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Why Does Food Cost More? 

click to enlarge Photo by Bob Doran
  • Photo by Bob Doran

If you've been grocery shopping lately, and paying attention at the check-out stand, you know the food we eat has gone up in price. Basic things like bread, milk and eggs are all more expensive than they were last spring — a lot more. And if you've been watching the news, you know food prices are up all over the world, to the extent that they're causing political turmoil.

While the cost of groceries has increased here, the effects are not felt in quite the same way as in developing countries. The average American family spends around 10 percent of its income on food. In developing countries it's 80 percent, according to recent statistics from the United Nations Food Program. Their stats also show that the price of corn has risen 57 percent in the last year, beans are up 40 percent and the price of rice, a staple in many cultures, has gone up a staggering 141 percent.

"There are food riots everywhere, from Haiti to India to Egypt to Italy," reports Raj Patel, a journalist/activist focusing on food policy. "Even China is worried now about unrest due to food price inflation."

Patel has been involved in food-related issues for some time. He's worked for the World Bank, the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, and, as his publisher notes, he's been tear-gassed on four continents protesting against those same organizations. Currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, he's written about food politics for the Los Angeles Times and for The Guardian.

Patel's new book, Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World's Food System,is timely to say the least. It's put him in demand of late doing interviews for the BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN International and talking with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!

Next week Patel is coming this way. He'll speak Thursday, May 1, at Humboldt State in the new BSS Forum, Room 162. In advance of his visit we asked him a few questions. To start with: Why is the cost of food so high right now?

"There are five basic reasons," he began. "The first is the price of oil. Because under industrial agriculture it takes a calorie of fossil fuel to produce every calorie that we eat, when the price of that fossil fuel goes north of $115 per barrel, the cost of food goes up."

And, he explained, it's not just that we're paying more to transport food. "Production methods have become very, very energy intensive. Fossil fuels are a critical component in the manufacture of fertilizer, so the price of fertilizer goes up when oil goes up, and food prices go up."

Reason two: biofuel. "Biofuel is put forward as a way to save the planet by providing clean energy, and it's getting a lot of attention, this being an election year. It's a ludicrous idea that you would want to grow food, not to eat it, but to set it on fire. Sadly enough, what biofuel does is encourage farmers to do things like switch away from growing wheat to growing corn."

And with more and more corn diverted away from food production, the biofuel you pump into your gas tank may mean that a peasant family in Mexico can't afford tortillas.

The third reason is the ever-expanding amount of grain used in meat production. "We're seeing an increased consumption of meat, particularly in developing countries. That's diverting food away from people who only eat grain to animals, who eat the same grain and are eaten by people who can afford meat. You find this change in diet in any country where there's a growing middle class.

"The crazy thing is, [this trend] we call "the nutrition transition,' a move towards a more American kind of diet, is a reason to be worried. No one's really saying this, but the fact is there isn't enough planet to sustain the sort of production that goes into the American diet. And the change is not even a good idea. The American diet is killing people in the U.S. American children now have a life expectancy five years shorter than their parents because of obesity, diabetes and heart disease and all these other things associated with the American diet."

Reason four: bad harvest. "We're at a time when the harvests have failed internationally, for wheat in particular. Australia was particularly hard hit by drought last year. Poor harvest also happened in the Philippines with the rice crop. When their exports go down, it affects everyone. There are random other reasons, but it's also climate change. And we can expect to see more harvest failures like this because the climate has become so unpredictable."

Patel's fifth reason is something that is not often discussed. "It's the effect of

financial speculation from trading companies. It recently came to light in Spain that four companies have been in collusion to set the price of bread. They were basically saying that there's going to be inflation, and the price is going to go up, and then they raised the price. But they raised prices without any input cost increase on their part — they raised the price because they could. While that kind of collusion is not the norm, there's speculation across all of the food markets and the food derivatives markets. And that's driving prices up. It's like a run on the bank. If enough people believe that there's food price inflation, there is food price inflation. That's something all sorts of people are worried about."

With globalization in full effect in world food markets, you find that a drought causing failure of the wheat crop in Australia means you pay more for a loaf of bread in Arcata.

"While the wheat used in the bread in Northern California may not come from another part of the world, the price of that wheat is set in other parts of the world," said Patel.

So is there anything we can do aside from hope that those at the top will figure things out? Maybe. "The reason we're in the mess that we are is because of the way people at the top have been figuring things out," Patel said. "There are places where food riots are resulting in policy changes, where the leadership is basically bowing to the will of the people. There you'll see policy shifts on protectionism, grain storage, support for sustainable agriculture. Those sorts of things have been working out quite well. That's the democratic solution."

There has been a marked concentration of corporate power when it comes to food with big companies getting bigger by buying other food companies big and small. Even the natural and organic food business is succumbing to this trend toward buyouts and mergers.

And says Patel, it's a vicious circle. "Corporations are able to be as powerful as they are, in part, because they're making such large profits. And they're making these large profits because they're not really paying for the full environmental and social cost of the way they produce their food.

"The way a lot of American meat is produced, for example, is through what they call "concentrated feeding operations' [feed lots]. And these are responsible for a sort of dead zone that has appeared in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the toxic run-off from the feeding operations, an area the size of New Jersey. But they don't have to pay for that, nor do they pay the full cost for al the fossil fuels they're using. We, as a planet, shoulder the costs so that they can get the profits they make."

So, what's a shopper to do if they want to stem the tide? How do we shop better at our local grocery store?

Patel offers a simple suggestion: "Go local. Leave your shopping cart in the aisle. Get out of the supermarket and go to your local farmers' market. Because, although we tend to feel guilty about our food and look for the right label on the packaging, look for the fair trade this and the reduced that and the other, actually one of the best ways to make a connection with for food is by talking to the people who grew it. You can only do that in a farmers' market. You can't do that at your supermarket, no matter how green it claims to be. You can ask questions: How was this grown? Where was it grown? When was it grown? And then, how were the workers treated? And did you grow this agro-ecologically, and would you considering growing in ways that are more sustainable? Those are questions you can't ask at the supermarket check-out.

"Asking them at the farmers' market and spending money there is also a great way of supporting your local economy. No matter how good a supermarket claims to be, it remains a fact that money spent at a farmers' market is more likely to be circulated within your community. If you're a farmer and I buy something from you, you're going to spend that on food from someone else, or on local services. When you shop at a supermarket, those profits get taken back to headquarters."

As Patel noted, there has not been much talk in the current election debates about food-related issues. "It's incumbent on people who care about these things to demand from their candidates a very strong view on pollution, on the environment, on corporate concentration of power and a shift towards more agro-ecological farming."

That shift in agriculture is the main recommendation of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, a three-year collaborative initiative between the U.N., the World Bank, WHO, and many others, that just issued a report.

"Their conclusions were that you can't feed the planet through industrial agriculture," said Patel. "The kind of agriculture that is dominant in the U.S. is responsible for destroying the planet, not feeding it. We have to shift away from that, and it will only happen if people demand that it happen. We've seen the demand made gently on climate change. We need the same sort of thing on agriculture."

Raj Patel speaks at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 1, in the BSS Forum, Room 162, on the HSU campus. For more information call 826-3142. For more on Patel's book, go to stuffedandstarved.org.

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Bob Doran

Bob Doran

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