After decades of cheap, plentiful, accessible food, we have suddenly awoken to a new era of tightening food supplies, rising food prices, food scarcity, panic buying, long food queues and political instability—what some people are calling peak food.
People are taking to the streets in anger at being unable to afford the food they need. There have been food riots and civil unrest in Ethiopia, Egypt, Haiti, Indonesia, Senegal and many other countries. In Haiti protestors chanting 'we are hungry' forced the Prime Minister to resign. In Egypt the President has ordered the army to bake bread for the public following food riots there. And in Pakistan, armed troops guard grain elevators and the trucks that distribute grain.
Even the United States, long the world's bread basket, is starting to experience shortages and rationing. And even in Auckland, some rice importers in Auckland are starting to ration supplies.
As food prices continue to soar, the World Bank says 33 countries where 50-80% of a family's income is spent on food, could face serious unrest because of rising food costs—which have risen by 83% in the past 3 years, and 60% in the past year.
The world's finance ministers recently warned at a recent meeting that rising food prices pose more of a threat to political and social stability than the current crisis in global markets. The Indian Finance Minister said: "It's becoming starker by the day that unless we act fast, the social unrest induced by food prices will conglomerate into a global contagion, leaving no country, developed or otherwise, unscathed."
The Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is convening a World Food Security Conference on 3-5 June 2008 to discuss strategies to address the world food crisis, and the World Food Programme has begun rationing food as food becomes increasingly difficult to obtain, which is putting 37 countries that depend on its emergency food assistance at risk.
What is different about the present global food crisis is that it is likely to be ongoing, not temporary--something the world has not experienced before or at least this century. Grain prices have spiked over the past century from time to time, mostly because of weather related events, but they have always been temporary.
This time experts warn that the current doubling of grain prices is likely to be an ongoing long term trend, as a result of a number of trends converging.
Rising food population --about 79 million additional people living on the planet each year.
Historically low levels of food stocks. Cereal stocks stand at around only 55 days –the lowest on record--which makes global food supplies precarious and vulnerable to an international crisis or a big natural disaster.
Grain and rice exporting countries like Russia, the Ukraine, Argentina, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Kazakstan have stopped or restricted their exports to protect domestic supplies and food prices, while countries like Singapore and Malaysia are stockpiling staples. And this is driving prices higher.
Then there is the early effects of climate change and events like the drought in Australia, crop withering heat waves, floods, destructive storms have affected harvests and reduced the supply of cereals, and this has contributed to the fact that for seven of the last 8 years for example, grain consumption has exceeded production. Water shortages are compounding the problem, as are other problems like the collapse of the honey bee, known as Colony Collapse Disorder, and new and emerging diseases affecting crops.
Another underlying cause is the fact that more people are switching from largely vegetarian diets and eating more meat. As a result about 50% of grain supplies are being diverted into feed for animals. And meat production is much more inefficient. In the USA it takes 8 kg of corn to produce 1 kg of beef, and 2 kg to produce 1 kg of chicken.
Then there's the rush for biofuels. Great swathes of agricultural land are being converted to growing crops for energy rather than food. The US government is subsidising American farmers to switch to growing corn for ethanol rather than food. Already a 1/3 of the US corn crop is now being grown for ethanol, and this is contributing to a competition for grain between cars and people –between the 800 million motorists who want to maintain their mobility, on the one hand, and the world's 2 billion poorest people, on the other, who are simply trying to survive.
The Special Food Rapporteur says converting food for the poor into fuel for cars for the rich is a crime against humanity and he has called for a five year moratorium on converting any further food producing land for biofuels.
Another underlying cause is the rising cost of oil. Industrial agriculture is heavily dependent on oil –at every point in the food chain—for fertiliser, pesticides, to drive machinery and transport the food. It takes about 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce, process and transport a single calorie of food.
Shipping and fertiliser costs have doubled in the past year, for example. So if the price of oil continues to climb, the price of industrial food will too.
A less frequently discussed reason is that food commodity markets have become a magnet for speculators and traders fleeing Wall street. Commodity speculators are pouring billions of dollars into commodities and grain futures –betting on the future of grain. They don't actually buy or sell a physical commodity, like rice or wheat, but bet on its price movements. As food has been turned into a distant tradable commodity, a form of capital, to be traded and speculated upon, grain prices have soared, putting food stocks further out of poor peoples reach.
Bankers and traders now control half of the wheat traded on the world's commodity markets, according to some estimates.
Many of those trading on the food commodity markets are the same corporations, like Cargills, which already control much of the food chain.
A handful of corporations control about 80% of the world's grain production, and about 8 corporations now control 80% of the world's seeds, and some own everything from the gene to the final product.
So we have an extraordinary situation where agribusiness giants like Cargills and Monsanto are making record profits while countries like the Philippines and Bangladesh can not afford to buy the rice they need because prices are so high.
This brings me to another major underlying cause of the present crisis -- the so-called trade liberalisation agenda or theology that global institutions like the World Bank and the IMF –and of course our government --have been pursuing for decades, and forcing on developing countries.
Free trade is based on the premise that food should be grown and produced wherever in the world it can be produced more cheaply. If another country can grow something more efficiently we will no longer grow it here because it is inefficient.
The WTO enforces this through global trade rules that require countries to open up their agricultural markets to global competition and forbid them from protecting them from cheap imports, as this is seen to distort or interfere with the mysterious workings of the free market.
To get access to World Bank loans, developing countries that were once self sufficient in food have been forced to dismantle their tariffs, eliminate support programmes for local farmers, and open up their agriculture markets to competition from cheap, heavily subsidised imports from the US and Europe; and then specialise in producing high value export cash crops such as coffee, cocoa, cotton and flowers for Western supermarkets. (No one has ever been able to explain to me why the leading flag wavers for free trade, Europe and American, are allowed to continue to heavily subsidise their own farmers, while preventing other developing countries from subsidising their own).
But once countries switch from growing traditional crops into cash crops for exports, local subsistence agriculture is invariably destroyed, local farmers migrate to the cities, and countries end up having to import staple crops like wheat and rice.
The result is that dozens of developing countries that were once self sufficient have become huge importers of food, and now find themselves at the mercy of a global market and skyrocketing food prices. When half the worlds population live on less than $2 a day even a few cent increase in the price of staples can be devastating.
Ghana was 80% self sufficient in rice production in 1990, now 80% is imported. It was self sufficient in poultry and egg production in 1990. Now only 11%.
Guatemala was self sufficient in food ten years ago. It was persuaded to switch to producing sugar cane and palm oil for export. The rural labour force was driven into the cities where there is huge poverty and it is now dependent on imports for half the grain it consumes.
The irony is that for years the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) assured countries that a liberalised free market was the most efficient system for producing and distributing food, but now many of the world's poorest countries find themselves without the ability to feed their populations, and forced into an intense bidding war against speculators and traders just to get staple food.
So instead of fulfilling the promise of a plentiful global food supply, free trade liberalisation has destroyed many nations ability to feed themselves, and many nations now find themselves with severe food shortages, dependent on increasingly expensive imports for their daily bread.
This is causing something of a global revolt, especially among developing nations.
While free traders cling to the idea that completing the latest free trade round DOHA, will somehow solve the crisis that free trade liberalisation has helped to create, many developing countries are rejecting DOHA and challenging the entire free trade liberalisation ideology, arguing that people's ability to feed themselves is too important to be left to the market. Some argue that free trade liberalization produces food insecurity, as it wipes out small-scale, traditional farming and encourages countries to import foods from far flung and vulnerable food supplies.
The French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier commented recently, that food is not simply a matter of trade and food cannot be left to the laws of the market alone, neither to financial speculators. "The answer to food insecurity is not brutal liberalisation of trade, but the development of agriculture all over the world and not only where it is profitable to produce it."
Many countries are now giving top priority to food security, increasing agricultural productivity and self sufficiency. The Philippines, which has been rationing rice, has announced its intention to move from being one of the worlds biggest importers of rice to being self sufficient within five years.
Central American, Caribbean and South American countries are developing a new food production strategy to guarantee food security in the region and make it self sufficient in food production.
Many countries are openly flouting WTO rules and are putting controls over food prices, exports and imports, introducing agricultural subsidies and creating food reserves –none of which is permitted under WTO.
Many are also calling for global trade rules to be changed so that countries can adopt policies to protect small farmers from cheap imports, become more self sufficient, feed more of their own people and reduce their dependence on imported staple food.
The need to return to traditional, small scale local food production has also been reinforced by one of the most comprehensive reports of global agriculture that has ever been written –a World Bank report, written by 400 scientists over four years --called the 'International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development' (IAASTD). It concluded that the old energy- and chemical-intensive paradigm of industrial agriculture has failed, and left a trail of destruction that needs to be cleaned up; and that small scale farming using natural resources and sustainable techniques will be more effective at meeting the world's food needs than industrial agriculture.
It says countries need to shift to much more localised systems of food production, which are less dependent on fossil fuels, and use local resources, natural fertilisers, traditional seeds and tries to preserve soil and water supplies.
It predicts that genetically modified crops won't play a major role in meeting the challenges of food production; and that organic agriculture is a credible solution for global food needs in the 21st Century.
Even the World Bank, which facilitated the report, has acknowledged that "Business as usual is not an option" and that we have to change the way we produce food.
So that is the global context; where does that leave New Zealand: Obviously, as a food producing nation, we are much better off than many countries which do not produce food, but even in New Zealand we can see similar trends at work which suggest that something is fundamentally wrong with our global food system.
We are in danger of becoming a cash crop nation –producing dairy and to a lesser extent meat for export –while other sectors are being eroded by cheap imports. We import 2.8 million tonnes of food each year -- bananas from Equador, garlic from China, wheat from Australia--and our imports are growing every year.
In the 1980's before we removed subsidies, New Zealand was self sufficient in wheat. But now we import 75% of the wheat we eat, which makes us vulnerable to skyrocketing wheat prices.
Ironically, even as international grain prices are soaring, our grain growers are struggling to keep ahead. Our five main grain mills are owned by global agribusinesses which set the price of wheat –and pay New Zealand growers substantially less than they pay for imported wheat.
Wheat growers in New Zealand, as elsewhere, are being hit by rising fertiliser, seed, and pesticide costs, driven up by the rising price of oil; and as a result many are converting to growing wheat for animal feed which gets higher returns, or to dairying.
The same thing is happening in other parts of our food industry. Sheep farmers find themselves squeezed by low prices and high costs. Our once flourishing garlic industry has been decimated by cheap garlic from China and now there are only 3-4 left in Marlborough, and they are struggling. We import 45% of the pork we consume, and our pig farmers are struggling. We import so much cheap canned fruit and jam that very little of that is made in New Zealand anymore, and on it goes. And then we have the absurd situation where Talleys is gutting some species of fish at its local factory, then exporting them to China for re-processing, and then returning them to New Zealand for sale.
And even in the one industry where we do dominate world markets –our dairy industry—prices for dairy products are exorbitant and beyond the reach of many New Zealanders because Fonterra claims we have to pay prices that are set globally –presumably by global commodity traders and speculators –for food that is produced down the road.
So even as a food producing nation we are hugely affected by the volatile global marketplace, and by rising food and oil prices.
Food prices increased 6% in the year to March 2008 with butter up 82% cheese up 44%. And these prices are putting healthy food out of reach of many New Zealanders.
So what can we do about the volatile global food situation, and reduce its impact on us.
The Green Party believes we need to do what many other countries are doing, and become a more self sufficient, resilient, diverse agricultural nation; less dependent on imported staples. We want New Zealand to develop a national food security strategy to ensure we have a sufficient supply of staples to withstand global shortages, skyrocketing food prices or even interruptions in the supply of basic commodities; and most importantly, to ensure all New Zealanders have access to healthy, affordable food.
Our Minister of Agriculture, Jim Anderton, thinks this is a loopy idea. "We need a food security strategy as much as we need to prepare for the Martians landing", he said in response to my call for a national food security strategy.
But we disagree. We believe it makes sense to rely more on our own efforts and on food grown closer to home than on a far flung and increasingly fragile global economic system and a global food system which is experiencing food shortages.
As food writer Michael Pollan points out: there is a sense of security from knowing that your community or country can feed itself. So if any of the food chains fail, if oil runs out, pesticides no longer work, we will still have a way to feed themselves."
As part of our strategy to make ourselves more resilient, we want to re-establish a local, diversified, low carbon food economy, –what Michael Pollan calls 'a short food chain' --which will reduce our carbon footprint, reduce our dependence on oil and on skyrocketing global food prices, and at the same time connect consumers with farmers.
We want to see your wonderful network of Farmers Markets expanded into every town in New Zealand. We are delighted that you have received $96,000 funding from Buy Kiwi-made. I know this is an important issue at your conference and I hope you can come up with a system of authentication that will enable you to accept the funding.
We also want to encourage community gardens, community assisted agricultural initiatives, food exchange programmes. And we want to encourage New Zealanders to grow some of their own food. It's one of the best ways of getting access to healthy, affordable food.
We want all primary school children to be taught how to grow, harvest and prepare food. We want to grow edible trees in every school in New Zealand, and on parks and reserves as well.
We want to encourage a much greater uptake of fair trade food, so that when we buy imported food we know that we are supporting, not undermining, their local farmers.
We want to make consumers aware that buying local, sustainable food is one of the most effective ways of reducing our carbon emissions and our dependence on oil.
Many consumers are already turning away from giant SUVs to more energy efficient cars, as oil prices rise. We want to encourage a similar turning away from industrial, petroleum dependent food towards local food production.
These may seem like modest steps, but together, they lay the foundations for a more resilient, more healthy local food economy—one which gives us more control over our food supply and cuts out the host of other middlemen which stand between the consumer and the farmer, and which deprive farmers of their income and inflate food prices.
Growing our own food has other benefits as well. As a nation we have become disconnected from the natural world and from the food supply, and we have generations of children who have no sense of where their food comes from, let alone how to grow, harvest and cook their own food. We have young people who can create a new web page, but don't know how to grow up potato.
Growing some of our own food, and teaching children how to grow and prepare food, connects us, once again, with our food supply, with the changing seasons, with nature.
And as Michael Pollan points out, its hard to eat badly from a farmers market or from your own garden. You wont find high fructose corn syrup in the farmers market, jet lagged produce that has been fumigated with methyl bromide, or packages with long unpronounceable names. So eating local fresh food improves our health and well being as well.
He argues that growing some of your own food is one of the most powerful things an individual can do. It can also go a long way to feeding a nation, as the so-called victory gardens in the Second World War demonstrated in American, which provided 40% of the nation's food. People were exhorted to change from an economy of waste to an economy of conservation, and the majority of civilians answered the call. We had victory gardens in New Zealand as well, and let us not forget that until about the 1960's it was the norm for New Zealanders to grow their food and have a hen house.
Then there is the inspiring example of Cuba. When it suddenly lost its ability to trade in the global food market with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was the small scale approaches of urban agriculture that literally saved their lives, and eventually turned them into world leaders in self-sufficiency based on small scale organic agriculture.
We can see these sorts of initiatives sprouting up around New Zealand. In Waiheke Island a small voluntary organisation runs a stall at the local market each Saturday, for the exchange of surplus local produce. People come and donate whatever they have to spare from their gardens and other people come and buy it or swap it for some fruit or vegetables they have to spare.
Another group is working with the council to plant fruit trees in reserves. And they are starting up a second community gardens on a council reserve. And the council has planted basil and chillies in the "flower" beds outside the council offices, and invited the community to come and help themselves to them.
In Wanganui an accountant is distributing thousands of heritage apples trees called 'Monty's Surprise' for free, because these heritage trees have been found to have unusually high antioxidants and other nutrients.
And we have people like the editor of the New Zealand Gardener Lynda Hallinan living off small urban sections. Twelve months ago Linda made a New Years resolution to only eat homegrown fruit and vegetables, and to spend no more than $10 a week on basics at the supermarket. Her self sufficiency efforts were so successful she was able to trade her surplus produce at the local market for the necessities she couldn't grow in her own back yard. Now she's encouraging others to convert their lawns into garden and follow her example.
Obviously there are other steps we need to take to ensure our access to affordable, healthy food. We need to increase the minimum wage, the unemployment and other benefits and the pension, so people can afford to buy food. We need to consider policies like removing GST off food (already dismissed by government), and investigate the commercial behaviour of supermarkets and whether they treat consumers and producers fairly.
And instead of standing back and allowing key food producing sectors of our economy to go to the wall we should step in and help them. Our garlic growers need help importing seed stock, our pig farmers need protection against imported pig viruses, our wheat growers need help if they are to survive.
We also need to recognise how absurd – and indeed obscene it is that we have allowed the free trade liberalisation agenda to transform food from something that nourishes people and is the most basic necessity of life into a commodity to be traded at the highest price. By putting the profits of investors before the needs of the people, we have created the situation where entire countries have lost that most basic power, the ability to feed themselves, while global corporations become ever more powerful and more profitable.
We need to challenge the doctrine of free trade and accept that people's right to food, to be free from hunger, must have priority over an ideological fixation on allowing market forces to prevail at all costs.
We need to do all of these things, as there is sadly no magic bullet solution to this growing global food crisis. The Green party is developing a suite of policies which we will announce shortly, and we have already secured funding for some projects such as the Nutrition Fund and the Organics Advisory service.
The beauty of focussing on local community initiatives like farmers markets, is that it's something we can do now, starting tomorrow. We don't need to wait for the Martians to land before the government will act. The exciting thing is that its already starting to happen, as this conference demonstrates, and we are starting to see a grassroots movement for change, for greater resilience, for more community action, all around New Zealand.
It is below the radar – the media haven't picked it up yet – but I see it happening all over New Zealand. And the Green Party wants to do everything we can to support this movement, for what could be more important for sustaining present and future generations than providing good food in a manner that sustains not only consumers and producers but also the planet itself.