We analyse elections, oil prices and war in Afghanistan until the cows come home and in doing so we often confuse politics into an overstudied whirlygig. But one development on a global scale has gone relatively unnoticed, despite the fact that its effects will be felt by all at every level of society, in every country in the world.
Cereals – tiny, innocuous, homesteady grains, have reluctantly been thrust into the spotlight for their 15 minutes of fame.
Grain prices have shot up in recent months and here in London a mere ripple across day-to-day life will soon become a splash in everybody’s approach to food and living. Any politics that directly affects our greedy appetites is a sure-fire way of getting peoples’ attention.
Last year’s dramatic riots in Latin America pricked all of our ears up, whilst just two weeks ago, New York magazine noticed that prices of ubiquitous NYC staples – slizes of pizza, bagels, hot-dogs – are resolutely heading north. Everything from flour to eggs and cheese (grain-fed chooks and cows) is affected.
The reasons for the world food crisis (and don’t go believing that just because your dough balls are piping hot and pillowy, London is spared) are like a knotted ball of string.
In no particular order: the Chinese have developed a taste for meat and the ‘westernised’ diet. It takes 700 calories of animal feed to produce 100 calories of beef. Modern farming is oil-dependent and more powers are competing for the same amount of oil, which itself is more expensive because of war with Iraq. Grain-producing countries, in particular, Australia, are suffering massive droughts – owed, in no small way, to climate change. This limits exports, affecting both import and export nations’ food supplies. Many mistakenly see biofuels as an answer to climate change, although one litre of ethanol from corn uses most of the energy the ethanol contains. Deforestation has risen with biofuel production. The focus on biofuels essentially – and devastatingly – cranks the spotlight from the third world on to voter-friendly green wash. Each knot is a result of a twist somewhere else along the line.
Time and again we are reminded just how much economy and ecology are not mutually exclusive. Whether you believe that they can exist symbiotically, or like Paul Kingsnorth of Ecologist magazine, you see civilisation heading towards ‘ecocide’, the food crisis is a salutory and inescapable reality.
The sobering words of Paul Krugman of the New York Times encapsulate the situation pretty neatly: “Cheap food, like cheap oil, may soon be a thing of the past.”
Your Weetabix may never taste the same.