The Pillars of Cheap Food are Cracking

The worldwide price level of food is taking a great leap upward for the second time in less than five years.

My bet is that this food price hike will match a rise in oil prices for wrenching impact on geopolitics, especially as the two are intimately connected. Food cannot be fertilized and shipped without imports of cheap fossil fuels, and impoverished people in areas near the oil-rich Mid-East cannot eat without imports of cheap food.  As fossil oil prices climb, fuel and fertilizers used on farms go up, and so do opportunities to use farmland to grow fuel crops instead of food, creating a double whammy effect.

The empires that cheap oil and food built are in for a shakedown. What’s happening along the Mediterranean shores of Africa, where the world’s first agricultural revolution happened some 10,000 years ago, is an inspiring beginning.

What is now referred to as the world food price crisis of 2007-8 was arguably the first worldwide price hike in history. Causing mass outbreaks of rioting in some 40 countries, it was a reminder that a hike in the price of oil brings out anger from affluent people around the world, but creates desperation for some three billion people who earn less than two dollars a day.

The full impact of 2007-8 price hikes for food and oil was cut short by its sidekick, the world recession of 2007-8, which captured attention as well as dampened prices.

As a result, few noticed that nothing was done by any major government to deal with the structural fundamentals behind this rise in food prices – deep-going shifts such as the surge in population growth, urbanization , climate chaos, destruction of major fishing grounds, meat-eating and other resource-intensive Americanizations of world foodways, not to mention a significant shift of farmland from production of food to production of car fuel, and the rise of financial speculation in food commodities (sorry for that mouthful of factors at work).  There are so many factors at work, it’s safe to refer to price hikes as “over-determined,” to use a weird phrase from 1970s leftist liturgy.

Despite urgings from such bodies as the World Bank, for example, no major government has spent serious money on research or programs to increase agricultural production – that’s been left entirely to the private sector and dubious inventions by the chemical-seed giants such as Monsanto. As well, few governments have lifted a finger to preserve the world’s fisheries, the major source of protein for the world’s poor.

Odd as it might seem to the narcissistic, ignoring a crisis does not make it go away. A second rising of food prices was inevitable.

This round, almost certainly to be followed by several more, food prices are three times the inflation rate in Canada and many other countries as well. In Canada, according to a February report by Capital Economics consultant David Madani, groceries will go up a sticker-shocking 5 per cent this year.

In countries where the low-income majority spends half their income on imports of basic staples of rice, wheat and corn that keep body and soul together – this describes Arabic regions of Africa to a T – minor shifts in food prices can wreak havoc on livelihoods.

In North America, where plentiful and convenient foods cost as little as ten per cent of most family budgets, the impact is less jarring, except for people on low and fixed incomes. Nevertheless, official estimates indicate that 40 million Americans are now food-insecure, dependent on charity, food stamps and other aid for a full stomach.  In Canada, where both charities and government pay less heed to food access than south of the border, I’m not aware that any officials have even attempted to calculate impacts – an omission that screams out how unprepared Canadian government social safety nets and social organizations are on this issue. No-one has so much as suggested that this might become an issue in federal, Ontario or British Columbia politics, where elections are expected.

In countries where there’s a bit more savvy about the essentials of life and perhaps more wisdom and wariness about happens when governments neglect these essentials  — who can forget what happened to Queen Marie Antoinette’s head during the 1790s  when she got tagged with saying the starving masses who couldn’t afford bread should eat cake?

Other than in the Anglo-American bubble, where food access is not deemed an issue worthy of public policy and the poor are largely left to their own devices to deal with food and rent, leading nations get it. The G-20 group of most wealthy nations has put food security at the top of its to-do list for this year, ensuring an over-supply of gratuitous advice.

Other than war and mass drought, food is as close as it gets to the real bottom line. The bottom line is that the foundation stones of relatively cheap food — which has been the international norm since the 1970s, when the U.S. government of Richard Nixon (would you buy a used food system from him?) subsidized US flooding of export markets with basic grains, beans and meat – are cracked.

We now need to think in dramatically different ways about new pillars of steady food supplies and access.

First comes conservation, an obvious priority when as much as a half the world’s food production is currently wasted according to estimates by Vaclav Smil, Canadian geographer and lead global expert on this issue. To date, despite rants by Smil and me, no government has taken serious action to increase food access by reducing waste, the obvious first line of defence.

Second comes a switch to diets and infrastructure that are more regional and sustainable. It was once thought that a global system would allow a shortage in one area to be met by a surplus in another. What’s happened instead is that a shortage in countries as big as China or as small as Australia can create price shocks around the world. People need to eat more in keeping with principles of self-reliance – forget that tasteless California lettuce, and start sprouting greens from grains and beans or enjoying cold-tolerant greens that flourish in unheated greenhouses. Governments need to rebuild the basics of a local food economy – local slaughterhouses, to be blunt, egg smashers (Ontario’s smashed eggs, used in all mass-service institutions, come from Manitoba) and fruit and veggie processing – that have been blitz-krieged by multinational food corporations.

Third comes public policy which ensures food access along similar lines as other essentials — medical care, education, roads, public broadcasting and so on – are guaranteed. Governments will have to step up to the plate, or, as the once-stable governments of northern Africa indicate, be sent packing.

Adapted from NOW Magazine, March 3-9, 2010 (see for charts and great graphics).


  1. karen wood says:

    this explains why most of my produce grown in community gardens in NW Ohio was stolen last year. Not complaining — a lot of food disappeared, but we cannot continue to feed these neighborhoods, where people come with flashlights at midnight to get food.We in US was be ashamed — all that money spent on wars would grow local, good food.

  2. Rose says:

    I also had my garden raided in September when I was at work. I always say that we must ALL have enough to eat otherwise neighbours will kill you for a frozen chicken if you have one and they don’t, and they need to feed themselves or their children.

    People in terrible conditions tend to forget their manners.

  3. Steve Martin says:

    Good article but I am not so sure that more government intervention is really what we need. Rather I wonder how much more food would actually be produced if farmers got a fair return for the food that they produce. And that my friends means that in NA at least food prices must rise. What needs top stop is the importation of cheap imports often taking it from the very regions that need it far more then we do. I realize that this does not take care of the needy in NA but That is concern to be dealt with social policy and not by continually keeping food cheap.

    I see food prices rising as a very good thing and actually the solution to world hunger in the long run.


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