Global food fight

Solving the worldwide crisis will take fresh thinking - with an eye on the chicken

April 30, 2008|By Nancy Langer and Richard Marks

Jean Ziegler, the United Nations special rapporteur for the right to food, recently raised blood pressures by dubbing biofuels "a crime against humanity" because they divert grains from food to fuels. This summer, the Group of Eight summit in Japan will attempt to address the global food crisis. And just yesterday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said he plans to establish a task force to tackle that crisis and avert "social unrest on an unprecedented scale."

How to make sense of all of this? Well, world leaders and ordinary citizens hoping to navigate the coming policy thicket over food could read the 112-page U.N.- and World Bank-commissioned report, unveiled this month, that points out how diverting land to grow crops for biofuels drives up food prices.

Or they could just follow the chicken.

Ahmed Fathi Sorour, speaker of Egypt's parliament, understands well the connection between chickens and the global food crisis. On March 23, he awoke to a beautiful Sunday in Cairo and organized a delivery of chickens to a village that had been hit hard by a fire. He expected gratitude; he got a riot. His aides ended up barricaded behind a 10-foot tall gate, hurling frozen chickens into the ravenous mob.

Here's fact one: 850 million people around the world are not getting enough to eat, and they're mad about it. There have been violent food uprisings recently in Egypt, Haiti, Senegal, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Yemen, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia - even Italy.

Follow the chicken to the middle of the Sahara Desert and you will see the amazing ingenuity of indigenous people extracting food from the ground with less and less water. Of course, not a lot of people in Abeche, Chad, are eating chicken anymore. A chicken used to cost $1.12 there. Now one bird fetches $7. The price skyrocketed when Westerners came to provide humanitarian aid. It seems aid workers like to drink beer and eat barbecued chicken at night. Local Chadians with resources started selling their chickens at higher and higher prices - a mini globalization story.

That brings us to fact two: Some benefit from access to Western markets, but many just get inflated food costs. Even Americans are feeling the pinch at the grocery store, as they turn to charitable food pantries in record numbers.

Worldwide, food prices have climbed 83 percent over three years. Who is eating all the planet's food? It's not just Americans scarfing up the wings and hot sauce. Did you know that every day, 2 million people in China dine at a KFC? And not just in Beijing, either; the Colonel has even reached Qiandaohu, a tiny fishing town on China's coast, renowned for its seafood. KFC is the most recognizable brand name in China, according to AC Nielsen; the Kentucky-based company is opening 250 restaurants a year there. Asia has become a big driver of world demand for such staples as meat, poultry and dairy products, with much of that demand driven by status.

All of this leads us to rising demand for alternatives to oil - now at $118 a barrel - and rising demands for food. While commodity prices have skyrocketed (wheat rising by 130 percent since last year and soy by 87 percent), corn, the main source of the biofuel ethanol, has hit the jackpot. Since January, the price of corn has set 13 record highs.

Not to worry, though, chickens of Maryland's Eastern Shore. You will get your feed. As for human beings at the margins of globalization - that's a different story.

We need a whole suite of solutions that satisfy the challenges of both food security and the environment. Yes, ending biofuel subsidies makes sense - but so does ending tariff barriers against alternative sources of biofuel. We must address the demand side of the equation by lowering speed limits and enforcing tighter fuel mileage standards. We also need to conserve gas and efficiently power the agricultural industry. Encouraging people in the West to eat more like people in Asia (more grains and vegetables) instead of the other way around would also help.

Finally, we need to provide expertise and sound agricultural practices to help other countries to increase yields and produce enough food to feed their citizens. Providing surplus food is simply not a sustainable response to hunger. Besides, surpluses are no longer widely available, and even if they were, given today's energy costs, transporting the goods would be prohibitively expensive.

Science and sensible trade policies can ameliorate this crisis if we act now. Otherwise, the shortages and panic we have seen will lead to further starvation, destabilization and possible armed conflicts.

Talk about the chickens coming home to roost.

Nancy Langer is director of external relations at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington. Her e-mail is nlanger@stimson.org. Richard Marks is president of Paris Foods, a Maryland-based frozen food manufacturer, and a member of the Stimson Council of Advisors. His e-mail is rqm1@mac.com.

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