A few months ago, the forward-thinking British weekly The Economist put today’s global food crisis in perspective by declaring on their cover: “The End of Cheap Food.” The message—that food prices are rising like never before, threatening to destabilize much of the world—was accompanied by hope: The world has a tremendous opportunity to address decades of misguided government policies and management, resulting in a higher standard of living for all of us.
The Washington Post began publishing a series Sunday to educate its readers. The series, entitled “Global Food Crisis: The New World of Soaring Food Prices,” began with a look at how we got to this point: “The food price shock now roiling world markets is destabilizing governments, igniting street riots and threatening to send a new wave of hunger rippling through the world’s poorest nations.”
The series’s second day tells the story of a family in Mauritania struggling to make ends meet. Mauritania has been particularly hurt by the food crisis. The Post reports that the African nation produces just 30% of what its people eat and imports the rest—a recipe for disaster when food prices are rocketing to new levels, exporting countries are raising export taxes or halting foreign sales altogether, and rich countries are hoarding food. Worse, Mauritania doesn’t have the agricultural means to feed itself:
U.N. experts, World Bank officials and aid groups fear it marks the onset of the worst food crisis in [Africa] in decades; officials are calling for $755 million in fresh emergency food assistance from rich countries. Aid groups are already falling behind in their efforts to provide food across the continent, leaving even the poorest communities increasingly dependent on the market.
This is the new face of hunger.
The third day examines wheat prices in America and begins with an anecdote of a Maryland bagel store owner who resists raising the price of his bagels to past the dollar mark:
I’ve never seen anything like this in 20 years,” he said. “It’s a nightmare.”
Fleishman and his customers are hardly alone. Across America, turmoil in the world wheat markets has sent prices of bread, pasta, noodles, pizza, pastry and bagels skittering upward, bringing protests from consumers.
Of course, for those readers aged 34 and up this isn’t the first global food crisis of their lifetime. In 1974, Time magazine began a report about the global food shortage with a Bible verse:
For nation shall rise against nation … and there shall be famines and troubles; these are the beginnings of sorrows. —Mark 13:8
Nothing is older to man than his struggle for food. From the time the early hunters stalked the mammoths and the first sedentary “farmers” scratched the soil to coax scrawny grain to grow, man has battled hunger. History is replete with his failures. The Bible chronicles one famine after an other; food was in such short supply in ancient Athens that visiting ships had to share their stores with the city; Romans prayed at the threshold of Olympus for food.
Every generation in medieval Europe suffered famine. The poor ate cats, dogs and the droppings of birds; some starving mothers ate their children. In the 20th century, periods of extreme hunger drove Soviet citizens to cannibalism, and as late as 1943, floods destroyed so much of Bengal’s crops that deaths from starvation reached the millions.
After World War II, however, it seemed that man at long last was winning the battle against hunger … experts now question whether man can prevent widespread starvation … Against this gloomy backdrop, about 1,000 delegates from some 100 nations and a dozen international organizations are gathering in Rome this week for the World Food Conference, sponsored by the United Nations. It will be the first concerted global effort in history to confront the problem of hunger … This is urgently needed to avoid fulfilling the nightmare of Parson Thomas Malthus, the English economist who predicted nearly two centuries ago that population would outrun man’s capacity to produce food.