writer, activist and former policy analyst with Food First. He has formerly worked for the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations, and has also protested them on four continents. He has a new book coming out on April 25th. It’s called Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.
Global food prices have risen dramatically, adding a new level of danger to the crisis of world hunger. In Africa, food riots have swept across the continent, with recent protests in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mauritania and Senegal. In most of West Africa, the price of food has risen by 50 percent — in Sierra Leone, 300 percent. In the United States there has been a 41 percent surge in prices for wheat, corn, rice and other cereals over the past six months. We speak with Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. [includes rush transcript]
For our last segment, we look at the dramatic rise in global food prices, adding a new level of danger to the crisis of world hunger. In Africa, food riots have swept across the continent, with recent protests in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Senegal. In most of West Africa, the price of food has risen by 50 percent — in Sierra Leone, 300 percent. Last week, African finance ministers warned the rise in international food prices “poses significant threats to Africa’s growth, peace and security.” Other protests have been held this past week in countries like Cambodia, Indonesia, Egypt. In Haiti, at least five people have died in riots over 50 percent price hikes for rice, beans and fruit since last year. The demonstrations continued Monday outside the national palace in Port-au-Prince.
HAITIAN DEMONSTRATOR: We are protesting voluntarily. It is not for money. The parliament is responsible for all of this. All we ask for is for the government to cut down on prices of food.
Last month, the World Food Program issued a rare appeal for an additional $500 million in funding. For its part, the Bush administration has reduced emergency food aid. Last month, the US Agency for International Development said that a 41 percent surge in prices for wheat, corn, rice and other cereals over the past six months has generated a $120 million budget shortfall that will force the agency to reduce emergency operations.
What’s causing this food price hike? What can be done to reverse it? Raj Patel explores this question in his new book Stuffed and Starved: the Hidden Battle for the World Food System. He’s a writer, activist, former policy analyst with Food First, formerly worked for the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, and has also protested them on four continents. He joins us from San Francisco.
Welcome, Raj Patel.
Hi, Amy. How are you?
Very good to have you with us. What’s causing this surge in food prices around the world?
Well, it’s a number of factors. For a start, there were just bad harvests last year. Some people say that this is a sign that climate change is biting in agricultural economies. And it’s certainly the case that there was some very bad weather, particularly in Australia, last year. So there’s a low level of crops available.
But on top of that, there are a few other factors. One of them, one of the issues, is that governments, particularly the US government, is very keen on biofuels. Biofuels are fuels that are derived from corn, from sugar cane, and they’re being presented as a way of achieving energy independence. The trouble is, of course, that the biofuels drive up the price of these commodities, which means that poor people can’t afford them anymore.
On top of that, you’ve got an increasing demand for meat in developing countries. And as people get richer in those countries and they shift to something that looks more like an American diet, you have a situation where the grains are being diverted away from poor people and into livestock. So, again, that’s driving up the price of grains.
And finally, I think one of the major issues is, of course, the price of oil. I mean, one of the problems with the way our food reaches us today is that it is industrial, it is very fossil fuel-intensive, not just to the distance the food travels, but also in the fertilizer. You know, fossil fuel is required to produce fertilizer, pesticide, these sorts of things. And so, when the price of oil is over $100 a barrel, that combines with all the other factors to make a perfect storm where food prices are absolutely beyond the means of the poorest people.
Ethanol has been posed as an alternative to oil. What is your response to that?
It’s an alternative to oil if you’re in the grain business. It’s an alternative to oil if you are one of the large industrial grain processors who are looking and lobbying very hard to make money out of the transformation of grain into ethanol.
But it’s an absurd idea. I mean, in terms of just the carbon, the level of carbon that’s in — the level of CO2 that it takes to produce ethanol is much higher than the actual — you know, the saving that you get from burning ethanol. So, in terms of a climate change strategy, ethanol is madness. And sadly, all the major presidential candidates at the moment seem to have been drinking the Kool-Aid on this one. And it seems to be something that doesn’t enter popular discourse as one of the grave dangers in modern American agricultural policy.
Raj Patel, you write in the beginning of your book, “Our Big Fat Contradiction,” that “the hunger of 800 million happens at the same time as another historical fact: that they are outnumbered by the one billion people on this planet who are overweight.” Talk about that contradiction.
Yeah — well, I mean, it’s a contradiction actually that you see everywhere. I mean, you see it in the States. I mean, the US is the most obese country on the planet. There are only three in ten Americans are now at a normal body weight. And at the same time last year, about thirty-five million Americans went hungry at some point last year. So this contradiction between hunger and obesity is worldwide.
And in the past, we had a situation where the rich were fat and the poor were thin. Today, because our food comes from the sort of industrial market of highly processed food that extracts value from poor farmers and gives us processed, highly fatty food, a sort of fast food, as convenience food for people living in cities. Well, the upshot of that is that you’ve got both poor people who are going hungry and poor people who are predominantly overweight. I mean, it’s a sad contradiction that today in the United States the lower your income, the more overweight you’re likely to be.
Raj Patel, we’ve had this controversy in the presidential race, the stepping down of the head of Burson-Marsteller from the campaign, Mark Penn, from the campaign of Hillary Clinton, because he met with the Colombian ambassador. They have retained his lobbying company to lobby on behalf of a so-called free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States. Bush is giving that agreement to Congress to pass on. What about the so-called free trade and how it affects food prices around the world?
Well, I mean, one of the reasons that you’re seeing food price riots right now is because all the countries that you listed, from Haiti to Senegal to Burkina Faso to India, they are largely hitched to an international economy where they have to import grain in order to be able to consume it. And this is a consequence of the US pushing a so-called free trade agenda, where countries are being forced to lower their tariff barriers, to stop protecting farmers. And as a result, what you’re seeing is that the countries that are worst affected by this are the ones that have most enthusiastically been forced to embrace free trade.
The countries that are doing — that are not suffering quite as badly are countries that have a lot of support for agriculture. I mean, the support is distorted, particularly in the US and the European Union, but even in China or Japan or South Korea. Rice, for example, in South Korea and Japan, is treated as a cultural good. The Japanese and South Korean governments fought very hard to exempt food from the strictures of free trade.
So, absolutely, free trade has a great deal of responsibility to bear here, because countries have been forced into using free trade. And, of course, when the price of food goes up globally, countries have no reserves, they have no policies, they have no recourse, if they’re being forced to be part of the free trade system. So, yes, I think it has a great deal of responsibility.
Farmer suicides, what have you found?
Across the world, but particularly in India, you see a situation where farmers on — I mean, farmers, like everyone else, want to improve their lot, and so they borrow money to be able to invest in their land. And increasingly, those investments don’t pan out, whether it’s climate change or whether it’s a medical expense that they have to pay. And all of a sudden, farmers find themselves on the brink of foreclosure or bankruptcy, and they become the first people in generations in their family to lose their land. And rather than suffer that indignity, farmers in India, for example, have been poisoning themselves with pesticides. That was one of the hardest parts of researching this book, is talking to families where farmers did kill themselves.
And, of course, it’s an epidemic that started in the States, in the Midwest in the 1980s, when there was a flourishing of farmer suicides. That’s perhaps not the right word, but there was certainly an epidemic of them. And those suicides follow the rise of debt for farmers. They particularly affect small farmers, farmers who have been — family farmers who have been on their land for generations. And in the new modern agricultural economy, those farmers are the most vulnerable, whether they’re in India or the States or in Britain.
Raj Patel, in the last thirty seconds — and then we will bring our listeners and viewers part two of this conversation — but in our last thirty seconds, how devastating are the hike in food prices for those living on the edge?
I mean, they’re absolutely devastating. It’s important to remember, of course, that living on the edge is also devastating, but what we have now is a situation where the food prices are really just toppling people into straightforward hunger and famine. I mean, in Haiti, people are eating mud cakes in order to keep hunger pangs at bay. Things are pretty dire.
I want to thank you for being with us. We’ll bring part two of this conversation to our listeners and viewers within the next few days. Raj Patel is our guest. His new book is Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.