Published: Dinner not Going to be Cheap Anytime Soon

My latest publication on food security worldwide and how agriculture is “in” again. A lot of my information has been taken from my interest in IFPRI’s latest publication on the issue, released just a few months ago. The following was published in the Forum magazine, click here to read. 

Dinner not Going to be Cheap Anytime Soon

OLINDA HASSAN finds out the looming food crisis both at national and international levels.

Today’s global food crisis is no longer just about the very poor. It is affecting the cracks and corners of the chain of wealth and access, primarily because so much of our economies are interlinked, thanks to globalisation. Agriculture has strong ties to water, nutrition, land, energy, and climate change, all of which center economic development in countries like Bangladesh. Once upon a time, development specialists thought agriculture is something that needs to be limited so as to make industrialisation a top priority. Agriculture was a thing of the past. This thought is still common for many researchers in Bangladesh.

The interesting news is that according to International Food Policy Research Institute’s latest Global Food Policy Report, agriculture is back on the development agenda. Agricultural development is important — the World Bank and USAID agree, as they expand their agriculture — related projects throughout the world, especially in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The World Bank just increased their funds dedicated to food and agricultural sectors to reach around $6 billion. Statistics are telling: food security matters and agriculture-dependent countries like Bangladesh need to and will do better.

No longer are we seeing prices from our grandmother or our parents’ time, let alone this generation’s childhood.

Food has taken center stage in many political issues worldwide — if not centered on food, food has definitely triggered some revolutions and protests. And food is a rich people problem too. The spikes in food prices also undermine development gains especially for the urban poor. The Economist declared the “end of cheap food” in 2007 after oil-rich nations like Venenzuela and Russia put control on food prices. In Bangladesh, where more than two thirds of its consumer-price index is accounted by food, higher food prices have a greater than imagined impact.

Bread, rice, tortilla, pasta & democracy

Food has taken centre and backstage in many of the world’s revolutions throughout history. Consider the French Revolution, where bread — an essential component of the French diet, especially for the poor — was at the heart of the conflict. France is after all, the home of Marie Antoinette, who reacted to the news that her subjects had no bread to eat with the popular phrase “Let them eat cake.” “Bread was considered a public service necessary to keep the people from rioting,” wrote Linda Civitello, author of Culture: A History of Food and People. As taxes increased and droughts affected agricultural gains, the lack of bread became a reason for the poor to have a rising anger towards the wealthier French citizens. The birth of France led to the opening of some of the first restaurants in the world; it was a bouillon seller named Boulanger who sold clear soup that was considered restorative.

The decrease to the eventual collapse of grain production in the Soviet Union during the 1980s resulted in anger that eventually led to the collapse of the entire Communist system. Fast forward to the 21st Century where food-related issues have left half a million people dead in Darfur, while generating two million environmental refugees. Mexico saw riots over rise in the price of tortillas. Haiti’s government collapsed in 2008 after many violent rice riots. Italy threatened to boycott pasta around the same time.

Forward further to the past year and a half: the Arab Spring has deep links to food. The once upon a time ‘Fertile Crescent’ is high on the list for dependency on imported grain; in 2010, almost half of the top 20 wheat importers were from the Middle East, with Egypt taking first place, Algeria 4th, Yemen 13th, Libya 16th, and Tunisia 17th. Furthermore, youth unemployment in the region made things worse: households had more stomachs to feed with less money and no guarantees. The effect of high price hikes especially affected Tunisia where the poor spend almost 70% of their income on food, notably bread. Demand for democracy and lower food prices began in December 2010, and even though President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali promised to lower food prices, he was gone by January. Following Tunisia’s rapid changes, the Washington Post remarked how the uprising has “economists worried that we may be seeing the beginning of a second wave of global food riots.” North Korea, a country that has been a receiver of food aid for decades, could see potential problems with recent leadership changes. Predictions of revolutions in 2012 persist for Sub-Saharan Africa with their continuous drought problems.

The food-linked revolutions observed in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and also in Yemen, Bahrain and currently, Syria calls for more inclusive policy measures to tackle youth unemployment as well as targeted safety nets. It begs development agencies and policy makers to revisit their research and include basic food staples high on their agendas. Food can fuel violence — this has been proven. What has yet to be proven is how far the recognition will take effect on actual governance.

Reaching millennium development goals won’t matter if you don’t have rice in the pantry

Reaching the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has been going positively worldwide for participating countries. Bangladesh in particular has seen much progress, especially in areas such as primary education and maternal health, among others. The key goal of reducing poverty by half by 2015 was reached globally in 2010, according to the World Bank’s recent Global Monitoring Report (note: the individual country statistics may be different).

The hike in food prices in 2011 however undermines many of these gains in developing nations. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN’s food price index reached a record high in February, 2011. The food price hike has been attributed to high oil prices, biofuel policies, and natural disasters worldwide. This was bad news for nations like Cambodia and Bangladesh where a large part of the food consumed is imported. Kenya, which continues to experience extreme droughts, saw food inflation at 22% in 2011. In Zambia, the price of bread increased 75% between 2010 and 2011.

The World Bank reports that 3 billion people live in rural areas in developing countries; 2.5 billion of them are involved in farming. 75% of the world’s poorest people are included in that figure. When food prices increase, farmers are expected to increase production to take advantage of the effect, which should, in turn, ease prices. However, agriculture depends on seasons and nature: simply put, it takes time to grow food. And while that happens in the backyard, people must eat. It becomes difficult for farmers in developing nations to budget for everyday food as well as production. Such short term needs must be met, thus disturbing the system (Postmedia News).

2011 also witnessed some of the worst natural disasters ever recorded worldwide. The severe droughts in Kenya, Mali, Sierra Leon, to other agriculture-dependent countries in Africa led to severe economic losses. Floods in Thailand, the Philippines, Brazil, and Pakistan also led to economic losses and sudden poverty for many families. The tsunami and earthquakes in Japan marked the year’s largest natural disaster and biggest economic effect. According to insurance experts, in 2011, natural disasters recorded an economic loss of US$380 billion, double the figure from 2010 (Reuters).

The price hike of basic food necessities combined with poor people’s day to day food survival needs puts family nutrition at a huge risk. Temporary price hikes in turn leave long term effects on a child’s development. Child malnutrition is responsible for more than a third of the under-five years of age mortality. Even if food security issues are short term, they leave long term effects for poor families in developing countries. Moreover, long-term trends in farming are unpredictable, especially with technological innovation that can change courses in an instant. Most forecasters conclude however that prices will stay high since supplies will not match growing demands. MDGs related to education, health, and poverty for many countries well on their way to progress have already been severely threatened.

Food’s price hike is a north-south issue

The price hike on food affects the developed nations as well, many of which also depend on importing food, mainly from developing countries being devastated by price hikes and natural disasters. Moreover, the global economic recovery will be driven by emerging markets like Brazil, India, and China, where agriculture continues to be a staple. In China, food inflation ran over 13% last year. For countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, rapidly increasing food prices represent a huge threat to the economic health of developing, emerging, and developed countries.

However, China and India have also been at the forefront of investing in food policies. They have also increased their efforts in forging South-South relations, according to IFPRI. For example, the Indian Parliament introduced the National Food Security Bill which would provide rice, wheat, and coarse grains at low prices to more than half of the country’s 1.2 billion people — according to IFPRI, it is the world’s largest anti-hunger programme. Furthermore, China’s investment in water to boost agricultural activity will total around US$630 billion in the next decade.

Of course, India and China have been able to create such promises through its overall increasing and expanding economies. This can be illustrated using food, again. The demand for meat is tied to economic growth , and this is especially true for China where the average consumer now eats more than 50 kilograms of meat in a year, up from 40 kilograms back in 1985 (The Economist). Many developing countries’ demand for meat has also increased in recent years. The production of these animal proteins however requires large quantities of cereals for feeding the livestock. If the demand for cereals increases, it will make edible grains (e.g. wheat, rice, etc.) too expensive for many poor countries.

Those living in poverty have been hit the hardest with food price hikes in Bangladesh, but the middle and upper class are complaining as well. This is also combined with increasing allegations of poisoning our food, whether its exploited fish markets to enhanced bananas and apples, people do not trust their local markets. The bird flu has caused hundreds of poultry farms shutting down throughout Bangladesh, and increased pressure for imported eggs and chickens is taking place. Prices of “rich” food are increasing: the price of butter is up by 40%, chocolate biscuits 50%, coffee 20%, and pasta 29% (The Observer). In 2011, Unilever expected a 14-16% increase, Nestlé 8-10% for their food products due to international price increases on basic staples. Food prices in Britain are rising at nearly double the level in the United States and the euro zone or any other rich country worldwide (The Observer).

Keep an eye on emerging markets – conclusion

The staples of our diet have the power to incite violent riots to revolutions. Food policies will become central among development work worldwide. And as the interdependence among countries continues to increase with globalisation, attention to agricultural activities and in turn, food security will be urgent.

While food price increase will affect the rich and the poor, it is inevitable that it will affect the latter in more devastating ways. Countries like Japan and Saudi Arabia will have to continue importing large quantities of food, but they can afford that. According to IFPRI, the expansion of bio-fuels could decrease calorie intake further by 4-8% in Africa and 2-5% in Asia by the end of this decade.

Population is increasing, rural to urban migration is escalating, and adequate food for all is in serious danger. Hunger will continue to be a problem, and policy makers will have a harder time coping with it. Agriculture will once again return to the table of policy makers: there is no choice. Something is different though: people’s daily meals worldwide will depend largely on the economic activities and policies created by India and China, the big emerging markets. On a positive note, both countries are taking notice with their policies, as discussed previously. India and China will have to continue developing a taste for meat and chocolates along with the basic staples to get markets worldwide going.

Olinda Hasan writes on various social issues and is keen on discussing various musings in her blog at olindahassan. wordpress.com.

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One thought on “Published: Dinner not Going to be Cheap Anytime Soon

  1. An excellent article which talks about the issues many of my friends are facing here in Bangladesh (most of them are poor as we live in a rural area). I have re-posted this on my own blog to share with my readers all of whom, I hope, will want to read this.

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