Hungry Planet

Charles Dickens famously described the workhouse where Oliver Twist was indentured as a place “without the inconvenience of too much food.” When nine-year-old Oliver requested another helping (“Please, sir, I want some more”), the almshouse was thrown into pandemonium.

The cry for “more” has rarely been raised more often or more plaintively than today. The advocacy group Bread for the World reports that in this country, one in ten households experiences hunger or is at risk of hunger, while the UN’s Food and Agriculture Association estimates that 854 million of the world’s 6.5 billion people fail to receive their minimum daily food requirement.

This crisis has taken on greater urgency in the past year. In the United States, food prices have shot up 4.5 percent. There are few American families that have not experienced dread at both the gas pump and the supermarket check-out counter. In one year, fuel jumped an average of seventy-three cents a gallon, while rice doubled in price, milk and eggs rose 26 percent and 24 percent, respectively, and bread became 13 percent more expensive. These issues have thrust themselves into the presidential campaign, as well they should.

Yet energy and food prices are an even greater problem in other parts of the world, particularly for the 5.1 billion people in the so-called developing nations, roughly a billion of whom live on the equivalent of a dollar a day. According to the World Bank, the 83-percent rise in food prices over the past three years has been catastrophic for those on the margins of the global economy. There have been food riots in Peru and Haiti, in Senegal and Egypt, in the Philippines and Cambodia. Governments have been destabilized. The Economist (April 19) has called the situation a “silent tsunami.”

“Perfect storm” might be a better description, for the present food crisis has a variety of causes. They include more people to feed, richer diets in some emerging countries (such as India and China), severe drought in Australia, the destruction of crops from natural disasters in Bangladesh and Burma, the diversion of staple crops (principally corn) into biofuel production, higher costs for transport and petroleum-based fertilizers, diminished government support for agriculture, and futures markets that unwittingly inflated prices for rice and other grains. When hedge funds began speculating in grain futures, volatility in those markets led to higher commodity prices for all.

Economists predict that the days of cheap food are over, that price declines are not likely anytime soon. So the issue of hunger must be addressed immediately, if not for political reasons, certainly for humanitarian ones. The solutions will not be achieved easily. Last year, because of increased costs, the U.S. government-the world’s largest food donor-was able to buy less than half of what it purchased in 2000. Even though the budget for its Food for Peace Program rose 35 percent in 2006, it met the needs of fewer of the world’s hungry millions.

Since the amount of arable land in the world is not likely to increase much, the ability to feed ever larger populations will depend on higher crop yields and, perhaps, a return to simpler diets (so that less grain is expended on raising animals for slaughter). Here both humanitarian assistance and new government policy-to promote pest-resistant crops, stewardship of the environment, energy conservation, and small-scale and local farming-are a must. When President George W. Bush requested an additional $770 million for emergency food aid earlier this month, he wisely proposed that a quarter of all U.S. food assistance (which totals roughly $2.3 billion a year) should go to buying crops from areas near the regions that need the aid. This would support local agriculture and conserve vast amounts of fuel now used for long-distance shipping.

Finally, in the United States, our government’s wholehearted support for corn subsidies that encourage the production of ethanol should be reexamined. The strain on the food chain is now apparent. Last year Foreign Policy (March/April) noted that it takes 450 pounds of corn to produce twenty-five gallons of ethanol. The same amount of corn would provide the calories needed to feed a person for an entire year. It would be a terrible irony if, in promoting energy self-sufficiency, our national policies undercut food productivity worldwide. Energy conservation thus holds the key not only to protecting the environment but to feeding our planet, which is now “without the inconvenience of too much food.”

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