The International Food Crisis, Abbreviated

The international food crisis has grown to unnerving, desperate dimensions in the last month: Jeffrey Sachs, the development economist, calls the crisis the worst in more than 30 years. A number of excellent articles on the subject have appeared in the New York Times in recent days. Here’s a digest of them:

Leading with Haiti, the Times took a global perspective on the fallout: In Egypt, where prices and shortages have provoked rising unrest, the military has been put on bread-baking duty; across Asia, there are new laws in place to limit the hoarding of rice; in India, a rickshaw driver is quoted who no longer seasons his dal with onions and spices because he can’t afford to buy cooking oil, which has jumped in price; in Haiti itself, “the one business booming amid all the gloom is the selling of patties made of mud, oil and sugar, typically consumed only by the most destitute.”

The crisis is due in part to a now six-year drought in Australia that has reduced the rice crop there by 98 percent: In southern Australia, a rice mill that was the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, producing enough rice to feed 20 million people, was recently mothballed. “Many scientists believe [the drought] is among the earliest signs that a warming planet is starting to affect food production,” according to the Times. More and more Australian farmers have forsaken water-dependent rice for wheat or wine grapes; some have sold their water rights to neighboring grape growers. Even in ideal conditions, there isn’t much room for error: 90 percent of rice grown in the world is consumed domestically, and “[i]n the last quarter-century, rice consumption has outpaced production, with global reserves plunging by half just since 2000.”

Today the Times reports that the crisis may change international sentiments against genetically engineered crops. In East Asia, some manufacturers, having watched prices for conventional corn triple in the last two years, may switch to genetically engineered corn; and in Europe, long a vocal holdout, government officials and livestock producers are pressing for approval of genetically engineered feed. The biotech industry sees this as its main chance, but there’s already been some pushback: An international report on the future of agriculture, written by nonprofits, companies, and more than 60 countries and released last week, “gave such tepid support to the role genetic engineering could play in easing hunger that biotechnology industry representatives withdrew from the project in protest.”

See more articles
Share this article: