Columnists

Ralph Surette
What's behind rising food prices?

| March 28, 2011

The NDP government has blocked a move to develop lands designated as agricultural in King's County. The reasons given were in the technical language of zoning regulations. But this is no mere local question.

Rising food prices and increasing trouble in the whole vast reality to which food is central is now one of the world's biggest problems -- a "silent tsunami" as The Economist magazine called it -- a part of the larger issue of climate change and resource depletion.

Food prices are at their highest levels ever and poised to rise higher (eight per cent in Canada, for now). This news was working its way to prominence a few weeks ago when other events washed over it -- upheavals in the Middle East (of which food prices are a cause), catastrophe in Japan (of which a compromised food supply is a consequence), and election uproar in Canada (where this should be an issue, but isn't).

There's both a downside and an upside to this. The downside blew open in 2008 when there were food riots in many countries because of rising prices.

Because of the recession and a good grain harvest, things stabilized in 2009. But last year trouble resumed, mainly because of droughts and floods, as the world consumed 60 million tons of grain more than the 2,180 million it produced, drawing down stocks. This year, according to some estimates, we'll need as much as 150 million tons more just to return to stability.

That much extra production has happened in a few fluke years over the past decades, but it won't this year. Although corn and rice are expected to increase somewhat, the main wheat crop is winter wheat -- planted last fall for this year -- and that's already compromised by drought in the main breadbaskets of Russia, China and the Southwest U.S.

Increasing climate mayhem, irrigation running dry in some countries (the World Bank says 175 million people in India are being fed with grain grown by over pumping aquifers), erosion and desertification in some others, corn being used for fuel, yields-per-acre having levelled off in the advanced countries, phosphorus for fertilizer getting scarce, 80 million more mouths to feed every year and a couple of billion more in Asia moving up to the Western-style banquet table: all this doesn't add up.

Further, international corporations are scouring the Earth for farmland, especially in poorer countries, an indication of its rising value.

And, of course, higher prices mean primarily more malnutrition and starvation in the poorest countries, and to some degree among the poorest in our own societies. But there's better news, too. Even in many of the poorest countries there's a turn away from dependency on the grains which are basically the artificial staple of the globalized economy. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, it's being reported that people are returning to native cassava and sorghum as internationally traded grains rise out of sight.

The UN's office that watches such things notes 57 poorer nations where "innovative nonchemical techniques" of food production are kicking in. New life has even been observed in those still-existing collective farms in Russia, a relic of Soviet era non- production.

Rice-eating countries are doing better than wheat- and corn-eating ones, because rice is more of a local grain as opposed to the industrial nature of the others.

Some places, like the Philippines, have never given up their food sovereignty and are now largely immune to these jolts, assuming their climate doesn't give way. Meanwhile, on the flip side of the coin, farmers do better -- nowhere more than in Canada -- when prices rise.

In the First World, the message with grain is the same as with oil -- we're using too much of it, partly in the form of junk foods, but mainly in the form of grain-fed meat. Reducing our consumption of meats would not only result in better health -- we're in a rising epidemic of obesity, heart disease and diabetes, remember -- but would also improve the environment, since livestock is a major contributor to global warming.

Eating less of that stuff brings us back home. Here, the substitute for too much meat and junk food is more vegetables and fruits, most of which can be grown locally. That's why protecting land is imperative -- although some form of land trust should be set up so individual farmers who can't sell when they want to don't end up on the hook alone.

And with veggies, and some fruits, you can do it yourself in many cases. I'm sticking my first seeds in the ground next week, under plastic, as I always do at this time -- radishes, leaf lettuce and spinach, stuff that doesn't mind freezing. Meanwhile, last year's parsnips are still in the ground. It goes on year-round.

It's a beautiful connection with Mother Earth. How did we get so far away from it?

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County in Nova Scotia. This article was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.