As has been mentioned increasingly in the news of late,
there’s a growing concern about the real possibility of a world food shortage. Apart from noticing that the monthly grocery bill has starkly increased, the cost of feed for the animals has also rocketed by over £1 per 25kg sack in the last six months – quite shocking, & another reason I hope Winter is soon beaten back by the fresh, vital shoots of Spring – so the animals can enjoy a healthy dose of ‘Dr Green’ as soon as possible.
But many staple commodities – cooking oil, lentils, rice, maize, soya & wheat to name but a few – are soaring in price so much, that many already impoverished parts of the world are literally sinking even further below the ‘breadline’. For example, between March 2007-March 2008 the global price of corn rose 31%; rice rose 74%; soya went up by 87% & wheat, up by a staggering 130%. This is attributable to a number of factors, such as:
- poor harvests owing to extreme weather conditions;
- a rise in the demand for food by importing countries;
- low stockpiles;
- an expectation of price incease leading to hoarding;
- & a long-term lack of agricultural investment (you’re telling me).
So what does this mean for consumers? Well, Stonehead recently highlighted some appalling statistics regarding the current attitude to food in the UK. Apparently we Britons throw away a staggering £6.7 billion’ worth of food per annum, 40% of which is fresh fruit & veg which could have been eaten. Per day, this includes:
- 4.4 million whole apples (almost one third of those bought);
- 5.1 million potatoes;
- 2.8 million tomatoes;
- 1.6 million bananas;
- 1.2 million oranges.
So in the UK people will doubtles grumble if the cost of their post-pub Friday night take-away meal goes up in price; whilst still discarding around half their potion of pilau or egg-fried rice, chucking it in the bin on the way home without a second thought. The UK alone imports over 400,000 tonnes of rice per annum of which 40% is basmati – the price of which has risen over the last twelve months, by 120%.
But rice is the staple food of over three billion people worldwide. Flooding, cold weather & urbanisation have depleted global stocks to the brink of famine. India has banned exports of all but basmati rice; but whilst it says there is no crisis, over-use of chemical fetilizers & poor soil health will inevitably lead to increasingly lower crop yields. And Bangladesh faces its worst famine since 1974: hundreds of poor families survive on only one meal per day & spend 70-80% of their income on food alone. The Philippines – the world’s top importer of milled rice – is currently in crisis: once self-sufficient, over the last 20 years the country lost almost half its irrigated land to rapid urban development. And of course, the domestic demand has risen as the population has grown. The recent food riots in Haiti & Indonesia spell out the desperation of the escalating emergency.
Whilst Thailand’s rice price has risen by over 50% in the last year, less rice is now consumed by the indiginous population as the Thais’ overall prosperity has increased, allowing them to eat a wider variety of foods. And it’s a similar situation in China: the population are consuming more meat & dairy products although rice exports have nevertheless been restricted – which has had a serious knock-on effect for North Korea, which buys rice from China at very low prices to cope with the country’s frequent food shortages. Japan exports little rice as farmers are heavily subsidised, getting up to four times the market value for the product to protect the nation’s food security.
But inevitably, for every loser someone gains – the USA, Brazil, Argentina, Canada & Australia have all benefited from these price rises.
Meanwhile the rising cost of crude oil & fears of climate change have seen a massive hike in the price of maize used to make biofuels, with the subsequent inevitability of inflating food charges. And ironically the growth in the world’s population, coupled with emerging economies such as China & India mean that the up-&-coming rich naturally demand to eat more than the poor; generating a new tier of middle-class consumers buying more meat & processed food as mentioned earlier. In fact, meat consumption per capita has risen steeply over the past thirty years: in 1980 the average British diet consisted of 20kg of meat per annum whilst in 2007 it had risen to 50kg. This puts inevitable pressure on resources: it’s estimated that whilst it takes 1-2 litres of water to produce 1kg of wheat, it takes 10-13 litres to produce the same quantity of beef. And with the world’s population rising at the current rate – in 1950 there were 2.5 billion of us on the planet, whilst in 2025 it’s estimated there will be 8 billion – things aren’t likely to improve any time soon….
I have been extremely mindful of avoiding wasting ANY food, since visiting Northern India back in 2000. I’ll never forget the horrific experience I had after finishing a meal at an open air restaurant, casually observing the waiter clear the table & then throw the resultant waste onto the establishment’s adjacent rubbish tip – only for said scraps to be abruptly engulfed by a swarm of impoverished, rag-clad urchins who appeared out of nowhere to fight over our self-indulgent, overstuffed-belly detritus to take back to their families; who we subsequently discovered were living nearby in a stinking ghetto cobbled together with plastic tarpaulins draped over scraps of wood which were propped between the open sewer & the rubbish middens from the adjacent town. It was utterly, utterly shocking: a real first-hand eye-opener of what it truly means to be impoverished.
We were naturally so appalled & disgusted with our own unfeeling, unaware, Western well-fed blinkered existence that at our next meal break we all immediately opted to forego our food & offer it instead to the children begging at the hotel gate. But bizarrely – although they were literally starving & would have happily taken our money – most refused the food outright, because they were aware that we were Buddhists & were therefore perceived as ‘lower caste’ & too ‘unclean’, to accept food from! The cruel irony was the majority of these tragically impoverished, malnourished children were too heavily indoctrinated & therefore too proud to accept our food, even though they & their familiies were literally starving; because in their eyes – despite all our relatively luxurious trappings of Western wealth – we are still so low in their social order as to be considered not even fit to lick the dirt from their tattered sandals.
And unfortunately, giving money was out of the question as many families who thought their children might make fiscal profit out of begging, would deliberately maim them – breaking, twisting or even amputating limbs – to make them more ‘appealing’ to our charitable, eco-tourist sensibilities. It’s a mad old, sad old world it seems….
…..but I’d still ask (although I appreciate I’m probably preaching to the converted, here) next time you indulge in that take-away meal – please, only order what you think will make you comfortably full: don’t waste what after all is such a precious & rapidly-depleting resource.