The World Food Crisis
- By John Nichols
The Nation, April 25, 2008
Straight to the Source
The only surprising thing about the global food crisis to Jim Goodman is the notion that anyone finds it surprising. "So," says the Wisconsin dairy farmer, "they finally figured out, after all these years of pushing globalization and genetically modified [GM] seeds, that instead of feeding the world we've created a food system that leaves more people hungry. If they'd listened to farmers instead of corporations, they would've known this was going to happen." Goodman has traveled the world to speak, organize and rally with groups such as La Via Campesina, the global movement of peasant and farm organizations that has been warning for years that "solutions" promoted by agribusiness conglomerates were designed to maximize corporate profits, not help farmers or feed people. The food shortages, suddenly front-page news, are not new. Hundreds of millions of people were starving and malnourished last year; the only change is that as the scope of the crisis has grown, it has become more difficult to "manage" the hunger that a failed food system accepts rather than feeds.
The current global food system, which was designed by US-based agribusiness conglomerates like Cargill, Monsanto and ADM and forced into place by the US government and its allies at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, has planted the seeds of disaster by pressuring farmers here and abroad to produce cash crops for export and alternative fuels rather than grow healthy food for local consumption and regional stability. The only smart short-term response is to throw money at the problem. George W. Bush's release of $200 million in emergency aid to the UN's World Food Program was appropriate, but Washington must do more. Rising food prices may not be causing riots in the United States, but food banks here are struggling to meet demand as joblessness grows. Congress should answer Senator Sherrod Brown's call to allocate $100 million more to domestic food programs and make sure, as Representative Jim McGovern urges, that an overdue farm bill expands programs for getting fresh food from local farms to local consumers.
Beyond humanitarian responses, the cure for what ails the global food system - and an unsteady US farm economy - is not more of the same globalization and genetic gimmickry. That way has left thirty-seven nations with food crises while global grain giant Cargill harvests an 86 percent rise in profits and Monsanto reaps record sales from its herbicides and seeds. For years, corporations have promised farmers that problems would be solved by trade deals and technology - especially GM seeds, which University of Kansas research now suggests reduce food production and the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development says won't end global hunger. The "market," at least as defined by agribusiness, isn't working. We "have a herd of market traders, speculators and financial bandits who have turned wild and constructed a world of inequality and horror," says Jean Ziegler, the UN's right-to-food advocate. But try telling that to the Bush Administration or to World Bank president (and former White House trade rep) Robert Zoellick, who's busy exploiting tragedy to promote trade liberalization. "If ever there is a time to cut distorting agricultural subsidies and open markets for food imports, it must be now," says Zoellick. "Wait a second," replies Dani Rodrik, a Harvard political economist who tracks trade policy. "Wouldn't the removal of these distorting policies raise world prices in agriculture even further?" Yes. World Bank studies confirm that wheat and rice prices will rise if Zoellick gets his way.
Instead of listening to the White House or the World Bank, Congress should recognize - as a handful of visionary members like Ohio Representative Marcy Kaptur have - that current trends confirm the wisdom of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's call for "an urgent rethink of the respective roles of markets and governments." That's far more useful than blaming Midwestern farmers for embracing inflated promises about the potential of ethanol - although we should re-examine whether aggressive US support for biofuels is not only distorting corn prices but harming livestock and dairy producers who can barely afford feed and fertilizer. Instead of telling farmers they're wrong to seek the best prices for their crops, Congress should make sure that farmers can count on good prices for growing the food Americans need. It can do this by providing a strong safety net to survive weather and market disasters and a strategic grain reserve similar to the strategic petroleum reserve to guard against food-price inflation.
Congress should also embrace trade and development policies that help developing countries regulate markets with an eye to feeding the hungry rather than feeding corporate profits. This principle, known as "food sovereignty," sees struggling farmers and hungry people and says, as the Oakland Institute's Anuradha Mittal observes, that it is time to "stop worshiping the golden calf of the so-called free market and embrace, instead, the principle [that] every country and every people have a right to food that is affordable." As Mittal says, "When the market deprives them of this, it is the market that has to give."
John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press and the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of TRAGEDY & FARCE: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy - The New Press.
© 2008 The Nation
original story at: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080512/nichols
End Food-to-Fuel Diversion: The World Is Getting Hungry
The willingness to try, fail and try again is the essence of scientific progress. The same sometimes holds true for public policy.
It is in this spirit that we call upon Congress to revisit recently enacted federal mandates requiring the diversion of foodstuffs for production of biofuels.
These “food-to-fuel” mandates were meant to move America toward energy independence and mitigate global climate change. But the evidence irrefutably demonstrates that this policy is not delivering on either goal. In fact, it is causing environmental harm and contributing to a growing global food crisis.
Food-to-fuel mandates were created for the right reasons. The hope of using American-grown crops to fuel our cars seemed like a win-win-win scenario: Our farmers would enjoy the benefit of crop-price stability. Our national security would be enhanced by having a new domestic energy source. Our environment would be protected by a cleaner fuel.
But new evidence has shown that the justifications for these mandates were inaccurate.
It is now abundantly clear that food-to-fuel mandates are leading to increased environmental damage. First, producing ethanol requires huge amounts of energy — most of which comes from coal. Second, the production process creates a number of hazardous byproducts, and some production facilities are reportedly dumping these in local water sources.
Third, food-to-fuel mandates are helping drive up the price of agricultural staples, leading to significant changes in land use with major environmental harm. Here in the United States, farmers are pulling land out of the federal conservation program, threatening fragile habitats.
Increased agricultural production also means increased fertilizer use. The National Academy of Sciences reported last month that meeting the congressional food-to-fuel mandate by 2022 would lead to a 10 percent to 19 percent increase in the size of the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” — an area so polluted by fertilizer runoff that no aquatic life can survive there.
Most troubling, though, is that the higher food prices caused in large part by food-to-fuel mandates create incentives for global deforestation, including in the Amazon basin.
The result is devastating: We lose an ecological treasure and critical habitat for endangered species, as well as the world’s largest “carbon sink.” And when the forests are cleared and the land plowed for farming, the carbon that had been sequestered in the plants and soil is released. Princeton scholar Tim Searchinger has modeled this impact and reports in Science magazine that the net impact of the food-to-fuel push will be an increase in global carbon emissions.
Meanwhile, the mandates are not reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Last year, the United States burned about a quarter of its national corn supply as fuel - and this led to only a 1 percent reduction in the country’s oil consumption.
Turning one-fourth of our corn into fuel is affecting global food prices. U.S. food prices are rising at twice the rate of inflation, hitting the pocketbooks of lower-income Americans and people living on fixed incomes.
Globally, the United Nations and other relief organizations are facing gaping shortfalls as the cost of food outpaces their ability to provide aid for the 800 million people who lack food security. Deadly food riots have broken out in dozens of nations in the past few months, most recently in Haiti and Egypt. World Bank President Robert Zoellick warns of a global food emergency.
The immediate necessary step is a major increase in global food aid. But beyond that, America must stop contributing to food price inflation through mandates that force us to use food to feed our cars instead of to feed people.
Taking these together — the environmental damage, the human pain of food price inflation, the failure to reduce our dependence on oil — it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that food-to-fuel mandates have failed.
Congress took a big chance on biofuels that, unfortunately, has not worked out. Now, in the spirit of progress, let us learn the appropriate lessons from this setback, and let us act quickly to mitigate the damage and set upon a new course that holds greater promise for meeting the challenges ahead.
Lester Brown is founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute. Jonathan Lewis is a climate specialist and lawyer with the Clean Air Task Force. They wrote this article for the Washington Post.