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Marcus Samuelsson

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The Politics of Food: How U.S. Farm Policy Impacts People Worldwide

Posted: 02/23/11 02:47 PM ET

Many experts have pointed out links between the recent revolution in Egypt and the fact that global food prices surged to a record high in January. While Egypt has wealth and a significant number of urban professionals, about 40% of the population still lives on an income of under $2 a day -- 20% exist on a mere $1 a day. And in the best of times, the average Egyptian spends 40% of their income on food. As food prices have risen over 20% in Egypt, hunger and food insecurity has also risen.

The people of Egypt are not alone: nearly 3 billion people worldwide live on less than $2 per day. More than $1.3 billion people globally do not have access to safe and clean water. Which means that a good percentage of the world is rife with food insecurity. When you are already eating as cheaply and meagerly as possible, any raise in cost can quickly plunge you and your family into hunger. People might not protest for overtly political or social causes, but when they can't feed themselves and their family, they will take to the streets.

The reasons for food insecurity are many and varied. But part of the problem is the global farming systems. Egypt is the largest wheat importer in the world. In some part this is due to irrigation issues and inhospitable climes. Egypt's dependence on wheat is also partially because for decades it has been cheaper to import wheat, corn, soy and barley from the U.S. than to grow it locally.

Farming subsidies in the U.S. have created a system which lessens the perceived value of food from a nutritional standpoint and heightens its value as a commodity. Decisions on food production and agriculture are made about what will make the largest profit.

In America, the banner crop for big agriculture is corn. Corn itself is not evil or bad. Sweet corn, which is what we eat, is a delicious, nutritious crop that I cook with frequently.

But the corn that is subsidized by the government, which gets turned into high-fructose corn syrup, processed foods and ethanol is the commodity that supplants any natural food supply. Because instead of a diverse variety of crops being grown in a region, and people being able to feed and sustain themselves locally off those crops, corn is grown because of the subsidies, and an unrealistic nutritional and financial structure is created.

The current model is unsustainable on many levels, from growth of the kernels to the price on the stock ticker. And it doesn't just affect US farming and policy, it affects farmers throughout the world.

Because of the US subsidy system, it is actually cheaper for many other countries to import these foods than it is to grow these crops locally. Local farmers who would be able to competitively price their wares in a market-based economy cannot compete against the artificially low prices of commodity crops. This unbalance erodes the local farming economies which further increases dependence on imports. When global food prices rise, there is often little recourse for local economies.

The subsidized crops that are exported go up in down in value. Though always less than the market-value, it changes. Say China wants to make fuel out of corn, so they're buying more of it to make ethanol, there's less available for these other countries, the prices go up. Since 2005 corn prices have risen 139 percent, barley now costs twice as much as it did six years ago and the price of soy is 90% higher.

But if you're already spending a significant portion of your meager income on food and the cost doubles, where do you go from there?

As a UN Ambassador for the UNICEF TAP Project, it's one of my priorities to get clean water to people throughout Africa. Whether it's wheat in Egypt, corn in China, or water in Ethiopia, all these substances that sustain us are affected by politics. The political decisions of the US affect the entire world, we need to realize that we are a truly global community.

 
 
 

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