January 23 2011
Jo Smit writes:
That’s a figure that should frighten all of us because it’s the number of people in one of the richest countries in the world receiving food aid. One in eight US citizens, that is, nearly 40 million people do not have the means to feed themselves adequately and rely on government financial assistance. The number may appear small compared to the hungry masses of the third world, but America’s needy inhabit one of the world’s richest countries by GDP, where well-fed affluence is regarded as a right, fundamental to ‘the American dream’.
The number of Americans dependent on the government’s supplemental nutrition assistance program is now at the highest level since the program was introduced in 1939, in response to the severe malnutrition of the depression years. Now the numbers are rising with every new release of statistics. The average monthly pay out per person is $133, and without it, America’s poorest would undoubtedly be expressing their fury at their political leaders, potentially in violent protest.
The USA is emblematic of a global problem; in many countries the cost of food is escalating beyond the reach of the poorest levels of society. Just over two years ago the world suffered a sudden food crisis as prices of many basic commodities rose by an average of more than 40%. Food riots broke out in 30 nations from Cameroon to Egypt. Political leaders expressed some concern about the issue of ‘food security’ but events were still considered to be a ‘blip’. A number of experts reassured us that the food price rises were the result of an unfortunate combination of circumstances, notably increased demand for foods from increasingly wealthy developing nations, poor weather conditions reducing crop yields, and a shift from growing food crops to biofuels.
Last December the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) was reporting that global food prices had reached a new high. This too was simply another blip, we were told, with the price spike being attributed to a sharp rise in the cost of two particular commodities, sugar and cereals, the latter being caused by Russia’s ban on wheat exports and increasing dedication of croplands for biofuels. Inevitably, there have been further food riots.
It provides us with some comfort to hear price rises explained as a ‘blip’, but that is not what is happening. The sharp accelerations in price rises simply expose the desperate fragility of our food system as it struggles to feed a rapidly growing population an increasingly diverse diet, in the face of investor speculation, climatic disaster, and diversion of agricultural land to biofuels production. The FAO is warning that food prices will continue to rise, unless there are significant increases in world grain crops. The stark fact is we can’t grow enough.
We have become used to the ready availability of huge quantities and varieties of food. Many big supermarkets in the US stock around 50,000 items. We have needed to spend as little as 10-15% of disposable income on food and drink. Contrast that with the poor medieval labourer who spent two thirds of his wages on the most basic sustenance.
Any improvement of that basic diet has been almost exclusively due to the input of fossil fuel energy. It is inevitable that we will slip back to a medieval diet as cheap energy ceases to be available. We’ll have to live largely without meat, processed foods and the diverse fruits, vegetables and other items we pluck from the world’s larder. But we’ll be able to eat. Others won’t be so lucky.