speaking in broad generalities and making vague promises, the candidates steer away from involved debate on global warming. (Enabled, it should be said, by political reporters. Of the more than 3,000 questions asked in the more than 20 presidential debates, fewer than 10 mentioned global warming.)

The current food crisis is a red flag for those concerned about the future of the earth. In his book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Bill McKibben notes that

The median predictions of the world’s climatologists – by no means the worst-case scenarios – show that unless we take truly enormous steps to rein in our use of fossil fuels we can expect that the globally average temperature will rise another four or five degrees before the century is out. If that happens, the world will be warmer than it’s been for millions of years, long before primates appeared on the planet. We don’t know exactly what that world would feel like, but almost every guess is hideous. Since warm air holds more water vapor than cold air, for instance, we can expect more drought in the middles of our continents where grain growing is concentrated, and more floods on the coasts where many people live. The World Health Organization expects vast increases in mosquito-borne disease. Researchers warned in 2006 that climate change could kill 184 million people in Africa alone before the century is out, destruction on a scale so staggering it has no precedent. We might as well have a contest to pick a new name for Earth, because it will be a different planet. (pp. 20-21)

Hurricane Katrina, food riots from Haiti to Bangladesh to Egypt, water shortages, rising fuel costs, increased instability and conflict in resource-rich parts of the world such as Iran and Nigeria; these are harbingers of the new planet we are creating through environmental degradation. And the problem, as McKibben points out, isn’t simply that we are doing things badly, e.g. failing to put a filter on the smokestack. The problem is that we are doing too much, consuming too much, using too much.

The Earth is reaching the limits of unfettered economic growth and its effects. While those of us who are rich have long passed the point where more equals better, we continue a lifestyle that ensures that those who do not have enough will not be able to get more. Global warming boils down to a problem of collective greed and selfishness.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that sometimes we must choose to fast – to change our lifestyle for the sake of justice – so that others may eat at all. Will we choose to fast, or to allow millions to die? That is the question that our politicians have yet to answer this election cycle. We need to starting asking it.

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