Global Food Crisis – More Updates

Cross-posted from The Global Sociology Blog.

I have posted extensively on the global food prices crisis (the latest post is here) but the crisis is not over and there are still many stories to be told regarding the causes and consequences of this global disaster. first, let’s start with this Guardian handy summary of the 5 causes of the rise in the price of food:

  • The oil dependency factor : Soaring oil and energy prices have pushed up the cost of food production dramatically in the last year: fertiliser is up more than 70%, fuel for tractors and farm machinery is up 30%, pesticides, which depend on oil, are up too, as are labour costs

  • The growing population factor (why can’t we all go vegan!): Demand is rising as the global population grows and as people in emerging economies such as China and India use increasing affluence to buy more meat, eggs and dairy products. Over 30% of the world’s grain now goes to feeding animals rather than people directly. Farming one acre of decent land can produce 138lbs of protein from grain, but one acre given over to beef farming will produce only 20lbs of protein;

  • The Climate Change factor : Droughts in grain-producing areas of the world have hit harvests in the last few years. Grain stocks are at a historic low;

  • The Big corn bastards factor : Biofuels are competing with food for arable land, with both the US and the EU mandating their use. About 30% of the US corn crop is expected to be diverted to biofuels this year;

  • The greedy bastards factor : Speculative trading in agricultural commodities has grown dramatically. Several big investment banks have launched agricultural commodity index funds, as they look for new areas to make profits in following the credit crunch. The result has been enormous fluctuations in market prices that do not appear to relate to changes in fundamentals such as supply and demand. Four years ago $10-15bn was invested in agricultural commodities funds – now that figure is more than $150bn. Wall Street investment funds own 40% of US wheat futures and more than one fifth of US corn futures.

Please note that all of these factors have to do with behavior originating in rich countries, that have spread to the fast-growing countries. I mean, come on, sure, we Europeans and Americans do not contribute much to the growing population, but we’re the fat bastards who drive gaz-guzzlers and tolerate the frankenfood that Big Corn is pushing down our throats, and who have diligently invested our 401Ks into aggressive growth funds. It goes back to large-scale issue: agricultural subsidies, the changes in pension fundings, the power of Big Corn, Detroit, the whole agribusiness sector and the financial sector.

But those who really pay the price of this are safely out of sight for us. We do not get to see the suffering induced either directly by our behavior, or indirectly, by our political apathy and learned helplessness in the face of corporatism.

So, for the real life consequence of this, we turn to IRIN as the place to find these stories. Three items, especially relate to the dreadful, and very personal, consequences of finding oneself unable to afford food.

First stop, Benin :

“In a scene on a popular Benin TV series, a farmer named Codjo puts his wife out on the streets because she kept asking him for more and more money to buy groceries. But then, when he goes shopping by himself, Codjo discovers that prices have indeed doubled.

He laments having driven away his wife.

This fictional sketch is being played out in reality with the rapid rise in prices of basic foods in the capital Cotonou and other towns in Benin over the last six months.”

In countries like Benin where patriarchal and sexist norms are prevalent, it is not uncommon to see husbands accompany their wives to the market because they do not believe them when they say that they need more money for food. In Benin, prices have increased up to 50% compared to November 2007. A rise in domestic violence, that is husbands beating up their wives over the grocery bills have been observed as well by social workers.

And there are other large scale social consequences as well:

“The highest rates of nutritional deficiencies in Benin are in the rural north in the districts of Malamville and Karimama. But in total some 33 of the country’s 77 districts are “at risk of food insecurity” according to the World Food Programme (WFP ).

WFP says that 23 percent of Beninois children under five show signs of moderate stunting and 11 percent of children suffer from severe malnutrition.”

So, the government there is trying different solutions to try to alleviate the rise on the price of food, but, as is the case for many developing countries, options are limited. The government has suspended its VAT on food but there is no evidence that the lower costs have been passed on to the consumers.

The government is also pushing for self-sufficiency but that is not a short-term, emergency solution. Self-sufficiency takes planning and years to accomplish. A more short-term solution has been to tap into the food reserves, but applied only in that country, that is not enough to lower the price of food as a whole on the global market.

“And so far prices have kept rising, one housewife told IRIN spoke while she was shopping in the market.

“My family are finding it harder to live on what we can afford,” she said. “They make me feel that I am at fault. That I am doing something wrong.””

Because it’s always the women’s fault! (I could make a reference to the treatment of Hillary Clinton by the media and the Obama campaign as well as the Democratic leadership but just this once, I’ll resist the temptation!)

Second item: Afghanistan where the impact of the food crisis is also combined with a patriarchal social structure which makes women and girls the primary victims.

“Sayed Ali (not his real name) said he sold his 11-year-old daughter, Rabia, for US$2,000 to a man in Sheberghan city, Jawzjan Province in northern Afghanistan to feed his wife and three younger children. (…)

With food prices in Afghanistan having soared over the past few months and the 40-year-old father unable to find work, he said he had no other choice but to sell his daughter to save his family from starvation.

“Even animals don’t sell their children, because they love them and want to die for them, not to mention human beings. For too many days I stood next to roads and asked people for work, but always ended up disappointed. I couldn’t go home empty-handed and disappoint my starving children, so I used to scavenge in garbage and collect leftover food.

“I would lie to my family and say I bought them food from the market. But now it’s even hard to find anything edible in the garbage because of [increasing] food prices. People now eat all their food because it’s very expensive and also the numbers of those who scavenge in garbage has increased.

“Because I am illiterate, no one will give me a job. I am illiterate because of war and poverty. I didn’t go to school because my parents wanted me to work. My children also don’t go to school and they’ll also be brought up illiterate like me.

“How can someone sell his own child? It’s like selling your eyes or selling your heart!

“As no one would give me work I had no other option but to sell my lovely daughter. I sold her only to save the rest of my family. I sold her only to buy food for my younger children who otherwise would have died from hunger.

“I know people will say I am a cruel and merciless father who sold his own child, but those who say so don’t know my hardship and have never felt the hunger that my family suffers.”

Of course, it is heartbreaking but the very fact that, ultimately, he treated his daughter as an asset of the last resort and that there is a market where someone can actually sell his daughter indicates again a patriarchal social structure that considers the power of the father as unquestionable. Certainly, that privileged status confers constraints, both structural (he has to provide, no one else can do it, that’s his role) and normative (how will society look at him as a father if he is unable to provide). But as he describes it, the decision to sell his own daughter was his and his alone supported by cultural norms that see girls as less valuable.

In line with this, the country next door, Pakistan, faces the same issue:

“Within the last month at least two cases have been reported in the press of parents killing, or attempting to kill, children they felt unable to feed.

On 21 March in a village near the industrial city of Faisalabad, some 117km west of Lahore, a jobless father, Abdul Shakoor, reportedly killed his two daughters, three-month-old Aliza Noor, and Kainat, aged four.

His wife and mother prevented him from attacking a third child before Shakoor committed suicide by throwing himself in the path of a train. His distraught family said he often talked of “giving away” his daughters due to the family’s crippling poverty and their inability to feed the five children.

In a similar incident in the southern Punjab city of Khanewal just three days later, a woman forced her six children, aged between six months and 10 years, to throw themselves into a waterway, and then jumped in herself. Khurshid Bibi, the wife of a labourer, was rescued along with four of her children. She later told police she saw death as a preferable option to ceaseless poverty. ”

Social workers mentioned in the article also indicates that the reason for the murders / suicides (beyond the loss of honor tied to being unable to provide) relates to the growth of the nuclear family structure that leaves families on their own in the case of hardship, without an extended family support system to rely on to get them through a rough patch. Of course, these suicides cannot help but evoke Durkheim’s famous study. Actually, it would seem that these suicides fall in the least mentioned (and according to Durkheim, least frequent) category: fatalistic suicide, that is the type of suicides that comes out of extreme regulation (as opposed to the anomic suicide which emerges out of the lack of social norms).

At the same time that extended family systems break down, though, the absence of family planning and the persistence of patriarchal behavior that foster high fertility creates nuclear families with a lot of children, that is intense economic burdens with limited means of satisfying them. Add to the mix a society-wide crisis such as the rise in the price of food and you have all the ingredients for these murders / suicides.

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6 Responses to Global Food Crisis – More Updates

  1. Frenchdoc

    A couple of stories in the MSM about the growing food crisis.

    One here at home:
    Food banks face rising costs, growing need

    And this one:
    No breakfast for children because of aid cuts

  2. Frenchdoc says:

    Thanks, Pamela… I know why I missed these… MSNBC… ewww 🙂

  3. Frenchdoc

    I try to check the headlines there once or twice a day. Nothing much of interest really, but those two were top of the page and on topic.

    Reading your post and the stories in the news, I can’t help but say to myself “how did we come to this” in this day and age. And how much, how very much the world (society/culture) has still not evolved in so many places.

  4. Frenchdoc says:

    What it also shows, along with credit crisis, is that, I think, there is something irremediably broken in the global economic system and that we’re going to need a US President who can understand the complexities of all this and provide global leadership for reform. A tall order to be sure and I can see only one person with the intellectual capacities for that and ready to roll up her sleeves and get stuff done.

  5. Frenchdoc

    I could not agree more on all of your points. As a matter of fact, I just posted on the economy and suggested that there’s one candidate that really gets it when it comes to the economy.

  6. Darrell Prows says:

    The problem is actually more so in the global political system than in the global economic system. The global economic system, unguided by mandates and incentives formed in response to political policy, can only allocate resources on the basis of “supply and demand”. The “invisible hand” would be quite content to let this supply/demand imbalance rectify itself by having the poorest die off from starvation, and supply being brought in line that way.

    Sadly no one on the world political front is talking about creating mechanisms through which world problems and be addressed through world solutions.