The rumblings of a food crisis
As China and India turn to meat, food prices are soaring, writes Philip Delves Broughton
With Indians now gobbling down pizzas, the Chinese pounding the table for Big Macs, and corn being turned into bio-fuel, the world's food supplies are in their worst shape for 35 years.
Prices of everything from milk and corn to beef and coffee are at record highs. Wheat stores are the lowest they have been since 1980. Add to that the effects of climate change, shifting production around the world, and you have what the United Nations' World Food Programme is calling "the perfect storm for the world's hungry".
Even the not-so-hungry are feeling it. In Britain, the prices of a pint of milk and a loaf of bread have risen by more than 10 per cent in the past year, far more than inflation. It is estimated that the price of the average Christmas lunch in 2007 was 14 per cent higher than in 2006, and only a fraction of that was down to Jamie Oliver sending people out to buy more expensive organic food.
Italians have been abandoning pasta over the past 18 months in response to the sharp rise in its cost. In Mexico City late last year, thousands marched in protest at the shocking price of the corn they use to make tortillas.
Leading up to Russia's legislative elections in December, Vladimir Putin imposed price freezes on basic foodstuffs to keep a sudden rise in prices from sullying his party's easy victory. In the past few months, food riots have occurred around the world, from Morocco to Senegal and Yemen.
In Europe, the EU has suspended the usual 10 per cent set-aside for 2008. Normally farmers would be paid not to farm 10 per cent of their land as a way of controlling supply and maintaining prices. This year, they must cultivate all of their land.
The rise in basic food prices has also strengthened the case for abolishing the subsidies paid to European, mostly French, farmers. For many years, low agricultural commodity prices were offered as justification for the subsidies. With prices now hitting record highs, the argument for artificial price supports is gone.
It has been so long since the world faced food shortages - since the early 1970s - that some wonder if we are mentally prepared for such a crisis. Jacques Diouf, the head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation is doing all he can to raise the alarm. He says there is now "a very serious risk that fewer people will be able to get food".
Wealthy countries are better able to adapt, through technology and more efficient production and delivery. Poor countries, however, inevitably come last to the rice bowl and will soon likely find it either empty, or crammed with goods they cannot afford.
In India and China, eating habits have been transformed by rising prosperity. Consumers who once shopped at small local stores and markets now graze down the aisles of supermarkets, loading their trolleys with frozen ice cream, yoghurts and milk, which were once far harder to come by. For the first time in its history, India is no longer self-sufficient in milk, and the consumption of dairy products is expected to treble in the next four years. Even Hinduism, with its insistence on a vegetarian diet, has suffered as Indian meat consumption has risen by 40 per cent in the past 15 years.
The high price of energy has also taken its toll, driving up the price of feed and fertilisers which are made using oil and natural gas-related products.
In the United States, the environmentalists must also shoulder some blame. Millions of acres of American farmland are now subsidised by the federal government to produce corn for ethanol, a clean bio-fuel, rather than for food, even though Brazil makes ethanol far more cheaply from sugar cane. Just to complete the insanity, the US places a heavy tariff on Brazilian ethanol to protect its farmers.
From now on, though, the protectionists will have to act with the sound of the world's stomach growling in their ears.
note: This is not the fault of fat people in Mississippi