The world food crisis has two faces. Here in the United States, shoppers stare in disbelief at the rising price of milk, meat, and eggs. But elsewhere on the globe, anguish spills into the streets, as in Somalia last week when tens of thousands of rioters converged on the capital to protest for food.
The strain on U.S. consumers, grappling with the sharpest increase in grocery prices in years, is small compared with the starvation that toppled Haiti’s government, ignited riots around the world, and is deepening the tragedy of Myanmar’s cyclone survivors. And yet the connection between the developed and developing worlds will be crucial to solving what one United Nations official has called a “silent tsunami” of food prices that has plunged 100 million people deeper into poverty. To stem the misery, relief officials are calling both for emergency aid and for changes in policy worldwide.\
Solutions will not be easy to sort out, since the dramatic food price escalation has numerous causes. Skyrocketing oil prices have strained every stage of food production, from fertilizer to tractors to transport. At the same time, demand for grain has never been higher, not only to feed the rising affluence of populous China and India but also to fuel cars and trucks as the world turns to ethanol and biodiesel. Supply, meanwhile, is being squeezed by a years-long drought in Australia, a major grain exporter, and experts worry that climate change may be a factor. In all, there could not be a worse time for investors to pour money into agricultural commodities, but they have, in reaction to the weakening U.S. dollar accelerated by Federal Reserve interest rate cuts. Around the world, panicked governments have responded to high commodity prices by slapping restrictions on exports—thus only worsening the food shortage.
Addressing this unparalleled confluence of events will require extraordinary leadership. U.S. farmers, who labored through years of anemic prices, now question how the use of their corn for ethanol could possibly be blamed for the shortage of a different grain—rice—in far-off Central Asia. Past approaches to foreign aid and trade have been politically expedient but have not helped poor countries become self-sufficient. And the U.N., already coping with a 55 percent rise in food aid costs, now confronts a new crisis, as it ships food to Myanmar.
That disaster makes only more urgent the need for world leaders to act. The ideas they weigh will not ease the global food strife quickly, but they can lay the groundwork for a planet with enough resources for its growing and increasingly connected inhabitants. Among them:
8. Share the Crowded Planet
The food crisis is, above all, a warning sign of the strains that face a planet of 6.6 billion people. While much of Asia grows in wealth, many in Africa remain in poverty. Population is on track to rise to 9.1 billion by 2050, with all of that increase in the developing world. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, a special adviser to U. N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, says that the wealthy nations need to take steps to address poverty by honoring the commitment they made in 2002 to devote 0.7 percent of their national incomes to international aid. Instead, these 22 nations provide just 0.45 percent of their income to development assistance. And for the United States, the level is 0.16 percent. “We are not talking about unachievable financial goals,” Sachs says. To double aid to Africa from the 2004 level to $65 billion by 2010, as the world’s eight most industrialized nations pledged, would roughly equal the Wall Street bonuses paid last Christmas—about $33 billion.
Another reference point: While 25,000 people are now dying daily of hunger, the United States throws away 96 billion pounds of food each year, or 320 pounds per person.
“We’ve essentially been asleep at the switch in this country, not thinking of what it means to be on a crowded planet, with rising demand, scarce natural resources, more climate change,” says Sachs. If nothing else, those supermarket prices now sending shock waves across America will be a wake-up call of the need to look hard for solutions to a food crisis that the world shares.
With Matt Bandyk, Kirk Shinkle, and Nancy Shute