Chris' Original Blogbeque

A fresh, vinegar-based examination of life

Global food prices, excuses vs. reasons, and the American Glutton (Part I)

Posted by Chris on June 6, 2008

As way of an introduction, this series of posts came about as a result of all the media coverage of, and visible evidence in our grocery stores, of the rise in food prices and the effects globally. I intend to survey the situation through some different articles, the experience of a friend who is doing Peace Corps in Africa, and personal experience/opinion. Then, I’ll share the various hypotheses explaining the recent sharp increases in food and commodity prices. Finally, I’ll give what I think is much of the solution– I believe it is the best, most practical, and easiest thing we as Americans can do– yes, all of those things at once. My main goals are personal growth in knowledge and thinking on the subject and a growth in my conviction and dedication to my part in the solution. Considering that I’m not sure anyone will read this, convincing others to join in this “think globally, act locally” campaign to lower food prices, is a secondary goal.

Part I: What rising food prices looks like in the world

The first thing Americans must understand is that our “suffering” through higher food prices is a minor affliction compared to the potential in the rest of the world. The American “poverty threshhold” or poverty line was created in the 1960s based on an economy food budget that estimated food expenses equivalent to 33% of income. For this reason, the poverty line is now way off track according to the same benchmark– an “economy” food budget would likely be less than 10%. Food is not a big part of our budget– the proliferation of restaurants, where you pay 100-500% more for food than it would be to prepare yourself, is evidence that most of us do not struggle to buy food. Even the poor in this country can typically afford food, or receive food stamps (and if they struggle, it’s likely due to paying rent first which has replaced food as the most significant expenditure).
In fact, a homeless guy recently told me that “if you live in Champaign, you will eat” while patting his belly, implying that he’d had more than enough food due to the generosity of students.

So what is happening? In America, many commodity prices are rising. Food in itself is rising, but as a country with very few people growing their own food, the rise in oil/gas explains much of the rise. In fact, I am going to assume that sometime next year the Consumer Price Index will show an increase in inflation.

Rice as an example

In about 6 months, India raised its export price for rice by 300% (3, see link to sources below). Even more recently, India banned the export of rice period. Bangladesh, suffering from the effects of floods, has needed to import India’s rice(4). So Bangladeshis went from having to pay 3x as much for their rice to now possibly having no rice to purchase. After spending some time in West Bengal, India, I can tell you- Bengalis eat a lot of rice. There is no equivalent for us. It would not be like taking away cereal, like Lucky Charms and Cheerios, but taking away Cereals, like no products that use grain or flour or bread.

Vietnam, Cambodia, and Egypt also have bans on rice exports (3). I am guessing (I cannot confirm this) that US rice exports have dropped. I spent a summer in Arkansas and talked with a guy who did a lot of rice farming and exported much of it that he said ultimately ended up in Iraq. This was 2006, as people first started talking about ethanol. He wasn’t growing a lot of corn, but if prices went up, he would have no problem switching. While rice prices are going up, and he might be tempted to produce more rice next year, I’m guessing that some rice farmers like him (and other places in the world) first noticed the quick rise in corn prices and changed their acreages for each crop accordingly.

Overall, food prices have risen 40% since 2007 (6). From the same article:

This increase has had a disproportionate effect on many developing nations, where families often spend more than half their income on food. The situation is particularly troublesome in countries such as Nigeria, Vietnam and Indonesia, where the percentage of income spent on food is respectively 73, 65 and 50 percent.

Riots have become a part of life. The riots don’t even result in stealing food, as there may be no food to steal. People are hungry and frustrated and rioting is both the overflow of that frustration and a social movement to put pressure on governments to do something.
My friend Amber is serving in the Peace Corps in Cameroon. She went in November and reported some riots over food. A recent Economist article reported the deaths of 24 people in riots in Cameroon (8)– an escalating scale of violence. I will quote parts from a recent email she sent me, which addresses the riots and more

Prices were pretty much already high when I arrived at post… The strikes in themselves were interesting. It started out as a simple fuel prices strike but then escalated. President Paul Biya addressed the nation and made promises about lower prices… One of the reasons though that they haven’t started a rebellion again is because they’re believing in Biya’s promises and also they lack guns. The military has guns they don’t.

As far as the food prices and the world shortage in food… All I can tell you is that so far it doesn’t seem to be effecting small consumer prices. Like I can still buy rice for the same price I did when I got here. It hasn’t changed but the bulk price probably did so I’m not sure why my price hasn’t changed. Also people eat more fufu here which is made out of corn flour. It’s the staple to the diet.

I edited out some sensitive, more alarming parts. In her area, it appears that people are fortunate, but, the country as a whole has rioted and now sits back and does nothing in the face of a powerful (in terms of violence) yet ineffective government (in that the government has not, and probably can not, do much to lower the prices of food).

Violence and war
I read a Nick Kristoff (journalist for NY Times) article a few months ago that suggested that part of the blame for war, any and all wars, is poor weather which leads to scarcity of food and water. He cited historical examples and made a case for more concern about global warming in our own day. While global warming may have nothing to do with, there are contemporary conflicts in which this is somewhat true. The Darfur region, I’m pretty sure, is or was at least a more fertile part of Sudan. The aggressors wanted more than to just kill people- they want their land. When riots end, and nothing changes, violence will be re-directed in organized efforts at the government or in civil violence between neighbors.

It is no secret that there were always starving people: living in miserable housing, with no economic prospects, poor health, etc… Now we face a situation where those who weren’t starving, who have jobs, a decent house– they too are hungry. It is a serious problem. More people have always died from malnutrition than terrorism, lightning strikes, bee stings, shark attacks, and all those things we love to fear. Over time, the global economic situation has improved, but now we face retrenchment and taking huge steps back.

Some friends in college often debated the following question: Would you rather be surrounded by a pack of wolves in the forest, or be in the water with a bunch of hungry sharks? This was an amusing conversation and a silly one with no basis in reality. It was also a reflection of our lack of fear about anything. I now think of the Zarephath widow that Elijah encounters in 1 Kings 17. He asks her for bread and she responds:

As the Lord your God lives, I have no bread, only a handful of flour in the bowl and a little oil in the jar; and behold, I am gathering a few sticks that I may go in and prepare for me and my son, that we may eat it and die.
1 Kings 17:12, NASB.

I am getting a little ahead of myself, as I will address what we can do in part III, but I want to end by asking you to imagine what it would be like to fear starvation. Can you even begin to picture having a genuine fear of lacking food that far outweighs threats from a pack of wolves?

Sources/some articles I’ve read lately.


3 Responses to “Global food prices, excuses vs. reasons, and the American Glutton (Part I)”

  1. […] on food prices June 6, 2008 Posted by Chris in globalization, human rights. trackback see here, here, and […]

  2. […] on food prices January 6, 2007 Posted by Chris in globalization, human rights. trackback see here, here, and […]

  3. […] and visible evidence in our grocery stores, of the rise in food prices and the effects globally. In Part 1 I looked at some of the problems that result from higher food prices and gave some examples. It was […]

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