Hungry for change / FRFI 203 Jun / Jul 2008

FRFI 203 June / July 2008

Since the beginning of 2008, 37 countries have seen street protests and riots in response to spiralling food prices. In Haiti in April such protests forced the resignation of the prime minister. In Egypt, thousands fought riot police in pitched battles over bread prices. There have been violent protests in Cote d’Ivoire, whilst food price riots in Cameroon in February left 40 people dead. Demonstrations and protests have taken place in countries as far apart as Mauritania, Mozambique and Senegal in Africa, Uzbekistan, Indonesia and Yemen in Asia and Bolivia in South America. In South Africa, violence erupted as food prices pushed nationalist tensions to the fore. In Britain rising food prices have made the poorest people in Scotland food insecure for the first time since the end of the Second World War. The food crisis has become a major concern of ruling classes across the world and led the United Nations to declare the food crisis a major security issue. PAUL MALLON reports.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation food price index has risen 57% in the past year. The world’s main staple foods have all risen in price: rice has risen over 100% in one year; since 2000 wheat prices are up 200%, while corn is at a twelve-year high. This has had a knock-on effect on the price of meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. The effects are being felt here in Britain. The price of a major brand loaf of bread has risen by 25% – 23p – to £1.29 in a year. The supermarket price of milk has leapt by 17%. A food price survey published this April showed that the price of a basket of 24 staple items has risen by 15% in a year. The survey, by price comparison website MySupermarket.co.uk, showed that an average family spending £100 a week on food last year will now have to find an extra £780 to put the same items on the table this year. While consumers in Britain are facing a pinch, around the world people are starving. According to the UN, of the 6 billion people who live in the world 1 billion now suffer from chronic hunger. Over 2.6 billion people live on less than $2 per day; they have to spend 60-80% of their income on food. The consequence is that the total number of food-insecure people – those who lack critical nutrients and are malnourished – stands at around 3 billion. In 2007 18,000 children died every day as a direct or indirect consequence of malnutrition.

While starvation and food insecurity spreads, capitalism continues its drive to produce food for fuel with an ever-growing biofuels industry. The United States produces 40% of the world’s corn and half the world’s exports. In 2007, 81 million tons (20% of the entire US corn crop) was used for fuel and it is expected that in 2008 this will increase to between 100-110 million tons. Writing about the dangers posed by biofuels in 2007, Fidel Castro warned that such policies would condemn ‘to premature death by hunger and thirst more than three billion people of the world.’ He also argued that ‘the sinister idea of converting food into combustibles was definitively established as the economic line of foreign policy of the United States’. The choice to produce food increasingly for fuel has been driven by demand for cheaper alternatives to the spiralling global petroleum price, itself a contributor to rising costs of food distribution. The corn required to produce enough fuel to fill a Sport Utility Vehicle’s tank would feed an adult for a year. Such are the calculations and priorities of capitalism.
The move towards biofuels follows the failure of Genetically Modified (GM) crop growing to solve capitalism’s problems with agriculture. The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development announced in April that the industrialisation of food production cannot resolve the global food crisis. This represents a major rebuttal of the British and United States governments’ preoccupation with promoting GM crops and biofuel production. While people around the world starve, agribusiness profits boom. The United States registered record agricultural export revenue in 2007 of $85 billion.

In Britain the food crisis has priced many items out of the reach of ordinary working class people and is undermining basic dietary requirements. As Josette Sheeran, the head of the UN’s World Food Programme, said in February, ‘There is food on the shelves but people are priced out of the market. There is vulnerability in urban areas we have not seen before.’

Hugo Chavez is right to say that ‘the problem is not the production of food…it is the economic, social and political model of the world. The capitalist model is in crisis.’ The demand for bread will inevitably acquire a revolutionary significance for the poor of the world.