Consumers in rich countries feel it in supermarkets but in the world’s poorest ones people are starving. The reason – soaring food prices, and it’s triggered riots around the world in places like Mexico, Indonesia, Yemen, the Philippines, Cambodia, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Guinea, Mauritania, Egypt, Cameroon, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Peru, Bolivia and Haiti that was once nearly food self-sufficient but now relies on imports for most of its supply and (like other food-importing countries) is at the mercy of agribusiness.
Wheat shortages in Peru are acute enough to have the military make bread with potato flour (a native crop). In Pakistan, thousands of troops guard trucks carrying wheat and flour. In Thailand, rice farmers take shifts staying awake nights guarding their fields from thieves. The crop’s price has about doubled in recent months, it’s the staple for half or more of the world’s population, but rising prices and fearing scarcity have prompted some of the world’s largest producers to export less – Thailand (the world’s largest exporter), Vietnam, India, Egypt, Cambodia with others likely to follow as world output lags demand. Producers of other grains are doing the same like Argentina, Kazakhstan and China. The less they export, the higher prices go.
Other factors are high oil prices and transportation costs, growing demand, commodity speculation, pests in southeast Asia, a 10 year Australian drought, floods in Bangladesh and elsewhere, a 45 day cold snap in China, and other natural but mostly manipulated factors like crop diversion for biofuels have combined to create a growing world crisis with more on this below. It’s at the same time millions of Chinese and Indians have higher incomes, are changing their eating habits, and are consuming more meat, chicken and other animal products that place huge demands on grains to produce.
Here’s a UK April 8 Times online snapshot of the situation in parts of Asia:
— Filipino farmers caught hoarding rice risk a life in jail sentence for “economic sabotage;”
— thousands of (Jakarta) Indonesian soya bean cake makers are striking against the destruction of their livelihood;
— once food self-sufficient countries like Japan and South Korea are reacting “bitterly (as) the world’s food stocks-to-consumption ratio plunges to an all-time low;”
— India no longer can export millions of tons of rice; instead it’s forced to have a “special strategic food reserve on top of its existing wheat and rice stockpiles;”
— Thailand is the world’s largest rice producer; its price rose 50% in the past month;
— countries like the Philippines and Sri Lanka are scrambling for secure rice supplies; they and other Asian countries are struggling to cope with soaring prices and insufficient supply;
— overall, rice is the staple food for three billion people; one-third of them survive on less than $1 a day and are “food insecure;” it means they may starve to death without aid.
The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reported that worldwide food costs rose almost 40% in 2007 while grains spiked 42% and dairy prices nearly 80%. The World Bank said food prices are up 83% since 2005. As of December, it caused 37 countries to face food crises and 20 to impose price controls in response.
It also affected aid agencies like the UN’s World Food Program (WFP). Because of soaring food and energy costs, it sent an urgent appeal to donors on March 20 to help fill a $500 million resource gap for its work. Since then, food prices increased another 20% and show no signs of abating. For the world’s poor, like the people of Haiti, things are desperate, people can’t afford food, they scratch by any way they can, but many are starving and don’t make it.
Haiti – the World Hunger Poster Child
The Haitain crisis is so extreme it forces people to eat (non-food) mud cookies (called “pica”) to relieve hunger. It’s a desperate Haitian remedy made from dried yellow dirt from the country’s central plateau for those who can afford it. It’s not free. In Cite Soleil’s crowded slums, people use a combination of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening for a typical meal when it’s all they can afford. A Port-au-Prince AP reporter sampled it. He said it had “a smooth consistency (but it) sucked all the moisture out of (my) mouth as soon as it touched (my) tongue. For hours (afterwards), an unpleasant taste of dirt lingered.” Worse is how it harms human health. A mud cookie diet causes severe malnutrition, intestinal distress, and other deleterious effects from potentially deadly toxins and parasites.
Another problem is the cost. This stomach-filler isn’t free. Haitians have to buy it, and “edible clay” prices are rising – by almost $1.50 in the past year. It now costs about $5 to make 100 cookies (about 5 cents each), it’s cheaper than food, but many Haitians can’t afford it:
— 80% of them are impoverished in the hemisphere’s poorest country and one of the world’s poorest;
— unemployment is rampant, and two-thirds or more of workers have only sporadic jobs; and
— those with them earn 11 to 12 cents an hour; the country’s official minimum wage is $1.80 a day, but IMF figures show 55% of employed Haitians receive only 44 cents daily, an impossible amount to live on.
Here’s what it’s like for poor Haitians. They have large families, live in cardboard and tin homes, there’s no running water and little or no electricity, and life inside and around them is horrific. Bed sheets can be thick with flies, there’s no sanitation, and outside garbage is everywhere. Children are always hungry, there’s never enough food, often it’s for one meal a day, illness and disease are common, life expectancy very low, and so-called Blue Helmet “peacekeeper” and gang violence plague communities like Port-au-Prince’s Cite Soleil.
Now with a food crisis, Haitians are in the streets over prices for essentials that tripled in the past year and a president, prime minister and government doing practically nothing about it. For days, they were everywhere, throughout the country, and numbered in the thousands. They protested in Port-au-Prince, carried empty plates to signify their plight, smashed windows, set buildings and cars alight, looted shops, looked for food, tried to storm the presidential palace, shouted “we are hungry,” and demanded President Rene Preval resign.
UN Blue Helmets (MINUSTAH) responded viciously the way they always do against peaceful or protest demonstrations. They shot and killed at least five Haitians (some reports say more), wounded many others, and that was just in downtown Port-au-Prince.
In Les Cayes (Haiti’s third largest city) in the southwest, demonstrators stormed and tried to burn the local MINUSTAH offices. Others barricaded streets, looked for food, and shouted “Down with the high cost of living.” Similar protests went on throughout the country:
— in northern cities like Cap-Haitien and Gonaives;
— Jacmel in the south;
— Jeremie in the southwest where at least two deaths were reported; and
— smaller towns like Petit Goave, Miragoane, Aquin, Cavaillon, Saint-Jean du Sud, Leogane, Vialet, Anse-a-Veau and Simon.
It’s a familiar pattern in Haiti. Anger over injustice builds and then explodes with Haitians reacting in the streets en masse against intolerable conditions that are compounded by a repressive and hated UN occupation. It’s there to protect privilege, not secure peace. It’s the first time ever that the UN Security Council authorized so-called “peacekeepers” to enforce a coup d’etat against a democratically elected president (by a 92% majority).
Haiti’s current president can’t deal with the situation and has gone along with the state of things. He’s been ineffective since his February 2006 reelection, hasn’t alleviated the present crisis, instead ordered protests to stop, and here’s how he put it in a shameful April 9 televised address: “The demonstrations and destruction won’t make the prices go down or resolve the country’s problems. On the contrary, this can make the misery grow and prevent investment in the country” that, of course, does nothing for most Haitians and Preval knows it.
After a week of protests, an uneasy calm followed, but things can break out any time without relief that’s not forthcoming beyond some far too small proposed measures. Dismissively, Preval’s prime minister, Jacques Edouard Alexis, blamed the problem on “global forces” and the high cost of oil saying there’s no “quick fix,” case closed. He also claimed the protests were manipulated by provocateurs, including angry drugs dealers reacting to a supposed closure of one of their transshipment points.
Alexis is now out, elitists debate over who’ll replace him, Haitians in the meantime are starving, the IMF keeps extracting $1 million a week in mandated tribute to the rich, and only countries like Cuba (training Haitians to be doctors) and Venezuela (donating money, cheap oil, and over 600 tons of food aid sent April 13, more than first reported) seem to care. Chavez cares about all Latin America and last year donated about $8.8 billion in aid or four times the amount America provides the region.
For its part, the World Bank pathetically plans $10 million in “emergency aid” for a country with over eight million starving people. It also plans to double its African agricultural lending next year to $800 million and thus make a bad situation worse. It’ll go to hugely indebted nations, unable to help feed their people as a consequence, and World Bank policy always is opposite of what these countries need.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon barely commented, made merely pro forma statements about the crisis and its seriousness, was as dismissive as Alexis, offered no remedial aid, is as uncaring as World Bank officials, and never forgets that his bosses are in Washington. Instead of doing his job and helping, he called on Haiti’s leaders to restore stability because the country’s security is threatened. Starving poor people aren’t his concern. Let ’em eat mud cookies.
That’s apparently Rene Preval’s solution as well. Belatedly (on April 12), he announced a plan to cut rice prices 15%. It will do nothing to relieve the crisis, and Reuters (on April 15) reported that vendors still demand the higher price for supplies already in stock. It provoked new clashes on the streets, Haitians continue to starve, and “government officials were not immediately available for comment.”
Raj Patel’s new book explains the state of things today. It’s titled “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.” In an April 14 statement, he said: “What’s happening in Haiti is an augury to the rest of the developing world. Haiti is the poster child of an economy that liberalized its agricultural economy and removed the social safety nets for the poor….” Two conditions create food riots:
— “price shocks (and) modern development policies” (tariffs, corporate subsidies, grain reserve policies) make food unaffordable for many millions; and
— “riots (then) happen when there are no other ways (to make) powerful people listen….” They’ll continue to happen “with increasing frequency until governments realize that food isn’t a mere commodity, it’s a human right.”
World Hunger – A Growing Problem for All Nations
The situation is so dire, protests may erupt anywhere, any time, and rich countries aren’t immune, including America. Poverty in the world’s richest country is growing, and organizations like the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) and Economic Policy Institute (EPI) document it. They report on a permanent (and growing) underclass of over 37 million people earning poverty-level wages and say that official statistics understate the problem. They note an unprecedented wealth gap between rich and poor, a dying middle class, and growing millions in extreme poverty.
It affects the unemployed as well in times of economic distress, but official government data conceals to what extent. If employment calculations were made as originally mandated, the true rate would be around 13% instead of the Department of Labor’s 5.1%. The same is true for inflation that’s around 12% at the retail level instead of the official 4% that’s hooey.
Under conditions of duress, hunger is the clearest symptom, it’s rising, and current food inflation threatens to spiral it out of control if nothing is done to address it. It’s the highest in decades with 2007 signaling what’s ahead – eggs up 25% last year; milk 17%; rice, bread and pasta 12%, and look at prices on the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT):
— grains and soy prices are at multi-year highs;
— wheat hit an all-time high above $12 a bushel with little relief ahead in spite of a temporary pullback in price; the US Department of Agriculture forecasts that global wheat stocks this year will fall to a 30 year low of 109.7 million metric tons; USDA also projected US wheat stocks by year end 2008 at 272 million bushels – the lowest level since 1948;
— corn and soybeans are also at record levels; soybeans are at over $15 a bushel; corn prices shot above $6 a bushel as demand for this and other crops soar in spite of US farmers planting as much of them as possible to cash in on high prices.
Growing demand, a weak dollar, but mostly another factor to be discussed below is responsible – the increased use of corn for ethanol production with farmers diverting more of their acreage from other crops to plant more of what’s most in demand. Forty-three per cent of corn production is for livestock feed, but around one-fifth is for biofuels according to the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA). Other estimates are as high as 25 – 30% compared to 14% two years ago, and NCGA estimates one-third of the crop in 2009 will be for ethanol, not food. It’s fueling US and world food inflation with five year forecasts of it rising even faster.
In the world’s poorest countries, people starve. Here, they go on food stamps with a projected unprecedented 28 million Americans getting them this year as joblessness increases in a weak economy. However, many millions in need aren’t eligible as social services are cut to finance foreign wars and tax cuts for the rich, with poor folks at home losing out as a result. A family of four only qualifies now if its net monthly income is at or below $1721 or $20,652 a year. Even then, it gets the same $542 monthly amount recipients received in 1996 to cover today’s much higher prices or around $1 dollar a meal per person and falling.
This is the UN’s World Food Program (WFP)’s dilemma worldwide at a time donations coming in are inadequate. Its Executive Director, Josette Sheeran, said “Our ability to reach people is going down just as needs go up….We are seeing a new face of hunger in which people (can’t afford to buy food)….Situations that were previously not urgent” are now desperate. WFP’s funding needs keep rising. It estimates them at $3.5 billion, they’ll likely go higher, and they’re for approved projects to feed 73 million people in 78 counties worldwide. WFP foresees much greater potential needs for unseen emergencies and for far greater numbers of people in need.
People (who aren’t poor) in rich countries can manage with food accounting for about 10% of consumption. In ones like China, it’s around 30%, but in sub-Saharan Africa and the poor in Latin America and Asia it’s about 60% (or even 80%) and rising. It means food aid is vital, and without it people will starve. But as food prices rise, the amount forthcoming (when it’s most needed) falls because not enough money is available and too few donors offer help.
Agencies that can are doing less with ones like USAID saying it’s cutting the amount of food aid it provides but won’t say why. It’s mission is to help the rich, not the poor, or as it states on its web site: as a US government agency, it “receives (its) overall foreign policy guidance from the Secretary of State (and its mission is to) further America’s foreign policy interests (in the areas of) economic growth, agriculture and trade….” That leaves out the poor.
Oxfam worries about what USAID ignores. It called for immediate action by donors and governments to protect the world’s poor against rising food prices. One spokesperson said: “Global economic uncertainty, high food prices, drought (and other factors) all pose a serious threat to (the) vulnerable.” Another added: “More and more people are going to be facing food shortages in the future. (Because of) rising food prices we need to think (of its) impact on (the world’s poor) who are spending up to 80% of their incomes on food.”
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, also expressed alarm. In comments to the French daily Liberation he said: “We are heading for a very long period of rioting, conflicts (and) waves of uncontrollable regional instability marked by the despair of the most vulnerable populations.” He noted that even under normal circumstances hunger plagues the world and claims the life of a child under age 10 every five seconds. Because of the present crisis, we now face “an imminent massacre.”
Besides the usual factors cited, it’s vital to ask why, but don’t expect Brazil’s Lula to explain. Biofuel production is the main culprit, but not according to him. Brazil is a major biofuels producer. Last year it signed an R&D “Ethanol Pact” with Washington to develop “next generation” technologies for even more production.
In an April 16 Reuters report, the former union leader was dismissive about the current crisis and rejected criticisms that biofuels are at fault. In spite of protests at home and around the world, he told reporters: “Don’t tell me….that food is expensive because of biodiesel. (It’s) expensive because” peoples’ economic situation has improved and they’re eating more. It’s true in parts of China and India, but not in most other countries where incomes haven’t kept pace with inflation.
Biofuels – A Scourge of Our Times
The idea of combustible fuels from organic material has been around since the early auto age, but only recently took off. Because they’re from plant-based or animal byproduct (renewable) sources, bio or agrofuels are (falsely) touted as a solution to a growing world energy shortage with a huge claimed added benefit – the nonsensical notion that they’re clean and green without all the troublesome issues connected to fossil fuels.
Biofuel is a general term to describe all fuels from organic matter. The two most common kinds are bioethanol as a substitute for gasoline, and biodiesel that serves the same purpose for that type fuel.
Bioethanol is produced from sugar-rich crops like corn, wheat and sugar cane. Most cars can burn a petroleum fuel blend with up to 10% bioethanol without any engine modifications. Some newer cars can run on pure bioethanol.
Biodiesel is produced from a variety of vegetable oils, including soybean, palm and rapeseed (canola), plus animal fats. This fuel can replace regular diesel with no engine modifications required.
Cellulosic ethanol is another variety and is made by breaking down fiber from grasses or most other kinds of plants. Biofuels of all types are renewable since crops are grown in season, harvested, then replanted for more output repeatedly.
In George Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address, he announced “It’s in our vital interest to diversify America’s energy supply (and we) must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol (to) reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20% in the next 10 years. (To do it) we must (set) a mandatory fuels (target of) 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 (to) reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”
Congress earlier passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that mandated ethanol fuel production rise to four billion gallons in 2006 and 7.5 billion by 2012. It already reached 6.5 billion barrels last year and is heading for nine billion this year.
The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act gave added impetus to the Bush administration scheme with plenty of agribusiness subsidies backing it. Its final version sailed through both Houses in December, and George Bush made it official on December 19. It upped the stakes over 2005 with one of its provisions calling for 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022 to replace 15% of their equivalent in oil. It represents a nearly fivefold increase from current levels, and new goals ahead may set it higher as rising oil prices (topping $117 a barrel April 21) make a case for cheaper alternatives, and some in the environmental community claim biofuels are eco-friendly.
Hold the applause, and look at the facts. In a nutshell, organic fuels trash rainforests, deplete water reserves, kill off species, and increase greenhouse emissions when the full effects of producing them are included. At least that’s what Science Magazine says on the latter point. It reviewed studies that examined how destruction of natural ecosystems (such as tropical rain forests and South American grasslands) not only releases greenhouse gases when they’re burned and plowed but also deprives the planet of natural sponges to absorb carbon emissions. Cropland also absorbs less carbon than rain forests or even the scrubland it replaces.
Nature Conservancy scientist Joseph Fargione (lead author of one study) concluded that grassland clearance releases 93 times the greenhouse gases that would be saved by fuel made annually on that land. For scientists and others concerned about global warming, the research indicated that biofuel production exacerbates the problem and thus should be reconsidered. Others disagree and so far the trend continues with Europe and America both setting ambitious goals that pay little attention to the consequences they ignore.
Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of the Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, pays close attention and wrote about it in an article published last June by Agencia Latinoamericana de Informacion (ALAI) and thereafter widely distributed. It’s headlined “Biofuels: The Five Myths of the Agro-fuels Transition.” As he puts it: “the mythic baggage of the agro-fuels transition needs to be publicly unpacked.”
1. Agrofuels aren’t clean and green. As cited above, they produce far greater greenhouse gas emissions than they save and also require large amounts of oil-based fertilizers that contribute even more.
2. Agrofuel production will be hugely destructive to forests in countries like Brazil where vast Amazon devastation is well documented and is currently increasing at nearly 325,000 hectares a year. By 2020 in Indonesia, “palm oil plantations for bio-diesel (will continue to be) the primary cause of forest loss (in a) country with one of the highest deforestation rates in the world.”
3. Agrofuels will destroy rural development. Small farmers will be forced off their land and so will many thousands of others in communities to make way for Big Oil, Agribusiness, and Agribiotech to move in and take over for the huge profits to be extracted in the multi-billions.
4. Agrofuels increase hunger. The poor are always hurt most, the topic is covered above, and Holt-Gimenez quotes another forecast. It’s the International Food Policy Research Institute’s estimate that basic food staple prices will rise 30 – 33% by 2010, but that figure already undershoots based on current data. FPRI also sees the rise continuing to 2020 by another 26 to 135% that will be catastrophic for the world’s poor who can’t afford today’s prices and are ill-equipped to raise their incomes more than marginally if at all.
5. Better “second-generation” argofuels aren’t around the corner. Examples touted are eco-friendly fast-growing trees and switchgrass (a dominant warm season central North American tallgrass prairie species). Holt-Gimenez calls the argument a “bait and switch-grass shell game” to make the case for first generation production now ongoing. The same environmental problems exists, and they’ll be hugely exacerbated by more extensive GMO crop plantings.
Holt-Gimenez sees agrofuels as a “genetic Trojan horse” that’s letting agribusiness giants like Monsanto “colonize both our fuel and food system,” do little to offset a growing demand for oil, reap huge profits from the scheme, get them at taxpayers’ expense, and that’s exactly what’s happening with Big Oil in on it, too, as a way to diversify through large biofuel investments. More on this below.
The Ghost of Henry Kissinger
Kissinger made a chilling 1970 comment that explains a lot about what’s happening now – “Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.” Combine it with unchallengeable military power and you control everything, and Kissinger likely said that, too.
He said plenty more in his classified 1974 memo on a secret project called National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200) for a “world population plan of action” for drastic global population control. He meant reducing it by hundreds of millions, using food as a weapon, and overall reorganizing the global food market to destroy family farms and replace them with (agribusiness-run) factory ones. It’s been ongoing for decades, backed since January 1995 by WTO muscle, and characterized now by huge agribusiness giants with monstrous vertically integrated powers over the food we eat – from research labs to plantings to processing to the supermarket and other food outlet shelves around the world.
But it’s even worse than that. Today, five agribusiness behemoths, with little fanfare and enormous government backing, plan big at our expense – to control the world’s food supply by making it all genetically engineered with biofuels one part of a larger scheme.
By diverting crops for fuel, prices have exploded, and five “Ag biotech” giants are exploiting it – Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Agrisciences, Syngenta and Bayer CropScience AG. Their solution – make all crops GMO, tout it as a way to increase output and reduce costs, and claim it’s the solution to today’s soaring prices and world hunger.
In fact, agribusiness power raises prices, controls output to keep them high, and the main factor behind today’s situation is the conversion of US farmland to biofuel factories. With less crop output for food and world demand for it growing, prices are rising, and rampant commodity speculation exacerbates the problem with traders profiting hugely and loving it. It’s another part of the multi-decade wealth transfer scheme from the world’s majority to the elite few. While the trend continues, its momentum is self-sustaining, and it works because governments back it. They subsidize the problem, keep regulations loose, give business free reign, and maintain that markets work best so let them.
As mentioned above, about 43% of US corn output goes for animal feed, but growing amounts are for biofuels – now possibly 25 – 30% of production compared to around 14% two years ago, up 300% since 2001, and today the total exceeds what’s earmarked for export, with no slowing down of this trend in sight. The result, of course, is world grain reserves are falling, prices soaring, millions starving, governments permitting it, and it’s only the early innings of a long-term horrifying trend – radically transforming agriculture in humanly destructive ways:
— letting agribusiness and Big Oil giants control it for profit at the expense of consumer health and well-being;
— making it all genetically engineered and inflicting great potential harm to human health; and
— producing reduced crop amounts for food, diverting greater quantities for fuel, allowing prices to soar, making food as dear as oil, ending government’s responsibility for food security, and tolerating the unthinkable – putting hundreds of millions of poor around the world in jeopardy and letting them starve to death for profit.
This is the brave new world neoliberal schemers have in mind. They’re well along with their plans, marginally diverted by today’s economic distress, well aware that growing world protests that could prove hugely disruptive, but very focused, nonetheless, on finding clever ways to push ahead with what’s worked pretty well for them so far, so they’re not about to let human misery jeopardize big profits.
If they won’t reform, people have to do it for them, and throughout history that’s how it’s always worked. Over time, the stakes keep rising as the threats become greater, and today they may be as great as they’ve ever been.
What better time for a new social movement like those in the past that were pivotal forces for change. Famed community organizer Saul Alinsky knew the way to beat organized money is with organized people. In combination, they’ve succeeded by taking to the streets, striking, boycotting, challenging authority, disrupting business, paying with their lives and ultimately prevailing by knowing change never comes from the top down. It’s always from the grassroots, from the bottom up, and what better time for it than now. It’s high time democracy worked for everyone, that destructive GMO and biofuels schemes won’t be tolerated, and that “America the Beautiful” won’t any longer just be for elites and no one else.
Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at •••@••.•••.
Also visit his blog site at sj.lendman.blogspot.com and listen to The Global Research News Hour on RepublicBroadcasting.org Mondays from 11AM to 1PM US Central time for cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests.