Food crisis

A food crisis seems likely — each year global demand for food grows whilst farmers almost everywhere are squeezed to the margins by rising costs, depleted soils and uncertain weather. Even the bees that pollinate crops are dying.

Add to this the reality that many nations [including some of the poorest] must import food to feed their populations and the risk is easy to imagine.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, maize, rice and wheat account for 20% of the food consumed — whilst most of the maize is grown locally, 45% of the rice and 85% of the wheat is imported.

In these situations it only needs a shock, even localized one, and a food crisis would be with us.

It happened in 2006-2007 when droughts in grain producing nations and rising oil prices push demand ahead of supply. There were riots in parts of Africa and significant concern.

As the FAO food price index shows there was another spike early in 2011. This one did not make so many headlines, partly because there were greater stockpiles of grain than in 2006.

A good thing?

It is not for those without money to buy food but a food crisis could be a good thing, at least as a test of our collective maturity.

Instead of letting the economic system dictate responses to regional food shortages with the inevitable tension that creates, we could dissipate them.

We could liberalise trade agreements and let supplies flow more easily when a food crisis hits. All it would need was collective agreement and monitoring of triggers such as global commodity prices, to switch away from business as usual that is driven by profit.

Great maturity is needed because our innate response to a threat is to protect ourselves. In this case through trade barriers or by keeping the food that we grow for ourselves — or worse, waiting for prices to rise before we sell so as to maximize profit.

What we spend on food

As a general rule people spend a lower proportion of their income on food as their income rises. So consistent is this pattern that a rather surly looking 19th century German statistician, Ernst Engel, made it into a law.

World Bank data for 2009 illustrates what this means — the percentage of average household expenditure spent on food…

  • 6% US
  • 9% UK
  • 14% France
  • 20% South Africa
  • 25% Brazil
  • 35% India
  • 45% Kenya

And that 45% in Kenya was of an average household annual income of just $541

So as household affluence grows so does the absolute amount spent on food but proportionally the amount declines.

Now imagine a doubling of food prices.

Certainly in the US and Europe consumers would complain. They would need to find an additional $40 per week to spend on food — not such a big deal given the average weekly spend is over $500.

A Kenyan family would need to find less that $5 per week — except that now almost all their income goes on food leaving nothing for clothes, school fees, medical expense and any discretionary spending.

The food crisis will be felt where income is lowest.

Urban markets like this one in Manokware, West Papua, Indonesia are where price rises will be felt most acutely

The environmental issue 

In a food crisis there is often political and social instability. And in times of crisis moderation and environmental protection declines as resources are used just to get people through… 

  • land clearing for opportunistic crops increases
  • wildlife becomes a more attractive food source
  • reliance on local production increases pushing soil and water resources 

Engel might not have proved it but a rule of thumb is that natural capital is easier to conserve when times are good.

It sounds like the consequences of capitalism are at the core of all environmental issues.

Ask Alloporus would argue that it is not the economic model that creates the issue but our inability to rein it in when it gets out of hand.

More related pages on Ask Alloporus... food security | family farming | subsistence agriculture | agriculture facts

› food crisis

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ironically any shortages of food due and high prices are less likely to affect the remotest communities that have been self-sufficient for thousands of generations like this one in Papua New Guinea

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