Posted by Irresponsibility
I grew up in a household where plate-clearing was mandatory. If my mother didn’t actually say, “Think of the starving children in Africa” the guilt-trip was definitely implied. Like a sane person, I resented this crude coercion, and the vegetables it was designed to make me ingest. Reading about the latest vertiginous leap in world food prices (‘World food prices enter ‘danger territory’ to reach record high’), however, forces me to look at that hackneyed parental admonition in new light. I am too sophisticated to believe that finishing my cabbage will save a swollen-bellied baby on another continent, but in a sense, my mum was right. Food security is a moral issue.
Note Murdoch mouthpiece the Financial Times’ pathetic attempt to defend the status quo, arguing: “Prices may have risen sharply but the big spikes have been in ‘middle class’ agricultural commodities – sugar, meat and soybeans [sic]. These are not the staples on which the inhabitants of the poorest nations rely for subsistence, but ‘luxuries’”. This sophistry avoids the obvious: the land and resources needed to grow staple crops for the world’s “poorest” is being snapped up by agribusiness hungry to profit from the insatiable middle-class appetite for luxury foods. And not just foods. Key price drivers include the American and Brazilian demand for corn and sugar to use in biofuels, and demand for corn as animal feed and to make high-fructose corn-syrup, a staple ingredient of processed foods.
The UN World Food Situation graph of food commodity prices is worth a close look. Top of the chart – and spiking – is the price of sugar. The average Brit eats more than 65 pounds of sugar per year, the average American eats over 140 pounds of sugar each year. This is the 21st century version of “let them eat cake” as agribusinesses work to supply this gluttonous demand by any means necessary, including diverting land and resources from staple crops. It is also significant that meat and dairy prices are relatively low and stable, while the price of cereals has jumped. The relationship can be explained by two factors: a price lag between the rise in cereal costs and the price of meat and dairy; and the meat industry absorbing some of the increased cost in order to keep demand high. Neither of these is a long term solution. The price of meat and dairy will rise and either it will become a luxury for the rich or, more likely, the meat industry will gobble up even bigger swathes of cereal, land and resources, and further exploit its labour force in an attempt to maximumise profit.
Eating meat is not morally questionable, per se, nor is any other individual choice about food consumption. It is a travesty, however, to mindlessly support a food economy driven by greed and the bottom line. Food and water are fundamental human rights. The so-called free market is a failure because it puts the world’s poor at risk not because of actual scarcity, but because it prioritises profit over human life.
What you put on your plate does affect Africa, Latin America, Asia and, ultimately, all of us. Any excessive, unsustainable food demand is an affront to justice. Self-righteous vegans who insist on unseasonal, organic fruit that’s shipped halfway around the world are just as culpable as the family tucking into factory-farmed pork for Sunday dinner.