by Mireille Vermeulen
Food prices are on the rise again and the global market for commodities like wheat responds very nervously to every negative price tweet from Russia. One of the reasons that the wheat market is so unstable is the fact that the countries around the Black Sea -Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan- now produce 30 percent of the wheat supply traded internationally, instead of the 4 percent share it contributed before.
The export ban on wheat in Russia and prospects of poor harvests in the rest of the world (i.e., in Canada and Germany due to too much rain, and in Argentina and Australia because of drought), directly influences prices on the market.
Already in September of this year, Abdolreza Abbassian, an economist at the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, warned against rising food prices within the coming crucial months in an article in the New York Times. An increase in the price of wheat has a spill-over effect onto other grains, such as maize and soyabean. The prices of in the so-called breakfast commodities, coffee, tea, cocoa and sugar, have also risen in the past year and a half. After inflation and deflation, the new concept of ''agflation'' has become popular among economists.
Last week The Economist recently presented a more relativist view of the situation in their daily chart contribution. According to them, food is still cheaper in real terms than it was 30 years ago - so what are we complaining about? This is simply playing with numbers, however. Fifty years ago there were a billion people undernourished and today this figure remains the same. This can be presented as progress, as one billion represented a third of the population at that time while now it is only one-sixth. Imagine, however, being one of that billion...
The first warnings of rising bread prices caused social unrest in Mozambique in September at which time ten people died. The problem is perhaps that this billion hungry people have to share food with so many more people. Besides this,the way people consume these days and the kind of products they want, places a demand on even more food, more transport and more processing.
According to a review in the New York Times of the book by Julian Cribb, ''The coming famine'', this pattern of overconsumption is characteristic for people in North America and Europe - and is becoming more so in India and China. The world has what Cribb calls ''two elephants in its kitchen'': a projected 33 percent growth in population in the next 20 years, and an increased consumption of meat among the growing global middle class. This means that food production must grow by at least 50 percent.
However, there is a third elephant knocking on the kitchen door: climate change, increased temperatures, overexploitation of the sea and natural resources, overuse of chemical fertiliser, reliance on fossil fuels, protectionism and subsidies, increase in production for biofuels and rising waste are among the factors that hamper an increase in food production. These issues might be the problem.
Not a problem without possible solutions, though. Small-scale farmers produce most of the food we eat, and says Cribb: it is the small-scale farmers who should be supported by fair prices and compensation for their stewardship services to the Earth; finances should not to to the biggest agricultural corporations - but to research for new green technologies; and agricultural products should not be wasted.
I fully agree with these propositions. Policy-makers should focus on small-scale sustainable agriculture. Small-scale farmers already produce almost 80% of food on regional markets in Africa and Asia. Family farming is more productive and is better for the Earth and its people. Seventy percent out of the mentioned one billion hungry people are poor farmers in rural areas. They need fair prices for their agricultural products. Cheap food is no longer a global right. Fair food is.