By Luise Light, M.S., Ed.D.
"The biggest enemy of health in the developing world is poverty."
The world’s greatest hunger crisis in modern history is ravaging the world, pitting poor nations against rich ones, and poor people against financial elites in an epic battle for survival, based on who controls the global food supply. In just three years, global food prices have climbed 83 percent, according to the World Bank, placing a life-sustaining diet beyond the reach of the poorest and most vulnerable groups. Staple foods that poor people depend on as their basic sources of nourishment are the most inflated in price, with rice, the grain of choice for half the world, at a 19 year high, and wheat, the staple for another third of the world, at a 28-year high. Other foods essential for a basic nutritional diet in poor countries, cooking oil, eggs, and dairy, have been equally hard hit by price inflation, affecting the working and middle classes, not just the poor.
The exorbitant increases in world food prices threaten the stability of governments, according to the World Bank, with the potential for violence growing as people, ravaged by starvation, become ever more desperate. Food rioting already has been seen in 40 countries. As the president of the International Red Cross warned recently, people become violent when access to food is withheld and their survival is threatened.
What is behind this global food crisis? Various causes are offered by experts, including the removal of food tariff barriers, liberalization of trade, and enforcement of policies by international financial institutions and rich countries like USA that require developing countries to switch to exporting cash crops and importing food staples for domestic needs. The results of these global policies on the economies of poor countries have been nothing short of catastrophic! Cheap subsidized commodities from rich nations are dumped on poor countries experiencing shortages, resulting in decreased local food production and employment. As a result, farmers become dispossessed from the land and stripped of their ability to feed their families. FAO has documented the devastating consequences of such “trade liberalization” policies on the rural poor and local economies in the case of biofuels. Routing corn into biofuels, the FAO predicted in the State of Food and Agriculture Report in 2007, would create scarcities in essential food supplies and price inflation. Other key factors in skyrocketing food costs are the huge spikes in fuel and transportation costs, devastating climate change, and growing water shortages.
At risk are 1.2 billion people in the world who live in poverty, earning less than $1 a day. Runaway food prices across the globe have placed 200 million people on a deathwatch, in imminent danger of starving to death. Is it any wonder that there are angry people in the streets threatening governments across the globe, demanding food? Governments have responded by sending in riot troops and banging heads, not a permanent solution to a volatile, chaotic situation.
While starving people in Haiti ate spiced and sweetened mud cakes, the cheapest food locally available to dull the pains of starvation, financial leaders met recently in Washington to discuss the financial crisis that threatens to plunge the industrial world into a long and deep recession or even a depression more severe than the one in the1930s. In their deliberations, the economic engines of the “Free World,” including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Group of Seven, the governments of the richest nations: the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan, ignored the global food crisis, focusing instead on shoring up investment banks and restoring investor confidence. Meanwhile, national governments are resorting to old-fashioned ways of dealing with the problem of food shortages: issuing rationing cards, freezing prices of essential commodities like bread, eggs and cooking oil, and placing export controls on foods essential for home consumption.
As a nutritionist and a public health worker, I urge the FAO to fast-track measures to reduce the volatility of food prices, and to safeguard and protect basic foods, nutrients and calories needed to maintain an adequate food safety net for low income and poor people. Rich countries must contribute aid in timely response to appeals from poor countries and UN agencies to avert food and hunger disasters. International trade groups should abandon efforts to create a single unified global consumer food market and encourage countries to develop their own local agricultural production to feed their people and decrease reliance on food imports.
Right now, speculation in food commodities is driving up the price of staples necessary for basic nutrition survival, and obscene profits are being realized by the biggest global food and commodity corporations. When profitability overtakes morality, we call it criminal behavior. We must acknowledge that access to nutritious food is a basic human right, and any institutions or individuals responsible for widespread starvation and malnutrition, either from unjustifiable trade pressures or restrictive policies to maintain corporate monopolies, should be called to account under international law. Better nutrition is central to health, human happiness and well-being. It makes an important contribution to economic progress, as healthy populations live longer, are more productive, and save more, to paraphrase the World Health Organization. ##
Dr. Light is the former director of dietary guidance at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and author of, What to Eat: The Ten Things You Really Need to Know to Eat Well and Be Healthy. She is also former health editor of Vegetarian Times and Executive Editor of New Age Journal.