KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future
THE IMPARTIAL OBSERVER
Food Riots - The Coming Global Nightmare
Sunday 20 April 2008
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
~~Book of Proverbs
For a while now, the world has been convulsing incrementally with food riots. Hardly anyone noticed, until the recent riots in Haiti claimed several lives. Even with that satiric wake-up call, there is hardly any corresponding concern, sufficient to trigger the immediate marshalling of forces against the spreading global hunger pang, which over time, may become a sweeping tsunami-type global catastrophe.
Peoples of the world are hungry. That is a fact! A troubling contradiction is that global hunger is becoming pervasive at a time when global food production is also at its peak. So what is the matter, one may ask? Experts claim that demand is outstripping supply. But they note also, that the dearth of food is not due to consumption or waste, but due to our high consumption of energy and the race for renewable and environmentally friendly energy that is derived from food crops.
Indeed, the double jeopardy is that such food crops having become high-cash-yielding commodities, most farmers are shifting their attention to them, while cutting back on the cultivation of other food crops. In addition, the demand and attending strain on the global corn stock translates to consumers supplementing with other staples such as rich, hence the high demand for rice, which is outstripping available supply.
Interestingly, most people do not seem to notice or understand this trend. However, worldwide, grocery bills and its continuous upward spiral tell it all. In addition, with a 300% markup in global oil prices, the food consumer is compelled to pick up the tab for the higher cost of food transportation, which in turn, translates to higher food prices and lesser money for buying food. Suddenly, the world is encountering a new lexicon and global threat – food insecurity.
Poverty is universal but not as injurious as hunger. Collectively, hunger, scarcity, and decreased availability of food and the inability to purchase requisite foods are known as food insecurity. By definition, food insecurity is the prevalence of a circumstance in which “people lack sustainable physical or economic access to enough safe, nutritious, and socially acceptable food for a healthy and productive life.”
Globally, an estimated 840 million are on the threshold of being classified as perpetually hungry, meaning, that they subsist on less than three adequate meals in a seventy-two hour cycle. While it is estimated that global harvest in some countries will drop to 50 per cent of their current yields by 2020, the corresponding global price of food has already spiked upwards anywhere between 50 percent to 300 percent. Here in the US, the tale-tale signs are obvious; quantum leaps in the number of people resorting to public and charity food pantries as well as remarkable markups of food items on the shelves of grocery stores.
Initially, it was believed that the original root cause of food insecurity was poverty. This was true of
Developing countries as it was of most Western countries, the United States included. However, there were also other critical contributing variables-- war and civil strife, conflict, corruption, barriers to trade, environmental degradation, demographic shifts, laggardly agricultural development, natural disasters, famine and physical disabilities. However, two new variables, climate change and the global quest for renewable energy such biofuel, may have trumped the rest. Their respective and collective consequences are also far reaching.
Some may wish to contest or discountenance the nexus between climate change and the demand for alternative energy and the sharp rise in global food prices. However, there are some stark and affirming realities:
· Reality One: In Burkina Faso, people are concerned about the degraded soils, drying, vanishing rivers, and other environmental changes. These realities affect local food production.
· Reality Two: In Nigeria, bad roads and rising cost of transportation associated with scarcity and high fuels prices, has spiked the cost of public transportation. This reality also affects national food production.
· Reality Three: In southern Africa, especially in places like Mozambique, flooding is becoming rampant and will be so in the years ahead with the evolving and shifting rainfall patterns. This reality affects regional food production.
· Reality Four: In Brazil, huge amounts of its sugar supply are being diverted to its robust bioethanol industry to boost renewable energy. Brazil preoccupation as the global leader in the production, consumption and export of bioethanol has been at the expense of the production of those foods in which sugar is a key component. This reality affects continental food production.
· Reality Five: In Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and the other agricultural middle-belt states of the United States, cereal and corn farmers are shipping fewer products overseas, and instead, are selling grains and collaborating with companies that produce biofuel. These realities distort the global grain availability and grain prices thus affecting global food production.
· Reality Six: In Australia, low water availability has negatively affected rice production, thus forcing farmers to use rice fields for cultivating less water-dependent crops. Combined with low production of rice in lead countries like China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines, global rice production in 2008 is estimated to increase by a dismal 1.8 per cent – or 12 million tones -- a fact that affects global food production.
All combined, the above listed factors, plus drastic climate change, bad harvests and demand for food outstripping existing supply has translated to the recent spate of food riots across the globe. Aside from the Haiti riots, which made the headlines because some five people died, recently flash protests and food riots have occurred in Burkina Faso, Indonesia, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, and Senegal as well as in Cambodia and Egypt.
The world is facing a global food crisis and it seems sudden. In truth, however, this crisis has been brewing for a long time. The discomforting and painful realization is that the unfolding food insecurity is a risky and nightmarish affair since its deleterious consequences could be far worse than a civil or inter-state war.
But the debate and politics of how to grapple with global food insecurity is only beginning. And so also, is the blame game. Apropos the raging global hunger, Brazilian President Lula da Silva was right in noting that the international system was “poorly equipped to face and solve the worst evil of our times” – hunger.
Also at issue, is who should be held responsible for the food insecurity crisis. Aside from the afore listed contributing factors, other critical variables at play, include protectionist farms subsidies and trade barriers by developed countries, under pricing of goods from developing countries, and the impact of consumable crops diverted to biofuel production, which drive up commodity prices consequently pushing them out of the reach of those at the poverty levels.
Eradicating poverty has long been a global mantra, but some had assumed, quite erroneously, that the eradication of hunger fell well within the ambit of ending poverty. That was a grievous mistake as we are beginning to find out. Once thought to be cyclical, seasonal, or even temporary, global food insecurity is in reality, beginning to manifest itself as a chronic and well-entrenched phenomenon. Hence, one choice open to policymakers in addressing global food insecurity could well be an immediate advocacy for a return to grassroots, backhouse farming and gardening, just as we have done with planting new trees and recycling paper. Personal or community farming for subsistence will definitely help ameliorate global food demands; but the other side is that urbanization and the drift of rural dwellers to urban areas cuts down on the self-sufficiency levels that would have otherwise been possible.
Since the magnitude of global food insecurity is unknown, one can safely assume that food riots are clear indicators that a nation has crossed the acceptable threshold and routine levels of hunger into the realm of food insecurity. Incidentally, the number of countries making that crossover journey is on the rise. An added risk -- hardly an imponderable --also simmers below the surface of the food insecurity problematic. When the next food riots occur, it may not be intra-state, but across national boundaries, which will bring an added twist to the global crisis.
For instance, will the authorities in Nigeria stand by idly, while citizens of neighboring Benin, Chad or Ghana invade their territory in hoards to carte away or loot foodstuff? The answer is a no-brainer, considering the mass expulsion of immigrants from those three countries in the mid 1980s, merely because of the public outcry in Nigeria that they were taking up menial jobs meant for the locals. However, in the case of a food crisis, it would be commonsensical to read the tealeaves as a recipe for unprecedented conflict. Indeed, food riots retain the capacity to be the next global nightmare, after nuclear weapons and terrorism.
It begs stating that world leaders are surely asleep at the wheels on this matter. With certain ambiguity, some world leaders chase shadows of other real or perceived threats to international peace and security, while the bottom is dropping out right beneath them. Many others seem to lack the sense of urgency and vision the matter deserves. As we know, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
Nevertheless, there is an inconvenient truth worth pondering. No amount of military or social intervention beyond providing food, can quell food riots when and where they happen. In addition, when food riots occur, no sane soldier or police officer will shoot or stop people whose mission is to stay alive and therefore, are looking to do so by searching for food by any means. Assuming that employing force would stop food rioters, how many world leaders will be willing to kill and in which countries, in order to maintain law and order? These facts are hardly important and they will matter less when the next round of protests and food riots orchestrated by hunger begin. Interestingly, no one knows whose neighborhood or country will be hit first.
The time to act is now; not tomorrow, not next month or next year.
With neither anger nor partiality, until next time, keep the law, stay impartial, and observe closely.
Hank Eso is a columnist for Kwenu.com (New Jersey). His commentaries on Nigerian politics and global issues have appeared in The New Times (Lagos), African Profile International (New York), The Nigerian And Africa Abroad (New York), African Market News (New Jersey), Gamji.com and Nigeriavillagesquare.com
© Hank Eso, Sunday 20 April 2008
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