The response to the global food crisis has not been a unified one ... and a lack of a singular vision has been an enormous stumbling block in finding a solution.
In the late 1990s, the prices of food worldwide had reached historic lows. The so-called Asian "green" revolution, which saw large increases in grain yields with the use of pesticides and modern agricultural methods, combined with higher food production in developed countries, contributed to the actual prices of staple foods falling to their lowest levels since the 1950s. But in 2000, food prices began to rise. The climb became gradually steeper, and in late 2006 costs suddenly spiked. In 2007 and 2008, the cost of basic foodstuffs surged, creating a global crisis when millions saw their food budgets rise beyond their means.
In less than three years, world food prices doubled; between April 2007 and April 2008 alone they rose by 85 percent. By early 2008, wheat was twice what it had been a year earlier. Rice, the staple food for about 3 billion people, tripled in cost. These staggering prices triggered riots and demonstrations around the world. A 400 percent increase in the cost of tortillas caused tens of thousands of Mexicans to march in protest in early 2007. In West Bengal, India, protesters destroyed stores carrying government-subsidized food, accusing owners of selling the rations on the black market. Riots exploded in Senegal, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso over high grain prices. In early 2008, demonstrators in Haiti tried to storm the National Palace, and in April, English pig farmers staged a protest over the rising cost of wholesale grain to feed their livestock.
In less than a decade, the world went from a seeming abundance of food at low prices to a dire shortage, in which American middle-class families were struggling and many of the poor were essentially priced out of the market. What caused this dramatic shift? How did this crisis that has reached every corner of the globe take shape? While nobody disputes the seriousness of the crisis, and especially its impact on the poorest nations around the world, there is surprisingly little agreement among economists, activists, and political leaders as to the exact causes of the global food crisis—and, as a result, what to do about it. There is some consensus that high oil prices, population growth, urbanization, and weather conditions collided to create a "perfect storm" in which demand for food has outstripped supply. However, debates continue to rage over whether other factors, such as flawed trade policies, agricultural practices, changing dietary habits, increased demand for biofuels, commodity speculation, and the global capitalist system are the true culprits.
At the June 2008 world food summit in Rome, convened by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it was clear how divided the world is on the causes of the crisis and the strategies needed to combat the problem. The head of the FAO, Jacques Diouf, called upon nations to pledge $30 billion in assistance to the world's 862 million people suffering from hunger and malnutrition. The FAO organizers pointed to World Bank estimates that this number of poorly nourished people could rise by more than 100 million if aid is not provided soon. But Diouf's calls were largely ignored. Further, his suggestions that biofuels—and corn ethanol subsidies to U.S. farmers in particular—are the major cause for escalating food prices were met with irritation by ethanol-producing countries. While studies show that demand for cereal grains has gone up by 60 percent because of biofuel production, U.S. agriculture secretary, Ed Schafer, insisted that number was grossly exaggerated and that biofuels accounted for only a two or three percent increase in demand for grains.
The claims made by some Westerners—including, most famously, former U.S. President George W. Bush in May of 2008—that rising prices are partially the result of an increased appetite for meat by growing middle classes in China and India, was also met with scorn by Chinese and Indian delegations. Chinese agriculture minister Zhengcai Sun pointed out that China is a net exporter of grain and thus could not be responsible for the surge in consumption. Other Indian commentators, including Vandana Shiva, had earlier expressed outrage at the notion that Americans, who constitute 5 percent of the earth's population but consume a third of its resources, could point their finger at Indians. Shiva has noted that despite the myth of India as an "economic miracle," in truth the majority of Indians eat less now than they did ten years ago. She says this is because so many have lost their lands and livelihoods as a result of trade policies that force India to buy grains from subsidized Western farmers.
Farming subsidies by wealthy countries have been a source of bitterness for many in the developing world, and activists have long claimed that they obliterate any real notion of "free trade," prevent small farmers from competing in the world market, and distort food prices—which has now culminated in a food crisis on a disastrous scale. However, European and American farmers have objected to losing their subsidies, which they say they cannot operate without and still maintain the required high standards.
Another source of contention for some environmentalists is the notion that biotechnology promoted by the West is the best means for Third World farmers to increase their yields and feed themselves. Many environmental activists responding to the Rome summit lamented the fact that the FAO promotes only agricultural development that enriches agribusiness at the expense of the world's poor. Others have echoed this concern that biotechnology, which is heavily promoted by corporations who stand to profit from its use, is not a solution to the global food crisis and that, indeed, the use of chemical farming has contributed to the degradation of farmland and thus is at the root of the problem. However, numerous other experts, including the Nobel Prize-winning agronomist Norman E. Borlaug, dismiss anti-technology critics, arguing that only with the use of chemicals and biotechnology can the world hope to feed its 6.3 billion residents.
At the Rome summit and beyond, the response to the global food crisis has not been a unified one. Nations and groups with conflicting agendas have seen the problem very differently, and a lack of a singular vision has been an enormous stumbling block in finding a solution. The world financial crisis, which has gripped the world's attention after late 2008, has overshadowed the issue of food security. Food prices began to fall in 2009, but this drop is likely temporary. The food crisis remains a critical issue and one that must be addressed because, as events have shown, it threatens to destabilize not only people's health on a massive scale but also the peace and security of countries in every corner of the globe.