While the US is consumed with a $4 billion general election campaign with its all-important focus on whether someone wears an American flag lapel pin or knew anyone with a checkered past, a slowly developing Tsunami of Hunger is rolling across a number of lands both near and far.
Today's New York Times has a photo and story of a girl in Haiti rummaging through a garbage dump for scraps of food while another article devotes even more space to the trials and tribulations of organic food aficionados whose vegan-only budgets are being hammered by the disparity in prices between organic and processed foods....oh pity us all!
It's impossible to pin blame on any one source for this situation but here's a list from someone with 29 years' experience feeding and medicating those in need:
1. Global warming, El Nino, La Nina and the resulting disruption of weather patterns have destroyed traditional farmers' intuition on when and what to plant. If they guess wrong and the rains don't come or fall too heavily, crops fail and local prices rise as incomes fall. Crop substitution takes vast amounts of new capital.
2. Food aid policies and funding are way off what they need to be. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) forecasts a 56% rise in the bill poor countries (in Africa, it's forecast to be 74%) must pay to import cereals and other staples in 2007/2008 on top of a 37% rise in 2006/2007 food prices. The UN's World Food Program is asking for drastic increases in both food donations and money from donor governments to stave off growing evidence of malnutrition and outright hunger in dozens of countries. There is an active discussion in Washington, DC about radically altering the "buy-American" mandate on food purchasing and allowing food to be purchased locally when available--strengthening local markets and encouraging more local food production; but the farm states and agro-business are predictably against much of this. US foreign aid funding has always been inadequate in the area of agricultural development despite everyone's acknowledgement that this is the signal precursor to sustainable development and food security.
3. Ethanol production using maize (corn) is growing rapidly at the expense of setting aside adequate amounts of maize for human consumption. This creates shortages and a spike in prices for a wide range of food products. The use of sugar cane residue and other organic crops which can also produce ethanol is being ignored in the US because of the corn and ethanol producers' lobbying efforts. The displacement of petroleum by ethanol is a good thing but it won't lower air pollution and may just kill people from the resulting riots and hunger caused by food shortages.
Domestic food price hikes in many countries have spurred social unrest--many countries carefully regulate what is charged for bread, rice, maize, milk, cooking oil, soybeans and other foods. When weak governments with a tenuous hold on power raise food prices, there is often a serious domestic reaction. The use of export restrictions, subsidies, tariff reductions and price controls to limit the impact of price hikes has failed to curb the disruption. While Haiti has always had serious food shortages and resulting domestic violence, food riots have also occurred in far more stable and prosperous countries--Thailand, Indonesia, Egypt, Senegal, Cameroon, Uganda and Ethiopia. The list will increase dramatically as prices continue to rise.
When you "Walk the World" as relief workers do, the results are manifest--children wasting away from hunger, adults too weak to work, hospitals and clinics crowded with sick or injured people, local governments hollow shells of incompetence, indifference or corruption.
And yet we debate lapel pins, acquaintances and the majesty of the church steeple.
Richard M. Walden, is founder, President and CEO of Operation USA, a 29 year old international relief agency based in Los Angeles, www.opusa.org