Back in 2007, food prices surged. Millions went hungry, and there were riots from Egypt to Haiti and Cameroon to Bangladesh. In 2008 they dropped, but starting at the beginning of 2009 they’ve been going up, and now they’re staying high:
This graph shows the “food price index”, which is a weighted average of food commodity prices. The exact formula seems to be a carefully guarded secret… well, at least they don’t make it easy to find!
Here’s a more long-term picture:
taken from here:
• United Nations Environmental Programme, The Environmental Food Crisis, 2008.
What’s been happening since 2000? You can blame the rising world population, but that’s not something that suddenly hit us at the turn of the century. People point to many causes, including:
1) A growing middle class in India and China, eating more—including more meat, which pushes up grain prices. For example, according to the Economist, the average Chinese consumer ate 20 kilograms of meat in 1985, but 50 kilos of the stuff in 2007. If you consider the population of China, that’s a lot more meat!
2) The use of grain and other foodstuffs for biofuels, heavily subsidized by some governments like the US, has increased competition for grain and, perhaps worse, created a tighter link between oil prices and food prices. If the price of oil goes up, gasoline costs more, so people can charge more for ethanol, so grain prices go up!
One small piece of good news: the US federal budget crisis is making more people consider cutting grain ethanol subsidies. But it hasn’t happened yet: don’t underestimate the power of the corn lobby.
3) More weather disasters, like the heat wave that caused Russia to halt grain exports last year, or the drought in Brazil that’s pushing up sugar prices now, or the drought in India that set sugar prices soaring in the summer of 2009.
People like to argue about whether these weather disasters are really increasing, and whether they’re really due to climate change. It remains hard to prove. Some people, like Al Gore, have already made up their minds. On 20 June 2011, he said:
Look what’s happened in the last twelve months:
– An area of Australia the size of France and Germany combined, flooded.
– My hometown, my home city of Nashville, a thousand-year flood. Thousands of my neighbors lost their homes and businesses. They had no flood insurance because there had never been a flood in areas that were flooded.
– Drought. Russia, biggest drought in their history, biggest fires in their history, over 50,000 people killed, and then all of their wheat and other food crops, along with that of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, taken off the world markets, leading to an all-time record spike in food prices.
– Today, biggest fire in the history of Arizona, spreading to New Mexico.
– Today, biggest flood in the history of the Mississippi River valley underway right now.
At what point is there a moment where we say, ‘Oh, we ought to do something about this?’
A growing world middle class, the rising use of food for fuel, the effects of climate change… when it comes to rising food prices, there are lots of other causes one can point to.
But the big question is whether it’s a matter of many small causes that coincidentally happen to be boosting food prices now, or something more systematic.
In other words, is our world civilization hitting the limits of what the planet can support?