Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The World's Growing Food-Price Crisis – A Crime Against Humanity

We are seeing a new demonic face of hunger in which people are being priced out of the food market. Sharp food price hikes are hurting the poor and sparking violent protest all over the world. This is happening against a global campaign against the production of Biofuels with the United Nations yesterday declaring it a Crime Against Humanity.

The World's growing food-price crisis.doc (46 k)The World's Growing Food-Price Crisis – A Crime Against Humanity.By Wilfred Alcock29 April 2008We are seeing a new demonic face of hunger in which people are being priced out of the food market. Sharp food price hikes are hurting the poor and sparking violent protest all over the world. This is happening against a global campaign against the production of Biofuels with the United Nations yesterday declaring it a Crime Against Humanity.Since 2004 world food prices have doubled around the world and agricultural prices have risen at alarming rates. This is devastating for the two billion poor people worldwide who live on less than $2 (R14.40) a day. Rice, a staple food for billions around the world, has soared to its highest price in 20 years, while supplies are at their lowest level since the early 1980s and at the end of 2006, grain prices were the highest they had been for decades.In China last year, eggs and meat increased by a whopping 50 percent and food prices have gone up by 17 percent in Sri Lanka, 16 percent in Pakistan & Indonesia and 10 percent in Russia and Latin America. Poor developing countries will be forced to cut food consumption and risk an increase in malnutrition, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned way back in November last year. Sub¬-Saharan countries are most at risk and high food prices means it is increasingly difficult to meet the UN goals of hunger reduction.The re-balancing of food prices in relation to the price of energy is likely to cause severe social distress all around the world. Countries and cities that were rocked with mass protest in the recent past include Milan, Afghanistan, Egypt, El Salvador, Mexico City, Russia, Bucharest, Bukina Faso, Scotland, China, Croatia, Cameroon and India and all indications are that it will spread to South Africa.From Mexico to Pakistan protests by the poor have turned violent and in February 2007, tens of thousands of people marched through Mexico City in protest at a 40 percent rise in price of tortillas. These tortillas are made from corn and are the staple food of the poor.In Cameroon, a taxi drivers' strike over fuel price hikes turned into a massive protest about food prices, leaving around 20 people dead. Similar protests exploded in Senegal and Mauritania late last year. Indian protesters burned hundreds of food-ration stores in West Bengal last October, accusing the owners of selling government subsidized food on the lucrative black market.In Mahalla, 10 000 workers at Egypt's biggest textile factory embarked on protest action against price rises, demanding matching wage increases. Angry demonstrators set fire to two schools, a tourism company and a truck carrying subsidized food. 20 per cent of Egypt's population of 78-million live under the poverty datum line of $2 (R14.40) a day, with another 20 percent hovering just above. About 4 percent of Egyptians live in abject poverty.In El Salvador the retail price of staple foods have risen sharply with the prices of beans increasing by 68 percent between January 2007 and January 2008 in addition to price increases for rice (56.2 percent) and maize (37.5 percent). These are all basic staple diets of poor Salvadoran households. Russian milk powder prices have doubled this year and bread prices have rocketed in line with world grain prices.In February rioters tore through three cities in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, burning government buildings and looting stores. In the city of Bobo Dioulasso, 29 people have been sentenced from three to 36 months following these violent protests against high living costs.According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), nearly one million Lebanese, or 28.5 percent of the population, live on four dollars (R29) a day and with nearly 8 percent having to survive on 2.40 dollars (R17.28) a day. "This implies that almost 300,000 individuals in Lebanon are unable to meet their food and non-food basic needs," the UNDP said in a February report. Then there is climate change. Harvests have been seriously disrupted by freak weather, including prolonged droughts in Australia and the Southern African region with floods in West Africa. The past winter's deep frost in China and record-breaking warmth in Northern Europe have all contributed to the food crisis. The push to produce Biofuels, as an alternative to hydrocarbons, will further strain food supplies. Generous government subsidies for ethanol in the U.S. have lured thousands of farmers away from growing crops for food. South Africa has broken ranks with the South African Development Community with their approval of Genetically Modified Cultivars even though South Africa is party to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol,There is enough food in the world for everyone but it is the pursuit of profit that stops people from having enough to eat. The working class and poor across the world are being forced to pay for this capitalist crisis. The price rises are a disaster for workers, the unemployed and poverty stricken communities around the world. Capitalist governments and the imperialist powers who are complete servants of the multinationals will not raise an eyebrow if not pushed by mass protest. These giant corporations are prospering and profiteering at an alarming rate in the environment of neo-liberal policies. One just needs to look at the South African government’s own neo-liberal policies and the flurry of political heavyweights baying to serve as non-executive Directors at multinational corporations and to profit from BEE steaks, as offered by capital, to understand the challenges the poor will face in our country for years to come. People across the world are becoming more frustrated at the escalating food prices and are more and more choosing to vent their anger at their governments.The more than doubling of food prices that has sparked mass protest around the world is now spreading to South Africa with COSATU, the biggest trade union federation, embarking on protest action. "They show that, once again, the poor are bearing the burden of inappropriate policies on inflation, combined with speculative food prices and a naïve belief in free markets in agriculture." said Vukani Mde a COSATU spokeperson.This situation was imposing "an intolerable burden on our people," Mr Mde said. For this reason, the union called on all its members and civil society to join in on "actions against food profiteering in the next few months." The Competition Commission in South Africa announced the formation of a crack team to investigate price fixing in the food industry.The average maize price increase in South Africa was 28 percent and sugar rose by 12.6 percent.What is the cause of the crisis? What should be done? Corruption, governments’ collusion with profit-hungry traders, food manufactures and multinationals coupled with drought and bad weather, high oil prices stocking transport costs, spiking bio-fuel demand and low reserves are the contributors to this malaise. The rising cost of oil is a major contributor to the food crisis, affecting the cost of production, transport and fertilisers. This is driving the switch to biofuel production, which is further exacerbating the grain shortages. George Bush recently signed an energy bill that will require the U.S. to double annual ethanol production by 2022. Bush again used his 2007 State of the Union address to propose a mandatory target for the replacement of about a fifth of oil-based transport fuels with 35 billion gallons of biofuels to be sold by 2017. Nearly a third of the corn output in the U.S this year will be used to make an estimated 9.3 billion gallons of ethanol.The race among western countries to produce this grain-based alternative fuel is responsible, in significant part, for the escalating food costs. The logic is simple: When countries put corn aside for energy, the amount available for food is in greater demand, and prices rise. If demand is already high, the effect is amplified. Climate change also plays a role as massive droughts and storms, such as a cyclone last year that destroyed $600 million (R4 320 million) worth of rice in Bangladesh, appear to be increasingly destructive.There is no long-term solution under capitalism, because the overriding interest of food manufacturers and distributors is profit. The working class and poor across the world are being forced to bear the brunt.There is no guarantee that governments will respond, but public attention can often illuminate otherwise ignored problems. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as in Latin America and West Africa, millions are growing dissatisfied with their governments.In South Africa the government has a constitutional obligation, as expressed in the Bill of Rights, to ensure socio-economic rights for all it citizens, especially the poor. These rights include access to sufficient food, water and social security including social assistance for the poor if they are unable to support themselves and their dependants. The constitution prohibits the state from adopting retrogressive measures such as depriving the people of access to food and water. The government, through people driven campaigns, must be compelled to adopt laws, policies and programmes to fulfill these socio-economic rights of the people. The South African populace needs to be vigilant as the cabinet approved the development of an industrial biofuels strategy in late 2005 and released its draft strategy in late 2006. Biofuel developments are seen primarily as being in support of Deputy President Pumzile Mlambo Ngcuka’s Accelerated Shared Growth Initiative (AsgiSA), which aims to increase growth to 6 percent and perform a capitalist miracle to merge the First and Second economies. It puzzlingly suggests that job creation through the biofuels sector will achieve this and alarmingly claims that 55,000 new jobs will be created in rural areas.It is estimated that the very poor in South Africa spend over 62 percent of their income on food if they live in the rural areas and over 51 percent if they live in the towns. Even the middle income group spends a lot on food with 53 percent in the rural areas, 44 percent in the towns.The demand must be made for the government to swiftly implement policy measures that include (1) price controls on most staple food items, (2) the establishment a State-owned Commodity Marketing Board that must be the sole buyer of particular commodities and/or operate a guaranteed price/purchase scheme for others, (3) the sale of agricultural inputs/technologies, at subsidized prices, that lower input cost but contributes to higher yields and increased productivity and (4) a state entity for the production of some basic commodities.These policies and programme must allow for (1) market interventions to alter the food prices directly, (2) support to improve competitiveness of the agricultural sector and above all safety net interventions in support of poor households. The cry for the Basic Income Grant must grow louder and louder.Governments around the world must come under pressure from protest movements to fix food prices and even nationalise some food production. The organs of state, including parastatals, must implement and prioritise programmes to alleviate the plight of the poor and improve the quality of life of the people.. It remains that mass campaigns by organised formations of the people must force governments to act swift and ensure food security for the all.

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