Casaubon's Book

Thanks to reader Sunshine for forwarding me this AP article, which I think does a really good job of pointing up something I’ve been talking about for a long time – the food crisis that was in the news two years ago never actually went away. While food prices stabilized in the developed world and things like the economic crisis shoved the situation of the poor and hungry off the front pages, that doesn’t mean the food crisis came to an end.

With food costing up to 70 percent of family income in the poorest countries, rising prices are squeezing household budgets and threatening to worsen malnutrition, while inflation stays moderate in the United States and Europe. Compounding the problem in many countries: prices hardly fell from their peaks in 2008, when global food prices jumped in part due to a smaller U.S. wheat harvest and demand for crops to use in biofuels.

Majeedan Begum, a Pakistani mother of five, said a bag of flour for bread, the staple of her family’s diet, costs three times what it did two years ago in her hometown of Multan. She can no longer afford meat or fruit.

“My domestic budget has been ruined,” said Begum, 35.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s food price index — which includes grains, meat, dairy and other items in 90 countries — was up 22 percent in March from a year earlier though still below 2008 levels. In some Asian markets, rice and wheat prices are 20 to 70 percent above 2008 levels, it says.

It is easy to forget that there is a world hunger crisis, with so many other crises jockeying for our attention. But it does not change the fact that more people are hungry now than ever in history, and that the last two years have brought us 100 million new hungry people – or that social stability depends heavily on people being fed.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Left_Wing_Fox
    June 7, 2010

    Thanks for posting this. That’s the sort of news story that disappeared completely off my reading radar, and I actually caught myself wondering bout that a couple weeks back looking at bags of rice on sale and remembering the mini-panic in the media, and wondering how that resolved.

  2. #2 Greenpa
    June 7, 2010

    It’s a really big and important problem; pretty much never addressed (opportunity knocking, Sharon!).

    You walk from inside a house into bright full sunlight. And your pupils contract- so in a few minutes, your inner perception is that you are in “normal” light.

    You jump into the ocean, after sunbathing for an hour or so. It feels colder than hell- until you adapt, and your inner perception is that you’re quite comfortable.

    Human reaction to catastrophe is much the same. Stepping outside from your quake-proof bunker, after The Big One hits LA – you will be horrified into immobility by the devastation, screaming, dead bodies, etc. Two days later, you’ll just step over the remaining body parts, on the way to the regular line for drinking water.

    In a month- the horrors of the Gulf oil smother will have faded, and it will, without question, be back to American Idol. Precisely as the urgency of the food shortage has faded from our consciousness.

    Human adaptability is useful for individual survival.

    But it is, without question, to me, one of the very biggest barriers to constructing any kind of an improved future.

  3. #3 Prometheus
    June 8, 2010

    Pakistan will be up to fully 50% imported wheat by next year.

    Should run 12.9 tons.

    Hey Sharon,

    Remember when you dismissed this wheat farmer’s nightmares about children with distended bellies as pro-monsanto hyperbole?

    I wish you had been right. I really do.

    A lot of the kids in Pakistan go hungry because their leaders pay too much for far flung wheat exports just to avoid dealing with India and because they think desperation can force greater production and food security in the provinces.

  4. #4 Sharon Astyk
    June 9, 2010

    No, I really don’t remember – not sure what conversation you are referring to. I find it odd to imagine that I might have said that people will never go hungry, although I’ve said plenty of stupid things in my time. Given that I’ve got the same nightmares, that seems pretty transcendently dumb of me.

    You’ll have to remind me of the context, I’m afraid.

    Sharon

  5. #5 Prometheus
    June 9, 2010

    It was back in January on Tomorrows Table

    Your comment

    “… Like the “feed the world” bit, it is kind of irrelevant at this point (note, I am not claiming it will never be relevant, just that it isn’t inevitable that it will be).”

    Turned into a jumping off point for Douglas Watts to spout stuff like:

    “The “feed the world” pitch is pretty tired and disingenuous”

    I don’t find world hunger to be a ‘bit’ or a ‘pitch’ and it is one of the few areas I let for-the-children hyperbole slide because I have worked alongside children on sessile plantations and seen what malnourishment does to people in early development.

    I remember it made me nuts for an hour or two. At the time, the grain and flour conference was happening and my cousins were asking me questions about how many years of successive malnourishment it takes for a whole culture to lose the intellectual and physical capacity to produce their own food.

    We are past the point of no return in a lot of places. It pisses me off that Pakistan is in the state it is in largely due to politics.

    This is on top of attempts to introduce free micro nutrients (iodine) into Pakistan’s diet only to have volunteers accused of attempts to sterilize them.

    I saw a guy with cretinism when I was a kid. I probably first saw goiters around the same time. Nothing starts up my nightmare factory like malnourished children.

    You didn’t do anything necessarily wrong. I don’t have a lot of sore spots but the ones I do have are pretty inflamed.

    The reason my family doesn’t bring their lawyer to the Wheat and Flour conference is because I tried to deck a guy one year.

    I spend a lot of time at war with people on both ends of the spectrum.

    My hope with regard to sustainability as a value is that it will draw both agribusiness and subsistence farming to the center wherein people being enslaved to the whim of the land and enslaving the land to people’s whims are recognized as absurd positions.

    Reproducing and thriving are not the same things with regard to Yellow Dent Corn plants or Pakistani Cotton farmers.

    Whew, what am I doing here and where did this soapbox come from?

  6. #6 Sharon Astyk
    June 9, 2010

    Prometheus, I’m going to have to go back to the conversation and look at what I said – it is perfectly possible that I was being a complete moron and I certainly don’t think that everything that comes out of my mouth or ass is gold ;-).

    That said, however, I *think* the the point I was trying to make is slightly different than the one it came off as – not claiming that there’s no case for feeding the world, but arguing that most of what is being done in the developed world to increase yields isn’t actually getting to the people who most need to get it, and that the fundamental problems are often of equity as much as food supplies. But again, I haven’t had a chance to look back, and if the conversation went as it should have, I was a complete dimwit and you were right to think I was an ass.

    Sharon

  7. #7 Sharon Astyk
    June 9, 2010

    That should say not “as it should have” but “as you say it did rather than as it should have.”

    In my (small) defense, I wrote a book about hunger, and I have some of the same nightmares you do, although perhaps, as is inevitable, from a different set of experiences. And I think you’d liven up a conference!

    Sharon