Famine in Twenty-First Century: Starving in the Age of Affluence and Financial Boom

  July 12, 2021   Read time 3 min
Famine in Twenty-First Century: Starving in the Age of Affluence and Financial Boom
Many saw the crisis as simply a result of the growth of human population, the inexorable climb from 3 billion people in 1960 to 6.8 billion by 2008— the hundred million more mouths we have to feed in each succeeding year.

By mid- 2009, accelerated by the worldwide financial crash, thirty-three countries around the world were facing either “alarming” or “extremely alarming” food shortages, a billion people were eating less each day— and most of Earth’s citizens were feeling the pinch. Though food prices fell, alongside prices of stocks and most other commodities, in the subsequent months, they fell only a little— and then began to rise again.

What happened in 2008 wasn’t the coming famine of the twenty- first century, merely a premonition of what lies ahead. This will not be a single event, affecting all nations and peoples equally at all times, but in one way or another it will leave no person in the world untouched. The reemergence of food scarcity occurs after de cades of plenty, accompanied by the lowest real food prices for consumers in history. These bounteous years were the consequence of a food production miracle achieved by the world’s farmers and agricultural scientists from the 1960s on— a miracle of which the urbanized world of today seems largely oblivious and which we have forgotten to renew.

By the early twenty- first century, signs of complacency were in evidence. In 2003, a conference of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research in Nairobi was told, “According to the Food and Agriculture Or ga ni za tion of the United Nations, the number of food insecure people in developing countries fell from 920 million in 1980 to 799 million in 1999.” Even in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 food price spike, the FAO itself, along with the Or ga ni za tion for Economic Cooperation and Development, remarked, “the underlying forces that drive agricultural product supply (by and large productivity gains) will eventually outweigh the forces that determine stronger demand, both for food and feed as well as for industrial demand, most notably for biofuel production. Consequently, prices will resume their decline in real terms, though possibly not by quite as much as in the past.”

For some years, reassuring statements such as these had been repeatedly aired in the food policy, overseas aid, and research worlds. Unintentionally, food scientists and policy makers were sending a signal to governments and aid donors around the world that implied, “Relax. It’s under control. We’ve fixed the problem. Food is no longer critical.” Not surprisingly, aid donors rechanneled scarce funds to other urgent priorities— and growth in crop yields sagged as the world’s foot came off the scientific accelerator.

Many found the new crisis all the more mysterious for its apparent lack of an obvious trigger. Various culprits were pilloried by blameseeking politicians and media. Biofuels, after being talked up as one of the great hopes for combating climate change, quickly became a villain accused of “burning the food of the poor,” and from China to Britain, countries slammed the brakes on policies intended to encourage farmers to grow more “green fuel” from grain. According to the World Bank, biofuels could have caused as much as three- quarters of the hike in food prices. Equally to blame, according to other commentators, were oil prices, which had soared sixfold in the five years from mid- 2003 to mid-2008 (although they fell again sharply as the global recession bit deep), with severe consequences for the cost of producing food, through their impact on farmers’ fuel, fertilizer, pesticide, and transportation costs. In developed countries the financial pain was high, but in developing nations it was agony: farmers simply could not afford to buy fertilizer, and crop yields began to slip.

In Thailand rice farmers quietly parked their new but unaffordable tractors in their sheds and went back to plowing with buffalo; buffalo breeders experienced a bonanza. “Energy and agricultural prices have become increasingly intertwined,” commented Joachim von Braun, the head of the International Food Policy Research Institute. “High energy prices have made agricultural production more expensive by raising the cost of cultivation, inputs— especially fertilizers and irrigation— and transportation of inputs and outputs. In poor countries, this hinders production response to high output prices. The main new link between energy and agricultural prices, however, is the competition of grain and oilseed land for feed and food, versus their use for bio energy.”