Almost a year ago, the United Nations’ assistant secretary general for economic development agreed to speak in Vancouver on a topic that the event’s ticket still describes as “Washington rediscovers agriculture”.
But when Jomo Kwame Sundaram delivers his presentation at the Wall Centre on Monday (June 23), he will actually speak on what the UN is calling the “global food crisis”.
“When I chose the subject, I didn’t want to sound like a prophet of doom,” Jomo told the Georgia Straight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “But events have unfolded and the situation is much, much more serious than it was a year ago.”
According to World Bank estimates, about one billion people are going hungry and a further two billion are suffering from nutritional deficiencies, Jomo said.
A quick look at increases in staple food prices details how the situation has become so dire. According to a June 2008 World Bank report, between January 2006 and June 2008, grain prices doubled and the price of soybean oil increased by 165 percent; in roughly the same period, the global price of rice tripled.
As food prices increased, food aid plummeted. According to a UN World Food Programme report, 2007 saw a record low for food-aid deliveries.
In May 2008, the WFP made a plea for help. The world responded, and Saudi Arabia, in particular, answered the call of the hungry: the oil-rich nation donated $500 million.
Jomo described the Saudi donation and those of 31 other nations as vital in saving people’s lives. “But emergency humanitarian aid does not, for one moment, address the larger, longer-term issues,” he emphasized.
Jomo listed the many factors that are driving food prices into record highs: climate change, the price of oil (which affects fertilizer and transportation costs), a growing appetite for red meat (it takes about 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of steak), U.S. and European subsidies for ethanol fuel derived from corn, and commodity hoarding.
Over the past year, demands for reasonably-priced food have turned violent.
Patrick Friedel, a blogger for the Des Moines Register who recently returned from a year in Cairo, told the Straight in a phone interview from Iowa of food riots in Egypt’s capital and a mood in the city that he had never felt before.
“Egyptians don’t generally talk about problems,” Friedel said, “Well, for the first time in as long as I can remember, people were really expressing their anger about the situation.”
Friedel recounted how everywhere he went, from downtown shops to remote villages, people were suffering and blaming food prices for their woes. “The government subsidizes bread and gasoline in Egypt,” Friedel explained. “And when the government had to make a choice to raise the prices of both, that’s when people starting taking to the streets.”
Large-scale protests were planned for April. But in downtown Cairo, uniformed soldiers lined the streets and plainclothes thugs ensured that “order” was maintained, Friedel said. Outside the city’s centre (and the media’s eye), fires were set and protesters clashed with police.
“The government really took it seriously,” Friedel said. Fuel subsidies were increased and the price of bread fell. “But in retrospect,” he continued, “there was still a lot of frustration going on because even with the subsidies, life was still hard and had been hard since, say, two years ago.”
Meanwhile, in Vancouver, the food crisis is slowly finding its way into local supermarkets, although the effect is cushioned by Canada’s high levels of disposable income.
Kim Sutherland is a regional agrologist with the Vancouver Food Policy Council and part of a team that is studying food security in Vancouver. “Developed countries shouldn’t think that this is a developing-country problem,” she told the Straight in a telephone interview.
Sutherland noted that factors such as climate change and higher energy costs are affecting food prices in North America.
“When it comes to grains, Canada is sitting very well; we have extensive grain production zones,” she said. But Canada is a unique country in that it does not really have one staple food, Sutherland continued. “Some segments of society have rice as a staple. And, certainly, we have no control over the price of rice or the ability to import rice, because we don’t grow it here.”
What the food crisis could mean for Vancouver residents is a change in lifestyle, Sutherland said.
She described a possible future where Vancouver residents will have to decide whether or not a California carrot is worth the amount of energy it takes to get that vegetable to Vancouver. “I think it is going to be interesting to see what choices consumers make as we have more information available to us about the carbon footprints of different things,” Sutherland said.
She argued that a shift in how food is produced locally in Vancouver is going to be a “major driver” in changing what we see on our grocery stores’ shelves.
Jomo said that boosting local production is a strategy that could also help lift developing countries’ poorest citizens out of hunger. But the West’s current practice of subsidizing farmers limits the profitability of agricultural industries in developing countries.
Asked if a fundamental change to the world’s food-production and distribution system is needed, Jomo replied: “I think the problem is so urgent that if the international community does not rise to the challenge right away, I fear that the sense of urgency will be lost.”
For free tickets to the Wall Summer Institute for Research’s conference on the global food crisis, call 604-822-1291.