By Nancy Langer and Richard Marks – Jean Ziegler, the United Nations special rapporteur for the right to food, recently raised blood pressures by dubbing biofuels “a crime against humanity”. Criminal or not, the comment underscored a UN and World Bank commissioned report unveiled this month noting land diverted from agricultural use to bio-fuel production drives up food prices. As the G8 summit in Japan this summer attempts to address the global food crisis, it would behoove them to review this thorough assessment of agricultural knowledge, science and technology (AKSTD) at www.agassessment.org.
The rest of us can read the study too, or just follow the chicken:
Ahmed Fathi Sorour, speaker of Egypt’s parliament, understands the connection between chickens and the global food crisis well. On March 23, he awoke to a beautiful Sunday in Cairo and organized a delivery of chickens to a village hard hit by a fire. He expected gratitude; he got a riot. His aides ended up barricaded behind a 10-foot tall gate, hurling frozen chickens into the ravenous mob.
The truth is simply that 850 million people around the world are not getting enough to eat. There have been violent food uprisings recently in Egypt, Haiti, Senegal, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Yemen, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and Italy.
Follow the chicken to the middle of the Sahara Desert and you will see the amazing ingenuity of indigenous people extracting food from the ground with less and less water. Of course, not a lot of people in Chad eat chicken anymore since non-governmental organizations arrived to provide humanitarian aid. A chicken used to cost $1.12; now one bird fetches $7.00. It seems aid workers like to drink beer and eat barbecued chicken at night. Local Chadians with resources started selling their chickens at higher and higher prices – a mini globalization story. Yes, some people benefit from access to Western markets, but many just get inflated food costs. Even Americans are feeling the pinch at the grocery store, as they turn to charitable food pantries in record numbers.
Worldwide, food prices have climbed eighty-three percent over three years. Who is eating all the planet’s food? It’s not just Americans consuming the wings and hot sauce. Did you know every day two million people in China eat at KFC? Not just in Beijing, either as the Colonel’s recipe and outlets have even reached Qiandaohu, a tiny fishing town on China’s coast, renowned for its seafood. KFC is the most recognizable brand name in China, according to AC Nielson; the Kentucky-based company is opening two hundred and fifty restaurants a year there. Asia has become a big driver of world demand for such staples as meat, poultry and dairy products, driven by a growing middle class and changing diets. We live in a world of finite resources and the increasing demands for energy and food have now collided. Commodity prices have skyrocketed with wheat rising one hundred and thirty percent since last year and soy by eighty-seven percent.
Corn, a primary source of the biofuel ethanol, has hit the jackpot. Since January, the price of corn has set thirteen new record highs. Chickens on Maryland’s Eastern Shore will still get fed, but not people at the margins of globalization.
We need a whole suite of solutions that synergistically answer the challenge of food security and environment. Yes, ending biofuel subsidies makes sense – but so does ending tariff barriers against alternative sources of biofuel. We must address the demand side of the equation by mandating lower speed limits and enforcing tighter fuel mileage standards. We need to conserve gas and efficiently power the agricultural industry. Finally, we need to provide expertise and sound agricultural practices to help other countries increase yields and produce enough food to feed their citizens. Providing surplus food is not a sustainable solution. Besides, the surpluses are no longer available and even if they were, transporting the goods at today’s energy costs, while a necessity in the short term to prevent starvation, is not a productive or efficient long-term solution. Science and sensible trade policies can ameliorate this crisis if we act now. Otherwise, the shortages and panic we have seen will lead to further starvation, destabilization of societies, and possible armed conflicts. The U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has established a task force to tackle the crisis and avert “social unrest on an unprecedented scale.” Hopefully, it is not too late.
An initial draft of this article first appeared in the Baltimore Sun on April 30, 2008 and can be accessed here.
photo credit: http://flickr.com/photos/kanjiroushi/315696607/
Nancy Langer is the Director of External Relations at the Stimson Center.
Richard Marks is CEO of Paris Foods Corp, a frozen food manufacturing company based in Maryland and Chair of the Stimson Council of Advisors.