Extraordinary Circumstances Raise the Specter of Higher Food Prices & Famine

I called my 89-year-old mother on Sunday. As we talked she voiced a complaint. A can of green beans she had purchased for 89 cents over a year ago, cost her $1.59 when she bought the same brand and size of vegetables over Labor Day weekend. She lives on a meager, fixed income from Social Security, so the price jump in food hit home for her as a hardship. Elsewhere around the world, for millions of people, the rising cost of food is becoming more than a hardship; it is a threat to their survival.

Perceiving that there are critical months ahead for the cost of food in general and the prospect of famine in particular, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has summoned the world’s grain experts to an ‘extraordinary’ session in Rome to address questions of global food supply and our environmentally stressed biosphere. The emergency meeting is set for September 24.

The Famine - sculpture by artist Rowan Gillespie in Dublin, Ireland.

With the recent history of widespread food riots set off by spiking prices just two years ago, agricultural experts see the potential for further trouble on the near horizon. Grain harvests in the USA are expected to be good, but there are epic difficulties including drought  in Russia, Germany, Canada, Argentina, Australia, Pakistan, Niger, Mozambique, and elsewhere.

Uncertainty about future food supplies has drawn financial speculators into commodity markets in the expectation that they will profit. This speculation drives food prices further upward. As the prices rise, the potential for severe global consequences is mounting.

“The era of cheap, abundant food is over,” declares Australian journalist Julian Cribb in his new book, The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It.

Cribb — and many others — say we have passed the peak not just for oil production, but also for water, fertilizer and land. We will all soon be brought face to face with the reality that we have passed the peak for food as well, Cribb argues with an onslaught of hard data. Wealthy nations will experience shortages and even more acutely rising prices, while poorer nations starve.

Some of Cribb’s proposed responses: subsidizing small farms for their stewardship of the earth, and paying them fairer prices for production; taxing food to reflect its true costs to the environment; regulating practices that counter sustainability while rewarding those that promote it. He suggests that students should be given an entire year of primary schooling devoted to the importance of growing and eating food.

Individuals can make helpful changes more quickly. Dietary change on a wide scale is important, and can be as simple as eating a salad instead of a cheeseburger and an apple instead of a bag of chips. Waste less food. Compost. Garden.. Choose sustainable food,

The prospect of upheaval in global food markets is also articulated in another new book, Empires of Food, by academic Evan Fraser and journalist Andrew Rimas. They write that we are not the first advanced civilization to have misplaced confidence that we’ll always have plenty.

Fraser and Rimas propose no easy solutions, advocating instead that we learn to store surplus food, live locally, farm organically and diversify our crops.

If these journalists, scientists, and economists are correct, and there is mounting evidence to support their view, then it is time to take action. In their books they suggest some sustainable pathways. And in The Call of the Land I have been able to set out dozens of other models and pathways. Since the book was published a year ago, even more models have blossomed — but those models need to be emulated widely and swiftly in every city, suburb and village. For all these reasons and more, I have begun an active search for financial support to write a greatly expanded second edition of the book, and to disseminate it widely.

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