Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
March 24, 2008
The poor's tortillas lose out in grain grab
Food riots in developing countries such as Morocco, Mexico, Egypt, the Philippines and Zimbabwe are the tip of the iceberg of a looming global food shortage. Stored supplies of wheat are at their lowest level in at least 50 years, now only enough to meet the current rate of demand for seven and a half weeks.
Prices of some staples are soaring, pushing the world's most vulnerable people even closer to the edge. The price of rice in China has doubled in five years; the price of tortillas in Mexico has tripled.
"There is food on the shelves but people are priced out of the market," Josette Sheeran, head of the UN's World Food Program, told the British newspaper, The Guardian. "There is vulnerability in urban areas we have not seen before. There are food riots in countries where we have not seen them before."
Food shortages have long been a trigger for massive social changes such as the Russian and the French revolutions. People can put up with all sorts of nonsense from their rulers. But when they are no longer able to eat, they will take to the streets. They have nothing to lose.
A main source of the current shortage is the growing demand for animal feed as the expanding middle classes in Asia and Latin America develop a taste for red meat. As well, rising fuel prices have increased the costs of food production and distribution. The effects of climate change have cut food production in some areas.
A significant contributor to the problem - one estimate puts it at 30 per cent of the problem - is the growing reliance on biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel. Last year, 20 per cent of the U.S. corn crop was used to produce ethanol; this year, it is expected to reach as high as one-third.
Biofuels have been pursued as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions while enabling the world to maintain its reliance on the internal combustion engine. In theory, they are carbon neutral because the carbon they produce when burned is offset by the amount they absorb while growing. But because of the carbon produced when they are harvested, refined and transported, the picture is not so rosy.
Further, ethanol is seen as desirable because it can locate fuel production in the Western world, rather than in countries seen as politically less reliable.
The result of this shift to biofuels can be catastrophic. In Mexico, for example, the shift in the use of maize to ethanol has been a major cause of the astronomical increase in the cost of a staple food.
That the world would sacrifice land needed for food production to produce more fuel for private transportation shows how crazy our addiction to fossil fuels has become. We would place the lives and well being of hundreds of millions of people in jeopardy in order to maintain our way of life.
The same applies to grains that can be eaten by people to instead feed animals.
In Alberta, much of our cattle are raised on land that is not suitable for crops. But when people are left malnourished so that others can fill a desire for red meat, something is seriously wrong.
"On grain fed each year to cattle in the United States, you could feed 850 million people as vegetarians," David Pimentel, an agricultural scientist at Cornell University, recently told Maclean's magazine.
We don't all need to become vegetarians. But we all have a responsibility to ensure all have enough to eat. In doing so, we must put our own lifestyles into question.
At Easter 1967, Pope Paul VI issued Populorum Progressio, his clarion call for global justice. In it, he wrote that the Church hears "a whole world's cry for help: the hungry crying for food to those who have too much, the brother crying in pain to the brother whose duty is love."
Unfortunately, Pope Paul's words are not out of date. They reverberate today as the world stands on the verge of a major food crisis.
- Glen Argan
Letter to the Editor - 04/14/08
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