Why the world is starving

Ah you’ve gotta love the rich and powerful. Eventually no-one will. Well, maybe God, but if you read the book of Amos, you get the feeling that love won’t make them feel a whole lot better.

For a while now we’ve been reading and hearing about the global food crisis. It’s been blamed (by the rich and powerful, and their spokespeople, neoclassical economists and market traders) on real shortages caused by two things. Alternatively, on the rise of India and China (who happen to be our economic competition) and on the rise of bio-fuels (which happen to be symbols of environmentalism).

Call me cynical (hell, you can call me Jenny von Westphalen, but call me…) but I find it all too convenient when all our problems are blamed on those who challenge our dominance of the world, so I was already dubious about blaming China and India, but then I read this article in the New Statesman. Even without it, when people say: ‘blame China! Blame India!’, I can’t help but wonder: So we should blame India, that generally slef-indulgent country with all those over-fed masses for using up all the world’s food? Do you know how much food we throw away in this country? In America? And we should blame China for finally wanting to start feeding its people properly. Yeah, bad China! Outside! Go to bed without any… oh, hang on.

So maybe it’s biofuels? That would, after all, be very useful (and let’s face it, it has been very useful, if only in terms of planting the idea in people’s minds) to opponents of the environmental movement. People and businesses who would like to stall or at least slow calls for action on climate change (large emitters, oil-heavy industry, etc) would obviously like biofuels to be seen as a failure. Not necessarily because of any direct competition it might pose, but because the failure of the great white hope of biofuel will be seen as material evidence that we really should rush into this saving the planet thing. see how much damage it can do. The loons who deny the damage our industry and lifestyle are doing to the planet, love the biofuels=starving children meme, because it makes people nervous about aiming for change.

But what is to blame for the food crisis, according to both the NS article and BBC Radio 4’s investigative programme,  File on 4, is commodities trading. That’s right, global capitalism’s ‘invisible hand’, the great balancer, the market (you should say it in a different voice, it’s special), the  mechanism that is supposed to keep things from getting out of hand in a capitalist society, may actually be causing starvation.

Of course, anyone paying attention to the World Bank and IMF’s policies over the last 40 years (not to mention wealthy nations’ trade agreements with the developing world), knows that has often been true, at least indirectly. But this is altogether less oblique. Essentially, the popping of the credit/housing bubble in international markets has meant that funds and businesses that speculate on markets had to find more stable stuff to trade and buy speculative futures in. The are they chose is Commodities, and that includes both oil and food.

Food prices have shot up over the last year, and that’s because there is what one trader on the Radio 4 programme referred to as a flood of money coming into commodities. Basic supply and demand means that if there is a fixed supply of a product (say food) and suddenly a lot more demand (say, in the form of billions more dollars than usual looking for a safe investment), the price will go up. Here in suburbia, the West, whatever you want to call the pockets of First World we live in from Cape Town to New York and London, it becomes a little more expensive to eat, to drive. In the developing world, people die.

And yet, we still go blindly on as if ‘the market’ is not causing problems, operating on the same assumption we’ve operated on for so long: that it will ultimately save us. It won’t. It will save the rich and it may not hurt us all that much (though when that bubble pops and the market crashes, don’t be surprised if it does) but read Amos again. Ask yourself if the principles there might just be true for today. And then ask yourself again whether it’s all so hunky dory.

Here’s a great podcast to download: File on 4: Why are food prices so high?

In case that doesn’t work, the download page is here — just click ‘download episode’.

Alternatively, you can go here and either click ‘listen again’ or just read a shorter version of the story.

If you hurry it will still be available to download/ for listen again. It really is worth hearing.

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2 Responses

  1. interesting reading.

  2. Speculatuion will drive the price down just as quickly. The problem is govt control & expansion of money supply. Asset inflation has ended, now we will have ‘cost of living inflation’. Nothing causes a shift in wealth to the rich & governments more than that.

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