Food riots are erupting around the world. Protests have occurred in Egypt, Cameroon, the Philippines, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mauritania and Senegal. Sarata Guisse, a Senegalese demonstrator, told Reuters: "We are holding this demonstration because we are hungry. We need to eat, we need to work, we are hungry. That's all. We are hungry." United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has convened a task force to confront the problem, which threatens, he said, "the specter of widespread hunger, malnutrition and social unrest on an unprecedented scale." The World Food Program has called the food crisis the worst in 45 years, dubbing it a "silent tsunami" that will plunge 100 million more people into hunger.
Behind the hunger, behind the riots, are so-called free-trade agreements, and the brutal emergency-loan agreements imposed on poor countries by financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund. Food riots in Haiti have killed six, injured hundreds and led to the ousting of Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis. The Rev. Jesse Jackson just returned from Haiti and writes that "hunger is on the march here. Garbage is carefully sifted for whatever food might be left. Young babies wail in frustration, seeking milk from a mother too anemic to produce it." Jackson is calling for debt relief so that Haiti can direct the $70 million per year it spends on interest to the World Bank and other loans into schools, infrastructure and agriculture.
The rise in food prices is generally attributed to a perfect storm caused by increased food demand from India and China, diminished food supplies caused by drought and other climate-change-related problems, increased fuel costs to grow and transport the food, and the increased demand for biofuels, which has diverted food supplies like corn into ethanol production.
This week, the United Nations' special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, called for the suspension of biofuels production: "Burning food today so as to serve the mobility of the rich countries is a crime against humanity." He's asked the U.N. to impose a five-year ban on food-based biofuels production. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a group of 8,000 scientists globally, is also speaking out against biofuels. The scientists are pushing for a plant called switchgrass to be used as the source for biofuels, reserving corn and other food plants to be used solely as food.
In a news conference this week, President Bush defended food-based ethanol production: "The truth of the matter is it's in our national interests that our farmers grow energy, as opposed to us purchasing energy from parts of the world that are unstable or may not like us." One part of the world that does like Bush and his policies are the multinational food corporations. International nonprofit group GRAIN has just published a report called "Making a killing from hunger." In it, GRAIN points out that major multinational corporations are realizing vast, increasing profits amid the rising misery of world hunger. Profits are up for agribusiness giants Cargill (86 percent) and Bunge (77 percent), and Archer Daniels Midland (which dubs itself "the supermarket to the world") enjoyed a 67 percent increase in profits.
GRAIN writes: "Is this a price blip? No. A food shortage? Not that either. We are in a structural meltdown, the direct result of three decades of neoliberal globalization. ... We have allowed food to be transformed from something that nourishes people and provides them with secure livelihoods into a commodity for speculation and bargaining." The report states: "The amount of speculative money in commodities futures ... was less than $5 billion in 2000. Last year, it ballooned to roughly $175 billion."
There was a global food crisis in 1946. Then, as now, the U.N. convened a working group to deal with it. At its meeting, the head of the U.N. Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, former New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, said, "Ticker tape ain't spaghetti." In other words, the stock market doesn't feed the hungry. His words remain true today. We in the U.S. aren't immune to the crisis. Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and Costco have placed limits on bulk rice purchases. Record numbers of people are on food stamps, and food pantries are seeing an increase in needy people.
Current technology exists to feed the planet in an organic, locally based, sustainable manner. The large corporate food and energy interests, and the U.S. government, need to recognize this and change direction, or the food riots in distant lands will soon be coming to their doors.
Dennis Moynihan contributed research for this column.