For over a decade I have been asking students at The Catholic University of America what the world would be like if two billion Chinese and Indians ate hamburgers and drove cars the way Americans do. It used to be a rhetorical question. It now describes the world we live in and points to some of the causes driving the global food crisis.
More families than ever will have trouble putting food on the table this Thanksgiving. A gallon of milk and a dozen eggs cost nearly $10 at my local market. In the United States rising prices and falling wages are sending more and more of the working poor to food pantries, whose larders are thin. World-wide nearly a billion people go hungry each day.
A “perfect storm” of factors causes these hunger pangs. China and India are richer than they used to be. Their two billion people not only eat more; they eat more like Westerners, with diets richer in meat. Meat consumption has quadrupled in China since 1980, to 109 pounds per person per year. While much less than the 234 pounds per person annual consumption in the United States, this still takes a large bite out of the global food supply, since it takes about seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef or pork.
As more grain supplies India and China and other emerging markets, like Brazil, less is available for the rest of the world. Exporters have stopped exporting. China changed nearly overnight from being one of the world’s largest exporters of corn into an importer competing for scarce supplies with others. Fearful that their own citizens might go hungry, and fearful of the food riots that have erupted from Mexico and Haiti to Pakistan, many countries from Argentina to Russia are stopping their exports to global markets to safeguard food at home.
As demand has increased, supply has decreased. Severe weather patterns have cut harvests, particularly a multi-year drought in Australia, a key grain exporter. Global climate change will continue to disrupt food supplies. Production of biofuels, particularly ethanol, has siphoned some food from our dinner plates into our gas tanks. Wheat stocks are at a 60-year low, and rice supplies are at the lowest levels in 25 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The rising price of oil jacks up food prices as production costs more from fertilizer to transporting food to market. But rising oil prices have also cut production, as farmers who cannot afford the higher costs of fertilizer, seeds and transportation respond by planting less. Norman Borlaug, winner of the Nobel Prize for his role in the “Green Revolution,” notes that “we need another breakthrough,” because food production is again not keeping pace with demand.
The global financial crisis has not helped. The same unregulated casino capitalism that toppled markets with bad mortgage loans also allowed speculators to flood food markets, raising prices beyond the means of the world’s poor. Oxfam reports that the global financial crisis has pushed an extra 119 million people into hunger. Charities and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization fear that governments will cut food and agriculture aid to cover the huge sums they are spending to rescue failing banks.
Emergency food aid has not been able to keep pace with growing hunger pains. Because of rising prices, aid dollars buy less food at a time when more people need it. The United States has traditionally been generous, providing half of the world’s food aid. But this generous intention does not go as far as it might, because the United States purchases surplus U.S. farm crops and sends them by U.S. shippers thousands of miles away for distribution, instead of buying cheaper local food and using local distributors—which would feed more people and help build self-sufficiency.
Some farmers have benefited from rising prices. African farmers unfortunately have not. They do not have access to credit with which to buy more seeds or even keep up with rising fertilizer costs. At a time when the world needs the fruits of their labor more than ever, poor farmers have been sidelined because they lack the basic tools of their trade.
Smart organizations, like Catholic Relief Services, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Warren Buffett’s foundations, are not only providing emergency rations, but are working to help poor farmers grow more, to raise themselves and their communities from hunger. According to Ken Hackett, director of C.R.S., projects like the Rice Initiative are “helping small-scale farmers to boost local crop production, increasing their incomes and putting more food on the market, which should lower prices for all.”
Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, finds seeds of hope in the enduring food crisis. “This is an opportunity, not only for the American farmer, but hopefully for poor farmers in Latin America, Asia, Africa and elsewhere. Seventy percent of African farmers are women, and they often bear more of the risk and receive less of the gain for their efforts than any farmer in the world. In fact, almost half the world’s hungry are marginalized farmers with little or no access to fertilizer, seeds, tractors, credit, markets or extension services. Perhaps, the time has finally come for the African farmer.” For these seeds of hope to bear fruit, though, we must not let scarcity and fear divide us; we must continue to work in solidarity with the poor.