During my research on Global Food Security I heard various opinions about the Food Crisis and how we should tackle it. Ranging from “we should do more” and “we should do less”, every government, NGO, company or researcher considers food security as a societal problem that must be dealt with now.
But a statement left me utterly perplexed: “many don’t actually see a food crisis coming” said a representative of the European Coordination of Via Campesina. And the statement is absolutely correct. Although more than 256,000 people died in Somalia in the past two years of hunger and food riots have become more frequent on all continents, the vast majority of people don’t care about a possible Food Crisis and, thus, when they hear news regarding food security, they just change the channel.
At a recent conference I attended in the United Kingdom, I found out that food has been rationed in the UK due to shortages. Not only at the time after the Second World War, but as recent as April 2013 when powder milk for babies was rationed to only 2 kg/purchase. This was due to an increase in exports towards China making the product unavailable for the British market.
Because we have a corporate agribusiness sector which is (economically correctly) directed by a profit-based “selling to the highest bidder” strategy and, at the same time, we have an ever increasing number of undernourished people (870 million and climbing) at a time when the world is facing the toughest financial crisis (austerity measures have led to the increase of unemployment in the EU to 11%- > 21% amongst youth), a food crisis should be THE thing at the tip of everyone’s tongues, from citizens to politicians.
From unemployment to food crisis
In a time of crisis, any kind of crisis, people’s behaviour is often predictable. When unemployed, people will do one of two things depending on the type of support they have available:
- Invest their resources in an independent initiative: start-up in their field of expertise, exploring new fields of expertise, new academic experiences to increase the chance of employ-ability etc.; or
- Planning the resources thoroughly in time in order to “stretch them” for a longer period (and increase the chances for “survival” in case the crisis extends).
As the current global financial crisis made millions of people unemployed, the second option was “experimented” by many in the past few years. Very few actually invested in themselves or in new initiatives that could have kick-started their careers.
As this unemployment crisis deepens and the personal resources get lower, the “best” choice people see is to make stocks of certain materials, such as (conserved) foods, in order to avoid the increasing prices. While this might seem as a solution, no one can forecast the evolution of food prices on a short and medium term range, especially in a crisis period when both the demand and offer can vary dramatically. So we can possibly see either a drop or an increase in food prices, depending on the demand.
If unemployment is one of the triggers of the food crisis, with low demand and offer ratios significantly affecting the agricultural markets, undernourishment can become an issue even in developed countries due mainly to the lack of nutrients. In developed countries (where undernourishment usually doesn’t go over 5-7%), in times of crisis people tend to eat less types of food (usually sticking to 1-2 types of vegetables), less meals per day and, thus, less calories and nutrients.
When does unemployment lead to food crisis and to food riots?
Have you ever heard of food riots? Food riots were pretty common in the last two centuries, usually started by food shortages, harvest failures, droughts, food speculation, poor trade possibilities. In the past years many experts have cautioned about the possibility of a global food crisis.
If this sounds familiar, it is because in Africa the main problem is food shortage, in Europe in 2012 we had a huge failure in different crops mainly caused by climate change, the US was struck by an unseen drought leading to a very poor yield in almost every crop, but especially corn. Food speculators took advantage of all these events and drove the prices high, especially considering that they bought corn for the production of biofuels. Because of trade bans, certain countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA Region) are still facing food shortages.
The Arab Spring started there with “food” as an trigger. On December 17th 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi became the symbol of the Arab Spring after the police harassed him and confiscated his “wares” (goods). He was a fruits street vendor. In sign of protest, he set himself on fire, triggering the“Arab Spring”.
How to prevent a food crisis and food riots?
In order to prevent a food crisis, we need good governance. We need leaders who are able to understand the triggers of food crises and who are capable of preventing them.
To avoid food riots, we need to communicate clearly. We need to have people understanding the food crisis. For this, a generation of communicators can be “grown” and the most innovative ideas of preventing food insecurity can be implemented through the voices and actions of this generation.