Friday, April 11, 2008

Biofuels, food prices, and you

I started noticing food prices creeping upward a little over a year ago. It was in the winter, and I started hearing on the BBC overnight that Mexico was in the grip of a tortilla panic, as corn prices, driven by ethanol demands, increased to the point that the food staple was priced out of reach of hundreds of thousands of Mexico's poor, and new price controls were put in place after people filled the streets in protest. I made a conscious effort to start noticing food prices.

I live an urban existence - I rarely shop in a supermarket or purchase processed foods, instead I shop at produce stands, specialty markets, the natural foods store, farmers markets, and Costco. Prices at the produce stands haven't changed all that much. What I have noticed most acutely have been increases in prices of staple food items at Costco. The price of 25-pound bags of flour, rice and pinto beans have either doubled or nearly doubled in the last year.

Across Africa, NGOs and scientists have joined their voices to form a chorus calling for a moratorium on converting food crops to fuel crops.

Wooed by the possibility of an emerging "green OPEC," struggling nations of sub-Saharan Africa have rushed to convert their farm land from food crops to fuel crops - and decreased food security for the people who live in those countries.

In Asia, skyrocketing prices of rice have fueled fears of social instability driven by food insecurity. In Pakistan, thousands of troops have been deployed in recent months to guard shipments of wheat and flour. Soybean shortages in Indonesia have sparked street protests and driven fears of social unrest. China has implemented stringent price controls on cooking oil, grains, meats, eggs and milk.

The universal increases in food prices prompted World Bank President Robert Zoellick to speak out about the looming crisis in food security yesterday.
Zoellick held up a bag of rice during a news conference Thursday to illustrate the severity of the food crisis.

"In Bangladesh a two-kilogram bag of rice ... now consumes about half of the daily income of a poor family," he said. "The price of a loaf of bread ... has more than doubled. Poor people in Yemen are now spending more than a quarter of their incomes just on bread."

And Zoellick says prices for basic staples will remain high for an extended period of time.

"I think you have a perfect storm of things coming together," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep in an interview. "You have high energy prices. You have the increase in demand from some of the developing countries. ... As the Indian commerce minister said to me, going from one meal a day to two meals a day for 300 million people increases demand a lot.

Not only is food insecurity increasing; globally, diets are changing and becoming homogenized; more and more of the world's people rely on mass-produced, factory farmed food stuffs that are shipped all over the world. In this reality, that a Big Mac tastes exactly the same in Tokyo as it does in Topeka is a goal to be worked toward, rather than a fact that sets off creepy, sci-fi, spine-tingling like it ought to.

This trend toward dietary homogenization ought to spark rounds of worry, and panels of United Nations experts should be seated for brainstorming sessions to reverse this disturbing trend. The fact that dietary diversity is decreasing globally increases the vulnerability of vast numbers of people as reliance on external sources of food increases and self-sufficiency becomes a thing of the past, and cereal grains that could feed millions of hungry people end up in gas tanks of Ford Extinctions and Dodge Dinosaurs.

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