The Coming Crisis of Global Food: Hunger, Crisis and the Canary in the Coalmine

By Liam Hysjulien


In his seminal 1890 novel, Hunger, Knut Hamsun wrote, “I suffered no pain, my hunger had taken the edge off; instead I felt pleasantly empty, untouched by everything around me and happy to be unseen by all.”  In writing about issues of food, food prices, and hunger, I have become painfully aware that both hunger and the hungry remain largely on the edge of our social consciousness—a problem that seems at times to be untouched and unseen by all.  Occasionally we hear about the continuing increase in food stamps participants.  Or food banks like Second Harvest overwhelmed by longer and longer lines of America’s new poor.  Arizona, a state that pre-recession ranked second in national job growth, has now seen demand on food banks double in the last 18 months.  Throughout this entire recession, I have continued to return to the writings of Piven and Cloward and their utter condemnation for the hatred and blame that American society inflicts upon the poor.  You would think that a recession of this magnitude would have challenged this ideological narrative that the poor, largely facilitated by failed HUD policies during the late 90s, somehow created the mess that we’re in today.  Forget about 60 to 1 leverages, the Ponzi-like bundling of mortgage backed securities, or the one trillion dollar recapitalization of “too big to fail now too rich to lend” banks under TARP.  No, the fault of this complex economic crisis, as proposed by conservative and libertarian pundits, rests mostly at the feet of the poor, and the malice unleashed by these pundits toward them—I’ll also include immigrants in this category—remains quietly unchallenged and accepted.

Global hunger seems to be following a similar trajectory, and I fear new kinds of economic investments in food, coupled with an utter contempt for the hungry, will lead to an even more nightmarish future for food.   While I am largely a true believer, no matter how naive it might seem at times, in a sustainable food revolution, I have not fully bought into how this Schumpeterian process of creative destruction will be brought about.  Of all the future sustainable food projects, the one proposed by professor of microbiology and public health Dickson Despommier seems to be both the most promising and garnering the most national recognition.

Recently heard on the Dianne Rehm show, Despommier likens his vision to the stacking of greenhouses, one on top of the other, into vertical farms for densely populated urban locales.   In Despommier’s vision, “High-rise food-producing building will succeed only if they function by mimicking ecological process, namely by safely and efficiently re-cycling everything organic, and re-cycling water from human waste disposal plants, turning it back into drinking water” (Despommier 2010). The success of Despommier’s idea centers on the construction, to use cybernetic language, of an agro-closed system loop in which water would be purified and filtered throughout an entire vertical structure.  Abandoned skyscrapers could be retrofitted into these multi-level farms with food grown by using sustainable greenhouse and hydroponic techniques.  Despommier’s idea is brilliant, visionary, and absolutely necessary for our future.

Urbanization—the shift from the rural to the city— is not a fad of the 20th and 21st century but a permanent reality.  As Despommier cites, by 2050, nearly 80% of the world will be living in urban areas, and the necessity for cheaper, locally grown food will help to reduce Co2 admissions and control chaotic fluctuations in food prices.   However like any grand scheme, funding—how we go about creatively destroying a project into fruition—becomes the essential question.  Despommier is obviously aware of this reality and concludes that, “strong, government-supported economic incentives to the private sector, as well as to universities and local government to develop the concept” will be required to fund this project (Despommier 2010).

As unemployment continues to remain painfully high, especially in the construction field, the creation of vertical farm pilot projects could work to offset some of these numbers.  In cities ranging from Detroit to Miami, the different variables of each place (weather, population density, and temperature) could lead to the development of a myriad of vertical farm prototypes, and in the process link together start-up companies, universities, public research grants and private investors.  The technology developed out of these projects could be streamlined into cities as unique as Cairo, Mexico City, and Shanghai—America would be laying the foundation for the future of global food development. As a side note, I should add that I see this as one of many strategies for creating a new global food system paradigm. I would also include returning to local and traditional forms of agricultural practice, reducing meat consumption in highly-developed countries (HDCs), and reprioritizing, in the words of Graham Riches, the idea that access to healthy and safe food is a basic human right.

As November rolls closer, I am less than optimistic about this prospect. And while 2010 may be the beginning of the age of austerity — I thought that’s what the last thirty years were — 2050 will more than likely be seen as a demarcation line for global food production.  With the recent recessions pushing global hunger back to the 1 billion person mark, the UN has concluded that food production, in order to keep up with 3 billion additional people, will need to double in production capacity by 2050. The blueprint now being developed, largely by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), seems to be more line with Monsanto than Vertical Farms.  Let us take, for example, Dr. Jacques Diouf, FAO Director-General, who says that while, “[organic agriculture] produces wholesome, nutritious food and represents a growing source of income for developed and developing countries. But you cannot feed six billion people today and nine billion in 2050 without judicious use of chemical fertilizers” (FAO 2007).  Instead, the FAO reports—using the World Bank’s World Development numbers—that “low fertilizer use is one of the major constraints on increasing agricultural productivity in Sub-Sahara” (FAO 1997).  While this may be quantitatively true, it is indicative of an “agro-revolution” mindset that the green revolution of the future—the one which we will need to advance greatly over the next 15-30 years—will mimic the “green revolution” of the 1950/60s: i.e. high chemical inputs, genetically modified seeds, price fixed into a global market, heavy usage of pesticides, and all brought to you by an oligarchy of transnational corporations.

Nevertheless, a 2009 FAO’s article, How to Feed the World by 2050, articulates succinctly many of the problems and reality facing food production in the early 21st century.  The two most significant points raised in this article are as follows,

“Purchases and leasing of agricultural land in Africa by foreign investors for food production in support of their food security…This development involves complex and controversial issues –economic, political, institutional, legal and ethical – that need to be addressed by policy”

“[Less development countries] become more exposed to international market instability with the result that poor households are extremely vulnerable to the risk of short-term increases of prices of basic food stuffs” (FAO 2010).

The FAO’s first point is about the recent rise of foreign countries “landgrabbing” arable acreage throughout predominantly sub-Saharan Africa.  Critics of landgrabbing have likened the process to a new frontier in “agro-colonialism,” where foreign countries buy land leases for the purpose of exporting crops back to their own countries—largely seen for these countries as a preventive measure for hedging against fluctuating food prices.  Along with the process of landgrabbing, the investing in food may lead to further food price volatility—mostly in staples like corn, wheat, and soybeans—possibly making the post-recession period even worse for many developing countries.

Two years after the 2007/08 food crisis, wheat and rice prices have still not returned to anywhere near their pre-crisis levels.  The drought that has decimated wheat crops in Russia, the world’s third leading wheat exporter, and the Ukraine, is now being compounded with news of less than stellar harvest reports in the US corn industry, creating new spikes in the cost of wheat and corn.  And, since large quantities of meat produced in the world are fed these two grains, increases in cereal prices invariably raises the price of meat.

The next frontier of investing may soon be shifting away from gold, which is at an all-time high, toward grain, as increases in population and the expansion of food production create a lucrative environment for speculation and investing.  As one investor notes, “We’ve already seen trouble. There were food riots in some countries two years ago. Wheat, coffee and sugar prices have rocketed this summer. Canaries in the coal mine? ‘We expect to see a resource war around 2020’”(Arends 2010).  For Forbes financial contributor, Joshua Brown, “The food riots of 2008 were just the shot over the bow, in my estimation. The recent bullish action in ag commodities may be the start of the actual melee” (Joshua Brown 2010).  Is this where the future of food now rests?  A new bubble to speculate on?  A new war to fight over?  New profits to be made at the expense of health and human life— no matter the cost?  And the nightmarish reality of food should be even more self-evident: the financial world is betting on a more chaotic and unstable global food system future.  To quote global food reporter Jessica Leeder, “instead of a supply crisis, what has dawned is a new era of increased volatility.  Unpredictable spikes and tumbles in some of the world’s most vital food commodities, most of them grains, are becoming more frequent” (Leeder 2010).

In the end, the 2007/08 global food crisis may become emblematic of a larger shift, a geo-political repositioning of food as the next battlefront both internally and between nations.  In June of 2008, after more than a week of riots over the rising cost of food prices, the Haitian government ousted then Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis.  As the world prepares for another potentially devastating food shock, it should come as no surprise that developing nations are beginning to hoard food surplus reserves.  As countries begin buying up arable tracts of land throughout Africa, the future of food appears to becoming increasingly more hostile than cooperative.  What many leaders in these countries seem to have learned from the 2007/08 food riots is how food shortages can so easily threaten a government’s legitimacy.  As the famed historian E.P Thompson once wrote, “It is notorious that the demand for corn, or bread, is highly inelastic. When bread is costly, the poor (as one highly-placed observer was once reminded) do not go over to cake” (Thompson 1971:91).  People can deal with all sorts of abuse, all sorts of traumas administrated by their own government, but everyone must eat, and this reality seems to be driving, even more than issues of hunger, the future of food development.

I fear a future that has become pleasantly empty to the plight of the hungry.  A future where divisions between people are no longer determined by class or geographical position but between the fed and the unfed.  A world where the obesity rate in certain countries pushes well past 50 and 60 percent mark (it is predicted that three fourths of Americans will be either overweight or obese by 2020), and it will be normal  to read about a 2 billion or even 4 billion people starving daily.  As we look toward 2050, we must continue to be both creative and simple in our approach to food, and strive for a future in which food is truly recognized as a basic human right.

References

Arends, Brett. 2010. “Farmland: The Next Boom?” Wall Street Journal. September 24.

Brown, Joshua. 2010. “Grain over Gold.” Forbes. September 27.

Despommier, Dickson. 2010. “The Vertical Farm: Reducing the Impact of Agriculture on Ecosystem Functions and Services.” [Retrieved October 23, 2010] http://www.verticalfarm.com/more?essay1

FAO. 2007. “Organic Agriculture Can Contribute to Fighting Hunger: But Chemical Fertilizers Needed to Feed the World.” [Retrieved October 23, 2010]   http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/ 2007/1000726/index.html

—. 2010. “Feeding the World in 2050.”

Hamsun, Knut. 1890. Hunger. London, UK: Cannongate.

Leeder, Jessia. 2010. “Food Shock: Market Volatility a Bigger Threat than Grain Shortage.” The Globe and Mail. October 7.

Thompson. E.P. 1971.  “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past and Present 50:76-136.

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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