consumerism current affairs energy equality food globalisation poverty shopping

Feeding the world in 2008 – biofuels or bread?

Imagine you live the UK, and you earn the national average of £457 a week. You spend roughly £46 a week on food. If food prices go up by 40% this year, you’ll have to pay £64 a week.

Imagine you live in Tanzania, and you earn £11 a week. You spend around £7.70 a week on food. If world food prices go up by 40%, you’ll have to pay £10.78 a week. You’ll have just 22p left for your rent, for transport, for clothes, shoes, medecine, for your kids education.

Guess what? World food prices have gone up 40% this year.

You may not have noticed much, aside from the occasional remark about the price of bread these days. The world food system is so set up that the richer you are, the less of your income goes on food. In the UK, we spend just 10% of our incomes on food, 9% in the US. In poorer countries that figure rises to 35, 50, even 70% of income. When there’s a global food shortage and prices are pushed up, the poor feel the pressure to a disproportionate degree.

So, while we tut at the price of milk, Morocco, Mexico and Senegal have seen food riots. Rationing is back in Pakistan. Several governments are freezing prices, setting up emergency subsidies, or banning products from being exported.

We haven’t seen anything like this for a while. Food prices have been falling in real terms for decades, until they started rising again in 2005 and then suddenly spiked this year. Wheat prices set a new record yesterday at $20 a bushel. So why is this?

  • Weather – erratic weather patterns in 2007 meant poor harvests in the US and the EU, so we don’t have the surpluses we usually do. The US grain reserves are the lowest they have been since the 70s. This are unusual circumstances, and things will go back to normal.
  • Meat – as incomes rise rapidly in many parts of the world, especially in India and China, people are developing a taste for meat. “China’s burgeoning middle classes,” wites Sean O’Grady in the Independent, are developing a “taste for a more Western style of eating, enjoying foods such as milk, pork and beef that were once scarce.” This means grain is diverted to feeding animals rather than people – a less efficient use of food and a form of ‘agricultural inflation’.
  • Biofuels – ‘Biofuels will not feed the hungry‘ said a Financial Times headline today. As the world faces hunger on an unprecendented scale in 2008, a third of maize grown in the US will be for biofuels – 60 million tonnes. There are big subsidies for growing biofuels, which means US farmers are happy to prioritise thirsty SUVs over hungry mouths. As Paul has written about, in relation to airlines and biodiversity loss, biofuels are not a viable answer to oil shortages anyway, so to fasttrack their production at a time like this is not just misguided, but morally wrong.

There are a few things we can do.

First of all, we can be grateful that if we are well fed, we may well be in a minority before long as 2008 tests the world’s ability to feed itself.

Then, we can start thinking more about what we eat. Cut down on meat, especially beef, or eat free-range meat. (incidentally, eating free-range meat in moderation may be better than being a vegetarian in terms of land use, because it uses marginal land that cannot otherwise be used for food production.)

We can throw less away. In the UK we still throw away 1 out of 3 food products that we buy, which is ridiculous.

On the biofuels front, I’m not sure what to do. Suggestions welcome. Until we figure it out, let’s keep working on ways of driving less, using public transport more. And nothing matches the energy efficiency of a bike – I learned last week that you can ride for a mile on the energy contained in just one bite of banana.


  1. Mmm… a mile on a bike, fuelled by one bite of a banana. I guess it depends on how hilly it is, and the speed of your metabolism. I think I would need a whole banana myself.
    All the same, you raise some seriously searching issues in this entry. While we are in need of suggestions about what we can do about this situation I think we are in even greater need of the motivation to do it. Most of all, I believe we need to pray, and pray, and pray again, that God would have mercy on our world. His world. ‘God loved the world so much that He gave….’ Ultimately this is the message we need to be spreading, and the only message that will ultimately make a difference.

  2. I am in the third world and my impression is that much of the Earth’s agricultural resource -Land, is underdeveloped. Hunger in my part of the world is not caused by shrinking land but rather by: lack of industries and jobs, almost slave wages, and estimated 75% of our agri-potential has yet to be developed. Farmers are ill motivated by poor prices. We don’t have things like subsidies for farmers.

    Unlike the advanced countries, improved prices of agricultural produce expected by bio-fuels craze here, hopefully will changed the situation for us.

  3. Interesting point – the switch to biofuels may put an end to the huge US surpluses that swamp the markets with cheap grain in some poorer parts of the world. That would be a good thing ultimately, but it may mean several years of shortages until that 75% starts producing enough to make up the shortfall.

    Some people do stand to gain from high food prices. The people who’ll benefit the most will be poorer countries with a food surplus, who will suddenly see their exports worth more.

  4. A really interesting post, Ive been researching the prices of chickens and how much media attention its had recently, accoding to all your research we shoud be made aware of a lot more issues in and out of Britain.

  5. I am not really sure about poor countries having food surplus. I only know we have plenty of idle lands. The Philippines IS a traditional cereal IMPORTER. We are traditional rice, corn and wheat importer. We import corn from U.S.A. (We do import rice from other Asian countries so I guess they have surplus on that)

  6. We have existence of political economic systems dependent on fuel and energy and dictated by forces that control them. Fuels have gone unusually high in relation to everything else. The introduction of bio-fuels uncovers the fact that agricultural products when or if converted to fuels will pay more.

    In a free economy, nobody can tell farmers if they convert their corn, for example, to energy instead of feeding them to livestock. Solution to the problem apparently is, either Free States subsidize or increase subsidy to farmers, or otherwise it is time that States should initiate socialized trading in agriculture and/or in energy to affect possible better price to (producers) farmers and bring possible lower price to consumers. Capitalism: American, Russian, Red Chinese, they speak only one universal language – Buy low Sell high and man in the street cannot do anything about it.

    The worst scenario is in the Third world where farmers are not subsidized by States and where they are at the mercy of traders. A 100% increase in the end user price of agriculture may mean a meager token 5 -10% increase to producers, deepening the miserable conditions at the base of societies.

    And by the way, Uncle Sam went to Iraq to allegedly save mankind. Fact is: there was no weapon of mass destruction in there. Fact is: Iraq is on top of one of the greatest world reserve of Crude. Fact is: either the Americans or the Arabs, or both, control those crude is irrelevant to the world spectators. Going religious, maybe the Meek will benefit more if Greed will kill one another so the meek can inherit the earth!

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