The Coming Crisis of Global Food: High Costs, High Fats, and the Age of Globesity

By Liam Hysjulien

I’d like to begin today’s essay by venturing forth into the not-so-distant future and mulling over this prediction:  by 2050, the global population could surpass 9 billion people.  As it currently stands, the world’s population is sitting at around 6.8 billion, with one sixth of those people going to sleep hungry every night.  So far in my research, I have mostly focused on national and local food issues—the Food Stamp Program (or SNAP, as it is now called), the history of the United States welfare system (yes, it still exists), and various anti-hunger and community food security movements and frameworks—but I’m now stepping outside my academic comfort zone to view the global landscape of hunger, food prices, and obesity.   One of my professors, a brilliant political economists and critic of both neo-liberalism and civil society, once remarked, and I’m paraphrasing, that there is no beast quite like the beast of poverty in the developing world.   And while I would never downplay the devastating effect of food insecurities and hunger in the US, it is almost unfathomable to wrap one’s mind around the reality of global hunger.  In an article in last week’s New York Times, Shawn Baker, Regional Director for Africa of Helen Keller International, wrote “[in Niger] 2010 is actually worse than 2005, with recent surveys showing acute malnutrition rates of 17%” (Baker 2010).   Severe acute malnutrition (SAM) in children under five cannot be understood simply in terms of nightly hunger pangs, but a daily lack of nutrients so severe and prolonged that it results in physical stunting and increased susceptibility to preventable diseases.

Beginning in the 1960s with the uniquely titled “War on Hunger” agenda,  the US government decided that the only way to win the hearts and minds of various food crops in the developing world was to use a direct approach: A) massive amounts of pesticides; B) massive amounts of fertilizers; C) monocropping; D) importing genetically modified foods and seeds; E) repeat steps A through E; F) this step is on the horizon, but I’ll return to it  in next month’s article.   All political agenda aside—and I am positive, and hoping, that readers will hardily disagree with me—there is a compelling argument to be made for the necessary advantages that modern science and business offer in increasing global food production.  While I am a food purist at heart, I cannot, at least from the studies that I have read, believe that without some reliance—the degree of reliance being certainly debatable—on scientific (unlike McWilliams, I don’t see GMO and Roundup Ready seeds in this future) and industrial agricultural practices, we’ll be able to increase food production to the predicted 70% yield required to match population growth.  Again, I want to stress the importance of balance over what we have now—which is one of the most unbalanced, out-of-control systems ever created.  So instead of striking a harmonious cord between sustainable, no-till farming practices and modern logistical and scientific advancements, we have decided instead to be as reckless as possible with our global food supply and see where that takes us–for a current example see: half a billion eggs recalled for possible salmonella exposure.

So where has this reckless behavior taken us? I would posit that we are in all likelihood entering, or have always been in, a state of food plutocracy, by which the gap between average caloric intake for developed and developing nations is going to widen, while caloric intake –which had been rising for decades— will continue to remain stagnant and rates of hunger will begin to increase in many less economically developed countries.

The financial and food crisis beginning in 2007 is at the center of this increase in both global food prices and levels of hunger.  In a 2010 report by the United Nations Millennium Development Goal, the number of undernourished people between 2005-2007 rose to levels not seen since the early 1990s (Dhawan 2010).   It should come as no surprise that during this same period, “the international prices of wheat and maize (corn) tripled, and that of rice grew fivefold” (Braun 2008).  To put these numbers in real terms, the global price of rice in 2006 was $216.65 per ton and by 2008 that number had risen to $507.65 (FAO 2010).   As Paul Collier, the Director for the Center for the Study of African Economies at the University of Oxford, writes,

“The unambiguous losers when it comes to high food prices are the urban poor. Most of the developing world’s large cities are ports, and, barring government controls, the price of their food is set on the global market. Crowded in slums, the urban poor cannot grow their own food; they have no choice but to buy it” (Collier 2008: 68).

In the aftermath of these rapid increases in food prices, the food riots of 2007-2008 swept through the developing world, with Mexico, Haiti, and Egypt gaining the most international attention.  By the end of 2008 in Egypt, the price of food and beverages had risen by 27 percent (Salama 2008).

Where were the food riots in the United States?  As an estimated 200 millions people in the world starved, the American food plutocracy remained largely stable.  But why?  First, Americans spend on average ten percent of their income on food and of that merely seven percent of their income eating at home (Department of Labor 2010).  In many countries where people live on less than $1 per day, roughly one sixth of the world population, 50 to 60 percent of their income goes toward food (USAID 2010).  This is not to say that food prices didn’t fluctuate in the US.  As one fifth of the nation’s corn crops were funneled toward biofuel production, grocery prices in the United States increased by five percent during the summer of 2008 (Martin 2008).  As the US entered what is now known as the Great Recession, increase in costs of food were not equally distributed throughout the market.  As eggs went up by 25 percent and milk by 17 percent (Stevenson 2008), the price of junk food—high sugar, high fat foods with little nutritional value—decreased by 1.8 percent (Parker-Pope 2008).  Instead of food riots in the US, consumers were faced with having the to decide between buying cheaper, low-nutritional junk food or buying less, and increasingly more expensive, fruits and vegetables. Not surprisingly, we see during this time rates of obesity increase in 37 states (Washington Post 2008).   But food plutocracy is not simply about what types of food we consume, but the sheer number of calories that Americans intake on a daily basis.  This global bifurcation between daily caloric intakes is at the heart of the future of food debate.

In looking at 2004-2006 data from the Food and Agriculture Organizations (FAO), Americans, on average, consume 3840 calories per day (FAO 2010).  To place this in the global context: Mozambique – 2090; Kenya – 2060; Sudan – 2300 (FAO 2010). While none of these numbers are startlingly low, it is important to remember that the data was collected two years before the beginning of the global economic recession—when food prices were relativity low and stable.

It is also important to note that Americans weren’t always like this.  If you look at any graph on obesity rates in the US, starting around the early 1980s—hello, Reagan—is when that line begins to slowly move upwards.  Beginning in the 1970s, Americans consumption of caloric sweeteners increased on average from 123.7 pounds to 152.4 pounds in 2000. Not only do we have a serious sweet tooth, but in the same year, we also consumed on average 74.5 pounds of total added fats and oil as opposed to 53.4 in the 1970s.  We like our fat and oils too.

What is food plutocracy going to look like by 2050?  As scientist predict that global food production will need to become more mechanized, industrialized and genetically modified (the MIG), we are already beginning to see how drastic swings in food prices are causing ripples of misery and hunger throughout the developing world.   In this new age of population growth and food speculation, we could begin to see the world increasingly more divided between the globally obese and the marginally food insecure.   A couple month ago, PBS commentator Ray Suarez, in a report on the increasing rate of obesity in China, wrote “[in China] portion sizes are getting bigger, Western-style food is widely available in urban areas, and people are eating out more often”(Suarez 2010).  In looking at the FAO’s diet composition numbers, daily percentage of fat consumption in China has increased from 19.5 percent in 1990 to 28.2 percent in 28.2 in 2006.  Additionally, fat consumption per individual in China has increased from 57.9 grams per day to 93.6 grams per day in 2006.  As rates of severe acute malnutrition continue to rise in many African countries, the rest of the developing world seems to be following the United States down the path of a high sugar, high fat, and high empty calorie lifestyle.  Next month, I will continue this theme on global food inequalities, and tackle the rising, and largely under reported, trend of “land grabbing” in Africa. 

References

Baker, Shawn. 2010. “A Famine Looms In Niger”. New York Times. August 9.

Collier, Paul. 2008. “The Politics of Hunger: How Illusion and Greed Fan the Food Crisis.” Foreign Affairs 87(6):67-80.

Dhawan, Himanshi. 2010. “Hunger back to 1990 levels in South Asia: Un report.” The Times of India. June 23.

FAO.2010. World Food Situation.

—. 2010. International Commodity Prices.

Martin, Andrew. 2008. “Biofuels Getting Blame for High Food Prices.” New York Times. April 15.

Parker-Pope, Tara. 2008. “Money is Tight, and Junk Food Beckons.” New York Times. November 3.

Suarez, Ray. 2010. “Reporter’s Notebook: Obesity on the Rise in China.” PBS Newshour. June 1.

Salama, Vivian. 2008. UAE in Farm Talks with Egypt for Food Supply.” The National. July 7.

Stevenson, Kim. 2008. “Some Good News on Food Prices.” New York Times. April 2.

USAID. 2010.  “USAID Responds to Global Food Crisis.”

USDA. 2010. Agricultural Factbook 2001-2002.

von Braun, Joachim. 2008. “The Food Crisis Isn’t Over: Although the Credit Crunch has Lowered the Price of Food, a Global Recession Now Raises the Hunger Pains of the Most Vulnerable. The Stage is Set For the Next International Food Crisis.” Nature 456(7223): 701.

Washington Post. 2008. “Obesity Rates Up in 37 States: Report.”  Washington Post. August 19.

About lhysjulien

Liam Hysjulien is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His areas of study are Food Systems Theory, food sustainability, food policies, and urban agricultural projects. Please send questions, comments, or concerns to liamhaiotb@gmail.com
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