Gigantic waves—like those that surged across the Indian Ocean in 2005 taking countless lives—are now sweeping through the poorest nations of the world. In addition to the cyclonic waves that have wrought so much destruction this month, there are waves of hunger and anger caused by the dramatic rise in prices for food staples like corn, wheat, rice and soybeans. The cost increases have spawned deadly riots in countries as far apart as Haiti and Indonesia. The riots’ implications for spreading political unrest understandably worry world leaders.
Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations’ World Food Program, was the first to refer to the global food crisis as a silent tsunami. In April, the W.F.P. warned that without a massive infusion of over $700 million, it might have to suspend such basic works as a food program for half a million schoolchildren in Cambodia. The program, one of the world’s most important safety nets, feeds more than 70 million people in 80 nations.
Food crises have multiple causes, such as civil wars like those in Africa, or climate changes that bring droughts and floods. Ironically, in countries with a rising middle class, like China and India, the newly prosperous eat more meat from grain-fed cattle, and this too plays a part in the rising food prices. However, for people who exist at the lowest income levels—$1 a day is considered the basic benchmark of poverty, with a billion people surviving on that amount— rising food prices have led to hunger and even starvation.
The current global crisis is largely market-generated, not least by the surge in demand for biofuels, which has diverted the supply of food. In the United States, Congress’s food-to-fuel mandates were intended to make the country less dependent on foreign oil and more environmentally friendly. In fact, greenhouse emissions from corn-based fuels are nearly double those from gasoline, and therefore even more threatening to the environment than petroleum-based fuels. Moreover, they require huge amounts of water. It is estimated that 1,700 gallons of water are needed to produce one gallon of ethanol.
In Brazil ecologically fragile areas like the Amazon rain forest are being destroyed, much of it for sugar cane to be used in ethanol production. All but forgotten, however, in the rush toward biofuels, is the fact that forests absorb carbon. Once trees are cut down, the sequestered carbon is released into the atmosphere and adds to global warming. Fertilizers also enter the picture, partly because their rising cost prevents poor farmers from buying them to increase their meager crop yields, and also because of their role in environmental damage. The National Academy of Sciences, for example, reported in March that in another 15 years, a huge dead zone will appear in the Gulf of Mexico because of fertilizer runoff that kills aquatic life.
To emphasize the threat of world hunger, Jean Ziegler, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, has proposed a five-year moratorium on the production of biofuels. He has suggested as an alternative that non-food substitutes made from agricultural waste (biomass) or nonagricultural plants could eventually be transformed into fuel. Ziegler has emphasized that because people have a right to food, governments should avoid actions that make hunger and malnutrition worse.
Since it may be a decadebefore the food-price crisis abates, the immediate need is for a significant increase in food aid on a global level. Some poor countries, like the Philippines, have already begun a cash subsidy program to help poor families buy rice. The use of subsidies in the United States, unfortunately, has primarily benefitted wealthy farming interests and should be reformed. Corn subsidies for U.S. corporate farmers, moreover, have also harmed small farmers in Mexico, who cannot compete locally with the subsidized corn imported from the United States.
The G-8 group of industrialized countries is sure to put the food-price crisis on the agenda for the July summit meeting in Japan. Action taken in the next few months can avoid some of the increases in hunger and social upheaval that are affecting the world’s poorest inhabitants. The answer to the problem lies in what nations themselves can do to help supply the basic needs of the world’s poorest. The wealthiest among them should act promptly and generously. The United States might begin by accepting and acting on its own scientific findings about pollution and global warming. It should also make food-aid purchases from farmers in poor countries—a proposal President Bush himself has made. In a prompt respons to the crisis he also urged Congress in early May to approve $770 million in food aid for the neediest countries. The 1996 World Food Summit affirmed the right of everyone to safe and nutritious food. This right has yet to be recognized in a practical way through government action.