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.
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.