- Consumers in rich countries feel it in supermarkets but
in the world's poorest ones people are starving. The reason - soaring food
prices, and it's triggered riots around the world in places like Mexico,
Indonesia, Yemen, the Philippines, Cambodia, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan,
Guinea, Mauritania, Egypt, Cameroon, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast,
Peru, Bolivia and Haiti that was once nearly food self-sufficient but now
relies on imports for most of its supply and (like other food-importing
countries) is at the mercy of agribusiness.
- Wheat shortages in Peru are acute enough to have the
military make bread with potato flour (a native crop). In Pakistan, thousands
of troops guard trucks carrying wheat and flour. In Thailand, rice farmers
take shifts staying awake nights guarding their fields from thieves. The
crop's price has about doubled in recent months, it's the staple for half
or more of the world's population, but rising prices and fearing scarcity
have prompted some of the world's largest producers to export less - Thailand
(the world's largest exporter), Vietnam, India, Egypt, Cambodia with others
likely to follow as world output lags demand. Producers of other grains
are doing the same like Argentina, Kazakhstan and China. The less they
export, the higher prices go.
- Other factors are high oil prices and transportation
costs, growing demand, commodity speculation, pests in southeast Asia,
a 10 year Australian drought, floods in Bangladesh and elsewhere, a 45
day cold snap in China, and other natural but mostly manipulated factors
like crop diversion for biofuels have combined to create a growing world
crisis with more on this below. It's at the same time millions of Chinese
and Indians have higher incomes, are changing their eating habits, and
are consuming more meat, chicken and other animal products that place huge
demands on grains to produce.
- Here's a UK April 8 Times online snapshot of the situation
in parts of Asia:
- -- Filipino farmers caught hoarding rice risk a life
in jail sentence for "economic sabotage;"
- -- thousands of (Jakarta) Indonesian soya bean cake makers
are striking against the destruction of their livelihood;
- -- once food self-sufficient countries like Japan and
South Korea are reacting "bitterly (as) the world's food stocks-to-consumption
ratio plunges to an all-time low;"
- -- India no longer can export millions of tons of rice;
instead it's forced to have a "special strategic food reserve on top
of its existing wheat and rice stockpiles;"
- -- Thailand is the world's largest rice producer; its
price rose 50% in the past month;
- -- countries like the Philippines and Sri Lanka are scrambling
for secure rice supplies; they and other Asian countries are struggling
to cope with soaring prices and insufficient supply;
- -- overall, rice is the staple food for three billion
people; one-third of them survive on less than $1 a day and are "food
insecure;" it means they may starve to death without aid.
- The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reported
that worldwide food costs rose almost 40% in 2007 while grains spiked 42%
and dairy prices nearly 80%. The World Bank said food prices are up 83%
since 2005. As of December, it caused 37 countries to face food crises
and 20 to impose price controls in response.
- It also affected aid agencies like the UN's World Food
Program (WFP). Because of soaring food and energy costs, it sent an urgent
appeal to donors on March 20 to help fill a $500 million resource gap for
its work. Since then, food prices increased another 20% and show no signs
of abating. For the world's poor, like the people of Haiti, things are
desperate, people can't afford food, they scratch by any way they can,
but many are starving and don't make it.
- Haiti - the World Hunger Poster Child
- The Haitain crisis is so extreme it forces people to
eat (non-food) mud cookies (called "pica") to relieve hunger.
It's a desperate Haitian remedy made from dried yellow dirt from the country's
central plateau for those who can afford it. It's not free. In Cite Soleil's
crowded slums, people use a combination of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening
for a typical meal when it's all they can afford. A Port-au-Prince AP reporter
sampled it. He said it had "a smooth consistency (but it) sucked all
the moisture out of (my) mouth as soon as it touched (my) tongue. For hours
(afterwards), an unpleasant taste of dirt lingered." Worse is how
it harms human health. A mud cookie diet causes severe malnutrition, intestinal
distress, and other deleterious effects from potentially deadly toxins
- Another problem is the cost. This stomach-filler isn't
free. Haitians have to buy it, and "edible clay" prices are rising
- by almost $1.50 in the past year. It now costs about $5 to make 100 cookies
(about 5 cents each), it's cheaper than food, but many Haitians can't afford
- -- 80% of them are impoverished in the hemisphere's poorest
country and one of the world's poorest;
- -- unemployment is rampant, and two-thirds or more of
workers have only sporadic jobs; and
- -- those with them earn 11 to 12 cents an hour; the country's
official minimum wage is $1.80 a day, but IMF figures show 55% of employed
Haitians receive only 44 cents daily, an impossible amount to live on.
- Here's what it's like for poor Haitians. They have large
families, live in cardboard and tin homes, there's no running water and
little or no electricity, and life inside and around them is horrific.
Bed sheets can be thick with flies, there's no sanitation, and outside
garbage is everywhere. Children are always hungry, there's never enough
food, often it's for one meal a day, illness and disease are common, life
expectancy very low, and so-called Blue Helmet "peacekeeper"
and gang violence plague communities like Port-au-Prince's Cite Soleil.
- Now with a food crisis, Haitians are in the streets over
prices for essentials that tripled in the past year and a president, prime
minister and government doing practically nothing about it. For days, they
were everywhere, throughout the country, and numbered in the thousands.
They protested in Port-au-Prince, carried empty plates to signify their
plight, smashed windows, set buildings and cars alight, looted shops, looked
for food, tried to storm the presidential palace, shouted "we are
hungry," and demanded President Rene Preval resign.
- UN Blue Helmets (MINUSTAH) responded viciously the way
they always do against peaceful or protest demonstrations. They shot and
killed at least five Haitians (some reports say more), wounded many others,
and that was just in downtown Port-au-Prince.
- In Les Cayes (Haiti's third largest city) in the southwest,
demonstrators stormed and tried to burn the local MINUSTAH offices. Others
barricaded streets, looked for food, and shouted "Down with the high
cost of living." Similar protests went on throughout the country:
- -- in northern cities like Cap-Haitien and Gonaives;
- -- Jacmel in the south;
- -- Jeremie in the southwest where at least two deaths
were reported; and
- -- smaller towns like Petit Goave, Miragoane, Aquin,
Cavaillon, Saint-Jean du Sud, Leogane, Vialet, Anse-a-Veau and Simon.
- It's a familiar pattern in Haiti. Anger over injustice
builds and then explodes with Haitians reacting in the streets en masse
against intolerable conditions that are compounded by a repressive and
hated UN occupation. It's there to protect privilege, not secure peace.
It's the first time ever that the UN Security Council authorized so-called
"peacekeepers" to enforce a coup d'etat against a democratically
elected president (by a 92% majority).
- Haiti's current president can't deal with the situation
and has gone along with the state of things. He's been ineffective since
his February 2006 reelection, hasn't alleviated the present crisis, instead
ordered protests to stop, and here's how he put it in a shameful April
9 televised address: "The demonstrations and destruction won't make
the prices go down or resolve the country's problems. On the contrary,
this can make the misery grow and prevent investment in the country"
that, of course, does nothing for most Haitians and Preval knows it.
- After a week of protests, an uneasy calm followed, but
things can break out any time without relief that's not forthcoming beyond
some far too small proposed measures. Dismissively, Preval's prime minister,
Jacques Edouard Alexis, blamed the problem on "global forces"
and the high cost of oil saying there's no "quick fix," case
closed. He also claimed the protests were manipulated by provocateurs,
including angry drugs dealers reacting to a supposed closure of one of
their transshipment points.
- Alexis is now out, elitists debate over who'll replace
him, Haitians in the meantime are starving, the IMF keeps extracting $1
million a week in mandated tribute to the rich, and only countries like
Cuba (training Haitians to be doctors) and Venezuela (donating money, cheap
oil, and over 600 tons of food aid sent April 13, more than first reported)
seem to care. Chavez cares about all Latin America and last year donated
about $8.8 billion in aid or four times the amount America provides the
- For its part, the World Bank pathetically plans $10 million
in "emergency aid" for a country with over eight million starving
people. It also plans to double its African agricultural lending next year
to $800 million and thus make a bad situation worse. It'll go to hugely
indebted nations, unable to help feed their people as a consequence, and
World Bank policy always is opposite of what these countries need.
- UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon barely commented, made
merely pro forma statements about the crisis and its seriousness, was as
dismissive as Alexis, offered no remedial aid, is as uncaring as World
Bank officials, and never forgets that his bosses are in Washington. Instead
of doing his job and helping, he called on Haiti's leaders to restore stability
because the country's security is threatened. Starving poor people aren't
his concern. Let 'em eat mud cookies.
- That's apparently Rene Preval's solution as well. Belatedly
(on April 12), he announced a plan to cut rice prices 15%. It will do nothing
to relieve the crisis, and Reuters (on April 15) reported that vendors
still demand the higher price for supplies already in stock. It provoked
new clashes on the streets, Haitians continue to starve, and "government
officials were not immediately available for comment."
- Raj Patel's new book explains the state of things today.
It's titled "Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World
Food System." In an April 14 statement, he said: "What's happening
in Haiti is an augury to the rest of the developing world. Haiti is the
poster child of an economy that liberalized its agricultural economy and
removed the social safety nets for the poor...." Two conditions create
- -- "price shocks (and) modern development policies"
(tariffs, corporate subsidies, grain reserve policies) make food unaffordable
for many millions; and
- -- "riots (then) happen when there are no other
ways (to make) powerful people listen...." They'll continue to happen
"with increasing frequency until governments realize that food isn't
a mere commodity, it's a human right."
- World Hunger - A Growing Problem for All Nations
- The situation is so dire, protests may erupt anywhere,
any time, and rich countries aren't immune, including America. Poverty
in the world's richest country is growing, and organizations like the Center
for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) and Economic Policy Institute (EPI)
document it. They report on a permanent (and growing) underclass of over
37 million people earning poverty-level wages and say that official statistics
understate the problem. They note an unprecedented wealth gap between rich
and poor, a dying middle class, and growing millions in extreme poverty.
- It affects the unemployed as well in times of economic
distress, but official government data conceals to what extent. If employment
calculations were made as originally mandated, the true rate would be around
13% instead of the Department of Labor's 5.1%. The same is true for inflation
that's around 12% at the retail level instead of the official 4% that's
- Under conditions of duress, hunger is the clearest symptom,
it's rising, and current food inflation threatens to spiral it out of control
if nothing is done to address it. It's the highest in decades with 2007
signaling what's ahead - eggs up 25% last year; milk 17%; rice, bread and
pasta 12%, and look at prices on the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT):
- -- grains and soy prices are at multi-year highs;
- -- wheat hit an all-time high above $12 a bushel with
little relief ahead in spite of a temporary pullback in price; the US Department
of Agriculture forecasts that global wheat stocks this year will fall to
a 30 year low of 109.7 million metric tons; USDA also projected US wheat
stocks by year end 2008 at 272 million bushels - the lowest level since
- -- corn and soybeans are also at record levels; soybeans
are at over $15 a bushel; corn prices shot above $6 a bushel as demand
for this and other crops soar in spite of US farmers planting as much of
them as possible to cash in on high prices.
- Growing demand, a weak dollar, but mostly another factor
to be discussed below is responsible - the increased use of corn for ethanol
production with farmers diverting more of their acreage from other crops
to plant more of what's most in demand. Forty-three per cent of corn production
is for livestock feed, but around one-fifth is for biofuels according to
the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA). Other estimates are as high
as 25 - 30% compared to 14% two years ago, and NCGA estimates one-third
of the crop in 2009 will be for ethanol, not food. It's fueling US and
world food inflation with five year forecasts of it rising even faster.
- In the world's poorest countries, people starve. Here,
they go on food stamps with a projected unprecedented 28 million Americans
getting them this year as joblessness increases in a weak economy. However,
many millions in need aren't eligible as social services are cut to finance
foreign wars and tax cuts for the rich, with poor folks at home losing
out as a result. A family of four only qualifies now if its net monthly
income is at or below $1721 or $20,652 a year. Even then, it gets the same
$542 monthly amount recipients received in 1996 to cover today's much higher
prices or around $1 dollar a meal per person and falling.
- This is the UN's World Food Program (WFP)'s dilemma worldwide
at a time donations coming in are inadequate. Its Executive Director, Josette
Sheeran, said "Our ability to reach people is going down just as needs
go up....We are seeing a new face of hunger in which people (can't afford
to buy food)....Situations that were previously not urgent" are now
desperate. WFP's funding needs keep rising. It estimates them at $3.5 billion,
they'll likely go higher, and they're for approved projects to feed 73
million people in 78 counties worldwide. WFP foresees much greater potential
needs for unseen emergencies and for far greater numbers of people in need.
- People (who aren't poor) in rich countries can manage
with food accounting for about 10% of consumption. In ones like China,
it's around 30%, but in sub-Saharan Africa and the poor in Latin America
and Asia it's about 60% (or even 80%) and rising. It means food aid is
vital, and without it people will starve. But as food prices rise, the
amount forthcoming (when it's most needed) falls because not enough money
is available and too few donors offer help.
- Agencies that can are doing less with ones like USAID
saying it's cutting the amount of food aid it provides but won't say why.
It's mission is to help the rich, not the poor, or as it states on its
web site: as a US government agency, it "receives (its) overall foreign
policy guidance from the Secretary of State (and its mission is to) further
America's foreign policy interests (in the areas of) economic growth, agriculture
and trade...." That leaves out the poor.
- Oxfam worries about what USAID ignores. It called for
immediate action by donors and governments to protect the world's poor
against rising food prices. One spokesperson said: "Global economic
uncertainty, high food prices, drought (and other factors) all pose a serious
threat to (the) vulnerable." Another added: "More and more people
are going to be facing food shortages in the future. (Because of) rising
food prices we need to think (of its) impact on (the world's poor) who
are spending up to 80% of their incomes on food."
- The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean
Ziegler, also expressed alarm. In comments to the French daily Liberation
he said: "We are heading for a very long period of rioting, conflicts
(and) waves of uncontrollable regional instability marked by the despair
of the most vulnerable populations." He noted that even under normal
circumstances hunger plagues the world and claims the life of a child under
age 10 every five seconds. Because of the present crisis, we now face "an
- Besides the usual factors cited, it's vital to ask why,
but don't expect Brazil's Lula to explain. Biofuel production is the main
culprit, but not according to him. Brazil is a major biofuels producer.
Last year it signed an R&D "Ethanol Pact" with Washington
to develop "next generation" technologies for even more production.
- In an April 16 Reuters report, the former union leader
was dismissive about the current crisis and rejected criticisms that biofuels
are at fault. In spite of protests at home and around the world, he told
reporters: "Don't tell me....that food is expensive because of biodiesel.
(It's) expensive because" peoples' economic situation has improved
and they're eating more. It's true in parts of China and India, but not
in most other countries where incomes haven't kept pace with inflation.
- Biofuels - A Scourge of Our Times
- The idea of combustible fuels from organic material has
been around since the early auto age, but only recently took off. Because
they're from plant-based or animal byproduct (renewable) sources, bio or
agrofuels are (falsely) touted as a solution to a growing world energy
shortage with a huge claimed added benefit - the nonsensical notion that
they're clean and green without all the troublesome issues connected to
- Biofuel is a general term to describe all fuels from
organic matter. The two most common kinds are bioethanol as a substitute
for gasoline, and biodiesel that serves the same purpose for that type
- Bioethanol is produced from sugar-rich crops like corn,
wheat and sugar cane. Most cars can burn a petroleum fuel blend with up
to 10% bioethanol without any engine modifications. Some newer cars can
run on pure bioethanol.
- Biodiesel is produced from a variety of vegetable oils,
including soybean, palm and rapeseed (canola), plus animal fats. This fuel
can replace regular diesel with no engine modifications required.
- Cellulosic ethanol is another variety and is made by
breaking down fiber from grasses or most other kinds of plants. Biofuels
of all types are renewable since crops are grown in season, harvested,
then replanted for more output repeatedly.
- In George Bush's 2007 State of the Union address, he
announced "It's in our vital interest to diversify America's energy
supply (and we) must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol
(to) reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20% in the next 10 years.
(To do it) we must (set) a mandatory fuels (target of) 35 billion gallons
of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 (to) reduce our dependence
on foreign oil."
- Congress earlier passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005
that mandated ethanol fuel production rise to four billion gallons in 2006
and 7.5 billion by 2012. It already reached 6.5 billion barrels last year
and is heading for nine billion this year.
- The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act gave added
impetus to the Bush administration scheme with plenty of agribusiness subsidies
backing it. Its final version sailed through both Houses in December, and
George Bush made it official on December 19. It upped the stakes over 2005
with one of its provisions calling for 36 billion gallons of renewable
fuels by 2022 to replace 15% of their equivalent in oil. It represents
a nearly fivefold increase from current levels, and new goals ahead may
set it higher as rising oil prices (topping $117 a barrel April 21) make
a case for cheaper alternatives, and some in the environmental community
claim biofuels are eco-friendly.
- Hold the applause, and look at the facts. In a nutshell,
organic fuels trash rainforests, deplete water reserves, kill off species,
and increase greenhouse emissions when the full effects of producing them
are included. At least that's what Science Magazine says on the latter
point. It reviewed studies that examined how destruction of natural ecosystems
(such as tropical rain forests and South American grasslands) not only
releases greenhouse gases when they're burned and plowed but also deprives
the planet of natural sponges to absorb carbon emissions. Cropland also
absorbs less carbon than rain forests or even the scrubland it replaces.
- Nature Conservancy scientist Joseph Fargione (lead author
of one study) concluded that grassland clearance releases 93 times the
greenhouse gases that would be saved by fuel made annually on that land.
For scientists and others concerned about global warming, the research
indicated that biofuel production exacerbates the problem and thus should
be reconsidered. Others disagree and so far the trend continues with Europe
and America both setting ambitious goals that pay little attention to the
consequences they ignore.
- Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of the Food First/Institute
for Food and Development Policy, pays close attention and wrote about it
in an article published last June by Agencia Latinoamericana de Informacion
(ALAI) and thereafter widely distributed. It's headlined "Biofuels:
The Five Myths of the Agro-fuels Transition." As he puts it: "the
mythic baggage of the agro-fuels transition needs to be publicly unpacked."
- 1. Agrofuels aren't clean and green. As cited above,
they produce far greater greenhouse gas emissions than they save and also
require large amounts of oil-based fertilizers that contribute even more.
- 2. Agrofuel production will be hugely destructive to
forests in countries like Brazil where vast Amazon devastation is well
documented and is currently increasing at nearly 325,000 hectares a year.
By 2020 in Indonesia, "palm oil plantations for bio-diesel (will continue
to be) the primary cause of forest loss (in a) country with one of the
highest deforestation rates in the world."
- 3. Agrofuels will destroy rural development. Small farmers
will be forced off their land and so will many thousands of others in communities
to make way for Big Oil, Agribusiness, and Agribiotech to move in and take
over for the huge profits to be extracted in the multi-billions.
- 4. Agrofuels increase hunger. The poor are always hurt
most, the topic is covered above, and Holt-Gimenez quotes another forecast.
It's the International Food Policy Research Institute's estimate that basic
food staple prices will rise 30 - 33% by 2010, but that figure already
undershoots based on current data. FPRI also sees the rise continuing to
2020 by another 26 to 135% that will be catastrophic for the world's poor
who can't afford today's prices and are ill-equipped to raise their incomes
more than marginally if at all.
- 5. Better "second-generation" argofuels aren't
around the corner. Examples touted are eco-friendly fast-growing trees
and switchgrass (a dominant warm season central North American tallgrass
prairie species). Holt-Gimenez calls the argument a "bait and switch-grass
shell game" to make the case for first generation production now ongoing.
The same environmental problems exists, and they'll be hugely exacerbated
by more extensive GMO crop plantings.
- Holt-Gimenez sees agrofuels as a "genetic Trojan
horse" that's letting agribusiness giants like Monsanto "colonize
both our fuel and food system," do little to offset a growing demand
for oil, reap huge profits from the scheme, get them at taxpayers' expense,
and that's exactly what's happening with Big Oil in on it, too, as a way
to diversify through large biofuel investments. More on this below.
- The Ghost of Henry Kissinger
- Kissinger made a chilling 1970 comment that explains
a lot about what's happening now - "Control oil and you control nations;
control food and you control the people." Combine it with unchallengeable
military power and you control everything, and Kissinger likely said that,
- He said plenty more in his classified 1974 memo on a
secret project called National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200)
for a "world population plan of action" for drastic global population
control. He meant reducing it by hundreds of millions, using food as a
weapon, and overall reorganizing the global food market to destroy family
farms and replace them with (agribusiness-run) factory ones. It's been
ongoing for decades, backed since January 1995 by WTO muscle, and characterized
now by huge agribusiness giants with monstrous vertically integrated powers
over the food we eat - from research labs to plantings to processing to
the supermarket and other food outlet shelves around the world.
- But it's even worse than that. Today, five agribusiness
behemoths, with little fanfare and enormous government backing, plan big
at our expense - to control the world's food supply by making it all genetically
engineered with biofuels one part of a larger scheme.
- By diverting crops for fuel, prices have exploded, and
five "Ag biotech" giants are exploiting it - Monsanto, DuPont,
Dow Agrisciences, Syngenta and Bayer CropScience AG. Their solution - make
all crops GMO, tout it as a way to increase output and reduce costs, and
claim it's the solution to today's soaring prices and world hunger.
- In fact, agribusiness power raises prices, controls output
to keep them high, and the main factor behind today's situation is the
conversion of US farmland to biofuel factories. With less crop output for
food and world demand for it growing, prices are rising, and rampant commodity
speculation exacerbates the problem with traders profiting hugely and loving
it. It's another part of the multi-decade wealth transfer scheme from the
world's majority to the elite few. While the trend continues, its momentum
is self-sustaining, and it works because governments back it. They subsidize
the problem, keep regulations loose, give business free reign, and maintain
that markets work best so let them.
- As mentioned above, about 43% of US corn output goes
for animal feed, but growing amounts are for biofuels - now possibly 25
- 30% of production compared to around 14% two years ago, up 300% since
2001, and today the total exceeds what's earmarked for export, with no
slowing down of this trend in sight. The result, of course, is world grain
reserves are falling, prices soaring, millions starving, governments permitting
it, and it's only the early innings of a long-term horrifying trend - radically
transforming agriculture in humanly destructive ways:
- -- letting agribusiness and Big Oil giants control it
for profit at the expense of consumer health and well-being;
- -- making it all genetically engineered and inflicting
great potential harm to human health; and
- -- producing reduced crop amounts for food, diverting
greater quantities for fuel, allowing prices to soar, making food as dear
as oil, ending government's responsibility for food security, and tolerating
the unthinkable - putting hundreds of millions of poor around the world
in jeopardy and letting them starve to death for profit.
- This is the brave new world neoliberal schemers have
in mind. They're well along with their plans, marginally diverted by today's
economic distress, well aware that growing world protests that could prove
hugely disruptive, but very focused, nonetheless, on finding clever ways
to push ahead with what's worked pretty well for them so far, so they're
not about to let human misery jeopardize big profits.
- If they won't reform, people have to do it for them,
and throughout history that's how it's always worked. Over time, the stakes
keep rising as the threats become greater, and today they may be as great
as they've ever been.
- What better time for a new social movement like those
in the past that were pivotal forces for change. Famed community organizer
Saul Alinsky knew the way to beat organized money is with organized people.
In combination, they've succeeded by taking to the streets, striking, boycotting,
challenging authority, disrupting business, paying with their lives and
ultimately prevailing by knowing change never comes from the top down.
It's always from the grassroots, from the bottom up, and what better time
for it than now. It's high time democracy worked for everyone, that destructive
GMO and biofuels schemes won't be tolerated, and that "America the
Beautiful" won't any longer just be for elites and no one else.
- Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at
- Also visit his blog site at sj.lendman.blogspot.com and
listen to The Global Research News Hour on RepublicBroadcasting.org Mondays
from 11AM to 1PM US Central time for cutting-edge discussions with distinguished