I wrote a post a few months ago about the role of bread prices in the Egyptian uprising. Foreign Policy has a new article on how rising food prices and increasing food scarcity around the world could mean there is more severe political unrest on the horizon. There are indications that the world's food economies are entering unprecedented territory. Lester Brown at Foreign Policy sums up these new dynamics:
Welcome to the new food economics of 2011: Prices are climbing, but the impact is not at all being felt equally. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their income in the supermarket, the soaring food prices we've seen so far this year are an annoyance, not a calamity. But for the planet's poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who are barely hanging on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely. This can contribute -- and it has -- to revolutions and upheaval.
Food crises and famine are familiar patterns in modern history but the drivers of the current crunch are more complex.
Historically, price spikes tended to be almost exclusively driven by unusual weather -- a monsoon failure in India, a drought in the former Soviet Union, a heat wave in the U.S. Midwest. Such events were always disruptive, but thankfully infrequent. Unfortunately, today's price hikes are driven by trends that are both elevating demand and making it more difficult to increase production: among them, a rapidly expanding population, crop-withering temperature increases, and irrigation wells running dry.
To make matters worse the U.S., whose stockpiles of grains have traditionally been a cushion for supply shocks, has depleted its storehouses and is less able to absorb world demand.
As the article reports, this new world food landscape has countries that rely heavily on grain imports scurrying to secure supplies. Countries like South Korea are moving to create direct relationships with US farmers. Don't be surprised if you start to see large silos adorned with Korean lettering pop up around the grain-rich Palouse region. This has alread happened with hay supplies in central Washington. It's hard to miss the huge hay barns alongside I-90 near Ellensberg that are marked with Japanese lettering.
The author of the Foreign Policy article warns of an impending food armageddon marked by food nationalism and driven by climate change. It is a forboding message and one worth paying attention to, but the most important observation he makes is that the world's poor are on the hook for the worst of this impending crisis.
I saw this first hand at our last food distribution with Second Harvest here in the west valley of Spokane. It was a smaller-than-usual delivery of food, mostly because the stockpiles in the Second Harvest warehouse are depleted right now. I asked them about the current dynamics of food donations and they explained that with food prices and demand so high right now the large food companies are selling off more of their supplies, leaving less excess in the supply chain for food banks. This dynamic is a microcosm of what happens around the world. There is less excess in the system for impoverished peoples in regions with depleted land.
These are challenging days ahead and it's easy to get overwhelmed but there are actions that can be taken to help those who are going to be hurt the most. It's a good time to get involved with and make a donation to organizations like Bread for the World where they advocate for the poor and hungry in important food-related legislation. Local food banks are going to need all the help they can get in the coming months as transportation costs increase. One of my favorite international aid organizations is Plant With Purpose, where they empower people in poverty to practice sustainable agriculture in their communities to help them become more self-reliant and less vulnerable to world food shocks.
It's also a good time to grow your own food.