The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is warning that it will be forced to abandon millions of people to starvation, as sharp increases in food prices eat into its funds. International market prices for wheat, corn, soya beans and dozens of other commodities have doubled or trebled in recent years.
The main focus of the WFP to date has been to provide aid in areas where food was unavailable. But the programme now faces having to help countries where the price of food, rather than shortages, is the problem. Josette Sheeran, WFP executive director, said the agency - the world’s largest humanitarian programme - would look at “cutting the food rations or even the number or people reached” if donors did not provide more money.
The price jump in agricultural commodities – such as wheat, corn, rice and soya beans – is having a wider impact than thought, hitting countries that have previously largely escaped hunger. The WFP says that in response to rising food costs, families in developing countries were moving in some cases from three meals a day to just one, or dropping a diverse diet to rely on one staple food.
Egypt has widened its food rationing system for the first time in two decades while Pakistan has reintroduced a ration card system that was abandoned in the mid-1980s. Countries such as China and Russia are imposing price controls while others, such as Argentina and Vietnam, are enforcing foreign sales taxes or export bans.
The WFP’s warning came just hours after Richard Branson launched another bio-fuelled stunt to publicise his continuing campaign for a greener, cleaner, and altogether kinder capitalism. And the connection between these two events?
There are many factors contributing to rising food prices – strong demand from rapidly developing countries like China and India; the sharply increased price of oil for agriculture, shipping and fertiliser production, a rising global population; more frequent floods and droughts caused by climate change. But the biggest impact comes from the shift to biofuels.
In the space of a few years, the US has diverted about 40m tonnes of maize to produce bioethanol – about 4% of global production of coarse grains. That rapid growth is largely the result of government subsidies as the fading global power struggles to reduce its dependence on carbon-based oil imported from the Middle East.
A report from the Nature Conservancy and the University of Minnesota has raised serious questions over how biofuels are grown. Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannahs or grasslands to grow fuel crops releases CO2, in some cases a staggering 420 times more CO2 than from burning fossil fuel, the report says. Using fertiliser on biofuel crops will emit enough nitrous oxide (more than 296 times more powerful heat trapping gas than CO2) to wipe out all the carbon savings biofuels produce, say other sources. Biofuel crops could also put an unbearable strain on the global water supply, say Swedish researchers.
Far from providing a green alternative to fossil fuels, there is a danger that the struggle to sustain capitalist production through biofuels will trigger a vicious cycle of a food versus fuel competition over which will yield the most profit. This will lead to further food shortages, drive up food prices, and encourage even more farmers to choose to grow fuel over food crops to meet the increasing demand - and clear more land in the process. The choice is becoming simpler: either starvation on a global scale or the transformation of economic and political systems, transferring the power over life and death away from greedy corporations and into the hands of the majority who have real needs.
AWTW economics editor