23 February 2010

Last week on Ecotopia we spoke with Laurie Mazur of the Population Justice Project who described the interconnectedness of a number of issues, including population, climate, and the world economy.  Tonight we approach many of those same issues through the lens of the world’s food supply. Our guest iswill be Gawain Kripke, Director of Research and Policy for Oxfam U.S.A.  In particular, we talk with him about the world food crisis and what has evolved in the past year since that crisis was widely publicized.

Background on the Global Food Crisis

We want to read in some detail from an article appearing in Global Research last July. It’s by Professor Philip McMichael  a professor of development sociology at Cornell University who is working on issues concerning agrarian movements, agrofuels [such as ethanol], and climate change.  It’s called, The World Food Crisis in Historical Perspective.  He writes:

The “world food crisis” of 2007-08 was the tip of an iceberg. Hunger and food crises are endemic to the modern world, and the eruption of a rapid increase in food prices provided a fresh window on this cultural fact. […] [T]his food “crisis” represents the magnification of a long-term crisis of social reproduction stemming from colonialism, and was triggered by neoliberal capitalist development. […]

The “agflation” that brought this crisis to the world’s attention at the turn of 2008 saw the doubling of maize prices, wheat prices rising by 50 percent, and rice increasing by as much as 70 percent, bringing the world to a “post-food-surplus era.”  In an article in the Economist titled “The End of Cheap Food,” the editors noted that, by the end of 2007, the magazine’s food-price index reached its highest point since originating in 1845. Food prices had risen 75 percent since 2005, and world grain reserves were at their lowest, at fifty-four days. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute […], agflation from rising agrofuels [such as ethanol] production “would lead to decreases in food availability and calorie consumption in all regions of the world, with Sub-Saharan Africa suffering the most.”

Phillip McMichael continues his analysis of the 2008-09 global food crisis by factoring in the demands of a “new consumerism.” He explains:

A rising class of one billion new consumers is emerging in twenty “middle-income” countries “with an aggregate spending capacity, in purchasing power parity terms, to match that of the U.S.” This group includes […] South Korea, Mexico, Turkey, and Poland, in addition to China and India [,…]  and the symbols of their affluence are car ownership and meat consumption. These two commodities combine – through rising demand for agrofuels and feed crops – to exacerbate food price inflation, as their mutual competition for land has the perverse effect of rendering each crop more lucrative, at the same time as they displace land used for food crops.

Simultaneously, he adds:

financial speculation has compounded the problem. For example, the price of rice surged by 31 percent on March 27, 2008, and wheat by 29 percent on February 25, 2008. The New York Times of April 22, 2008, reported that, “This price boom has attracted a torrent of new investment from Wall Street, estimated to be as much as $130 billion.” According to the same article, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission noted that “Wall Street funds control a fifth to a half of the futures contracts for commodities like corn, wheat and live cattle on Chicago, Kansas City and New York exchanges. On the Chicago exchanges the funds make up 47 percent of long-term contracts for live hog futures, 40 percent in wheat, 36 percent in live cattle and 21 percent in corn.”

Phillip McMichael also notes that the crisis was exacerbated by:

pressure on food cropland with extreme weather patterns and ecological stress. In November 2007, as summed up by John Vidal in the Guardian,

The UN Environment Program said the planet’s water, land, air, plants, animals and fish stocks were all in “inexorable decline.”

According to the U.N.’s World Food Program […] fifty-seven countries, including twenty-nine in Africa, nineteen in Asia, and nine in Latin America, have been hit by catastrophic floods. Harvests have been affected by drought and heat waves in south Asia, Europe, China, Sudan, Mozambique and Uruguay.

Phillip McMichael also notes the contribution of oil prices and speculation to the crisis, prices which we observed in the Northstate with $4 a gallon gas, and this was complicated by the conversion of farmland to agrofuels. He writes:

With respect to agrofuels, there is in addition the so-called “knock-on” effect […] where expanding U.S. corn production for ethanol reduces oilseed acreage, such that “oilseed prices then also increased as a result of tightening supplies and this price strength was enhanced by rising demand for meals as a cereal feed substitute and increasing demand for vegetable oils for bio-diesel production.”

In these terms there appears to [have been] a perfect storm.

Actually, in the remainder of the article, which is quite extensive, Phillip McMichael explains that this storm was a long time in brewing as he traces its roots, for example, to world colonialism as well as to capitalist globalism

We recommend that listeners look at the fulll article:


We also realized as we prepared for this program, that the global food crisis has largely disappeared as a headline-grabbing concern. If you were to judge by the number of articles currently addressing global food supplies, you’d think that the “perfect storm” had passed or gone into remission.  And to emphasize the “business as usual” point, we want to read briefly from an article that popped to the very top of the list when we searched Google News for “global food crisis.” This appeared just recently in Packaging Digest with the headline:  “Global food trends to be addressed at inaugural Gulfood Conference.”  The conference is taking place this week, February 21-23, in Dubai, and their article-cum-press-release explains:

In an industry as fast-paced and competitive as the food and beverage sector, knowledge exchange and keeping abreast of market trends is critical.

Not only will the Gulfood Conference provide valuable industry insight to allow companies to build a more profitable business, it will also offer practical tools for invigorating, expanding and launching new business channels.

Now we do not presume to judge all of the food industry on the basis of this conference, but focus of the conference, taking place in oil-rich Dubai, but only a short distance from African nations where people are starving, seems distant from the issues we care about.  Listen to the language in this concluding comment from the packaging industry where globalization and sustainability are reduced to elements in a sales campaign.

The intensive, information-packed [Gulfood conference] will cover topical issues facing all sectors of the industry, including global trends in foods, regulatory legislation, globalisation, regional expansion opportunities, sustainability, flavours and consumer behaviours, scientific advances in food technology and innovations in packaging.


Our Conversation with Gawain Kripke

The fall issue of Oxfam Exchange, the publication of Oxfam America, was devoted to “the global food crisis one year later.” We realize, of course, that world hunger is not a “new” crisis, and that Oxfam has been seeking solutions to it for decades. So to learn more, we have Gawain Kripke of Oxfam on the telephone from Washintgon. He is Director of Policy and Research for Oxfam America and has extensive background at Oxfam working on food security, agriculture, and trade issues. Welcome Gawain.

Part I: The root causes of hunger.

  • Perhaps we could start with just a bit of background about Oxfam. We know that it originated in Oxford, England, in 1942 as a famine relief organization. What has been its history since then, both globally and in the U.S.?
  • What is your role as Director of Policy and Research for Oxfam America?
  • Please tell us about “food security.”   Why that term? What does it mean?
  • The global food crisis was dramatically in the public eye in mid-2008, partly linked to the global economic collapse. What happened then?  Has the “crisis” been at all alleviated since then?
    • At the time, on this program we read several news stories suggesting that profit-seeking agribusiness was not only partly responsible for but in fact profiting from food shortages. Could you offer your perspective on the role of global capitalism and trade in the food crisis?
    • What was the role of oil prices, and has the decline in oil prices since then provided any relief?
    • How has the international community generally responded since 2008?  Have world governments contributed food and/or funds? What are the longer range needs for support for hungry populations?
  • Oxfam has been concerned about world hunger long before 2008, but what was Oxfam’s specific response in 2008?  Did you supply food?  funding?  education?
  • Oxfam is also deeply concerned about issues of poverty and social justice. Although immediate link with hunger is obvious, what do you see as the long-term complexities of achieving social justice and alleviating hunger?
  • The surface link between climate change and hunger is also apparent, but what are the deeper implications for poor and hungry people if climate change is unabated?
    • We’ve done several programs recently on the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. Could you please give us your (and/or Oxfam’s) perspective on what did and did not happen there?
  • What are the consequences if the world does not do a more adequate job of feeding the hungry?

Part II:  (Partial) Solutions

  • The fall issue of Oxfam Exchange includes a focus on “homegrown solutions to hunger,” including projects in Mali, Ethiopia, and Ghana.  Please tell us about (your choice of these) projects (and other projects Oxfam has sponsored) for community sustainability.
    • Do you see specific roles for women in local solutions projects?  How and why?
    • Does organic agriculture fit into these projects?
    • What kind of “multiplier” effect will be necessary for model projects to bring about large-scale change and alleviation of hunger?
  • India’s Green Revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s increased food supply but is now criticized for, among other things, its implementation of factory farming techniques, imported seeds, and artificial fertilizers. What lessons were learned there?
  • What’s your perspective on genetically modified seeds, in particular proprietary seeds such as Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” products?
  • How can our listeners best support the work and future projects of Oxfam? In addition to financial support, are there opportunities for volunteer work? Is there anything else you’d like to add for our listeners?

Oxfam America.  They’re online at www.oxfamamerica.org.

Local to Global Resources on Hunger

This is Ecotopia on KZFR, and tonight we have been discussing the global food crisis.  There are, as you probably know, many local connections to that crisis.

Several groups doing something about it locally include the Torres Shelter, Heifer International, and Pleasant Valley and Chico High School Students. They will be holding a fundraiser ,Thursday, March 4, 2010.  It’s the annual Empty Bowls Fundraiser at Pleasant Valley High School. Each $10 ticket buys you a simple meal of soup and bread contributed by local restaurants and a handmade bowl contributed by local potters. There will also be desserts and a raffle. Seatings are at 5 and 6:15 PM, and you can obtain tickets at Zucchini and Vine, Christian & Johnson, or from PVHS and CHS students.

We also want to remind you of the great work beeing done by The GRUB Cooperative, Growing Resources, Uniting Bellies. They’re on a 40-acre lot just outside of Chico. It was formed in October 2008. Fifteen GRUB members live here. They are working towards growing our own food and are learning about and practicing sustainable agriculture. They compost everything organic that they can get our hands on. They are experimenting with water catchment and solar energy. They educate the Chico community with the lessons they learn here,  The GRUB Cooperative, 1525 Dayton Rd. Phone (530)894-8547


Notable on the national level is a program called Feeding America, which was formerly known as Second Harvest, which gets unused food into the hands and mouths of American Families that need it.  Feeding America also has an active Public Policy Program.  They write:

Even though hunger is a widespread problem in this country, it is solvable. We believe we can start by working to strengthen and expand the federal food safety net, and foster effective collaborations between the public and private sectors. Look through this section to learn more about the programs and initiatives we support.

Feeding America’s we site includes specific policy recommendations on a number of federal programs, including the Comodity Supplemental Food program, for low-income mothers in need,  infants, children and seniors. , the Emerency Food Assistance Program, the Summer Food Service Program for hungry kids outside the regular school year, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

There are millions of Americans who rely on SNAP (formerly named the Food Stamp Program) regularly or in times of emergency and economic hardship.


And finally, we’ll mention the Hunger Site dot com, which was founded to focus the power of the Internet on a specific humanitarian need: the eradication of world hunger. Since its launch in June 1999, the site has established itself as a leader in online activism, helping to feed the world’s hungry. On average, over 220,000 individuals from around the world visit the site each day to click the yellow “Click Here to Give” button.  They also have an online Hunger Site store including fair-trade and handcrafted items, with proceeds generating funds for the hungry.

Playlist for Ecotopia #74  World Hunger

1. Imagine        3:04        John Lennon      Imagine (Remastered)

2. If I Had a Hammer        2:10        Peter, Paul And Mary        The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary

3. Pray for Me Brother        5:07        A.R. Rahman        Pray for Me Brother – Single

4. (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding        3:33        Elvis

Costello       The Best Of The First 10 Years

5. Imagine        3:30        Joan Baez     Joan Baez: The Complete A&M Recordings

6. Weave Me the Sunshine        4:28        Peter, Paul And Mary   The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary

7. Peace Train        4:14        Cat Stevens     Greatest Hits

8. Doctor My Eyes (LP Version)        3:20        Jackson Browne      Jackson Browne

9. Long Walk to Freedom (Halala South Africa)        5:19        Ladysmith Black

Mambazo     Long Walk to Freedom