“World hunger [was] projected to reach a historic high in 2009 with 1,020 million people going hungry every day.”—FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANIZATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS, ITALY.
“The estimated number of childhood deaths in 2010 was 7.6 million”-WORLD HUNGER ORGANISATION
A lot of people are going hungry right now - and it’s not just the usual lands which are suffering. As well as parts of Africa and Asia where droughts, famines, despots and wars have always caused problems, food shortages now seem to be spreading to the West.
Recently, a British couple committed suicide because they couldn’t cope with unemployment and the lack of money. To supplement their meagre income, they’d been walking for 42 miles a day to collect rations from a charity food bank and, whether from shame or sheer despair, reached the point when they simply gave up - just two more victims from an increasingly desperate generation. Greece, Italy, even America, all are having to cope with a sluggish economy, joblessness and rising food prices.
In the UK, food inflation is currently outpacing the average wage increase, spiking last year to a 5% increase in what was once perceived to be, if not recession-proof, then certainly a recession-resistant industry. Delegates at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this year were asked to consider just who has power over food prices. According to the experts, it’s certainly not consumers. Nor is it farmers, who are currently being squeezed by dwindling suppliers on the one hand and fewer retail customers on the other.
But how much power do governments wield? Very little, they would argue, citing two reasons: For one thing, agriculture now operates in a global context, and secondly (at least as far as the United Kingdom is concerned), the government is keen to reduce farm subsidies in the belief that increasing world demand along with higher prices will compensate growers for these lost revenues. The demand will always be there, of course. But where is the supply? And how can people on low incomes afford it?
The spiralling cost of groceries is by no means the only worrying factor. Not to be underestimated is the growing monopoly over food by huge transnational companies (TNCs) who are currently investing billions into agriculture and supplies. (See update below) Has anyone noticed the speed with which small farms and food outlets are going out of business? How these global conglomerates are buying up land for intensive farming and how supermarket chains are getting bigger and more powerful?
Speaking to the OFC, Dr Alan Renwick – SAC Head of the Land Economy & Environmental Research Group, identified a few of these TNCs with genuine clout. Cargill, Syngenta, Monsanto, Wal-Mart and, to a certain extent, Tesco, are far more influential than the state whose intervention in agriculture and trade has been diminishing. To date, three TNCs control almost 50% of the proprietary seed market.
Personally, I wouldn’t discount the role which governments are playing - or, more to the point, are likely to play in the future. No doubt it suits them to maintain a helpless and therefore blameless profile in the face of rising food scarcity. However, they must surely appreciate the power such a monopoly can wield. Control the world’s food supplies and you control the world.
Could GM foods create more problems?
As well as causing concern for the environment, the proliferation of GM crops could also create more problems than it cures. At one time, farmers could depend on the generosity of nature to provide – with one seed purchase providing healthy crops for several years. Yet there is nothing natural about some seeds produced by scientists in labs. They may be resistant to certain pests or climates, but many GM seeds are not self-propagating. Instead of having plenty of fertile new seed for the following crop, the farmer is forced to buy fresh seed from the supplier every time.
Governments, global monopolies and mis-directed science may all be responsible for the current increase. However, starvation and malnutrition is nothing new. Back in the 1980s, an article in The Boston Globe stated: “A world with nearly a billion persons living close to starvation has to find ways to help the poorest nations to enjoy something approaching the bounty reaped by the richest nations, “The most disheartening aspect of undernourishment . . . is that the world has a clear-cut capacity to feed everyone.”
Surely it’s time that capacity was realised.
Land Grab! Update 4th October 2012
Oxfam's Max Lawson is appealing to the World Bank to put a freeze on 'land grabs', especially in poorer countries, such as Niger where people who have lived off the land for years, but have no title, are being evicted to make way for rich investors. Often, the land is then left unused as new owners wait for agricultural land values to rise.
And with recent droughts and up to a third of crops being used bio fuel, food is set to become even more scarce - and unaffordable - for many.