What's Behind the Growing Food Crisis?

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MP3 Audio (16.74 MB)


What's Behind the Growing Food Crisis?

MP3 Audio (16.74 MB)

My wife and I had stayed at the old City Hotel in Kumasi many times during Ghana's troubled years some 25 to 30 years ago. Now the new Golden Tulip Hotel had refurbished its predecessor and we wanted to see what it was like. It was certainly aimed at a wealthier clientele. Just sitting in the reception area required a payment of $5 unless you were a resident.

The dining room was empty, but the food display was among the best we had ever seen in Africa. Featured was an all-you-can-eat buffet for 28 Ghanaian cedis. With the new cedi now worth more than a dollar, that meant the cost of dinner per person was $30, or the equivalent of the average Ghanaian's monthly income.

I was reluctant to partake of the generous spread before us, but friends who accompanied us were insistent and offered to pay. Even then, we all felt rather guilty, so we agreed that the two men should have the buffet, while the two ladies would eat off the à la carte menu, which offered meals at half the price. That way, the evening came to a total of less than $100 for four, still a great deal of money in a comparatively poor, third-world country.

One of the great ironies of our contemporary world is that while the number of people starving has never been greater at 800 million, the number who are overweight is even greater, at 1 billion.

Reminders of famine

During dinner we remembered the famine in Ghana 25 years earlier, when a buffet like the one set before us would have been unthinkable. Then we had struggled just to survive.

There were long periods when the only foods available were coconuts and green oranges. People lost weight rapidly. I remember the gap between men's shirt collars and their necks increasing by the week as the food supply worsened.

We remembered the difficulty of giving bones to our dog when human beings wanted the bones to suck out the marrow. We remembered also our cat that disappeared. We later learned it had been killed and eaten. We remembered also the badly contorted and burned body of the man within yards of our home, killed for trying to break into a neighbor's home for food.

The national newspaper even reported the sale of human meat in the marketplace. It was an awful time. We were and remain thankful that Ghana's economy has improved considerably since then and that now most people have enough to eat.

That is not the case for the nations around Ghana. During our stay in April, neighboring countries were experiencing food riots. Food shortages had pushed up the price of basic foodstuffs, especially rice, which is a staple throughout West Africa. CNN International, a London-based news channel, highlighted the global food crisis every day of our stay.

Our visit coincided with a UN conference in Accra, Ghana's capital. Delegates for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development came from around the world to discuss the global food crisis. As is so often the case with these elaborate, extensive and expensive conferences, little was achieved. It crossed my mind that the basic problem was summed up in the delegates themselves—not one of them seemed likely to actually get their hands in the soil and grow some food themselves.

Prejudice against farming

Prejudice against farming is a major problem in Africa. During the famine in 1982-83 I started a farm just outside of Accra for the members of the church congregation I was pastoring. They needed food. It wasn't available. The simple solution was to grow it ourselves, so we leased land and started to farm.

Some men protested that farming was beneath them. Farming is looked down on in much of Africa, and arguably around the world. This certainly contributes to the global food crisis.

For years farmers in poorer countries have been migrating to the cities. Most governments have favored urban dwellers over the people in rural areas, fearing riots and revolution in the capital, not social unrest in distant farming areas. So they often kept the price of food low in the cities, at the expense of the farmers.

Ghana's 1982-83 famine, like the severe food shortages in the summer of 1979, was largely man-made, as the government introduced controlled prices on food that made food production uneconomical.

Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of Africa, now suffers severe food shortages due to the expulsion of the commercial farmers from the land. The commercial farmers were of European descent. They farmed on a large scale like their North American, British and Australian fellow farmers. When the government seized their land and gave it to political cronies of the president, food production plunged dramatically. The number of hectares farmed dropped from 9 million to an estimated 300,000 in the space of just a few weeks!

Compounding the problem in most African countries is that rural areas usually lack basic facilities. Whereas electricity is often available, plumbing is nonexistent. Clinics and schools are usually lacking, both being much more readily available in the big cities. Improvements in these areas would keep more people on the land.

Farmers under considerable pressure

But the biggest problem is highlighted in a new book by Raj Patel, currently a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley Center for African Studies. His book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, begins with a chapter on the profession that has one of the highest suicide rates in the world—farmers. His book notes that in many countries, suicides among farmers are much higher than for the rest of the population. The cause comes down to one word: debt.

Subsistence farmers eking out a meager living from a small plot of land can only improve their situation by borrowing money, often at very high rates of interest. When they can't pay the money back, faced with losing land that has been passed down through the generations, they despair and some take their own lives.

Even in wealthier countries there is a sense of humiliation and failure among farmers who have inherited their land from fathers and grandfathers, going back centuries in some cases. When they realize they can't make ends meet, some of them likewise choose to end their lives.

The basic problem is this: Agriculture is not a priority in much of today's world.

This doesn't make any sense. After water, the other crucial thing that everybody needs is food. Farming is the most essential of all jobs. Nothing else truly matters as much. Yet most governments do not give agriculture anywhere near the priority it should have.

This is not the way God intended it to be.

When the Israelites went into the Promised Land, each of the tribes was allotted land to farm. This land was then divided up for each family. It was an agrarian society. As the country developed, some people became tradesmen or went into other careers. But the country remained primarily an agrarian society.

As it was in Israel and Judea, so it was in most nations—until fairly recent times. Industrialization, especially since World War II, has progressively encroached on agriculture. Millions of acres of farmland have been gobbled up by development, devastating food production at a time when the world's population is increasing dramatically.

Advances in agricultural science (fertilizers, pesticides and high-yield crops) have enabled food output to nearly keep pace, but we are now reaping the negative consequences of this.

The skyrocketing price of oil has pushed up the price of fertilizers and delivery of crops and processed food. There is also concern about the environmental damage caused by the use of artificial chemical fertilizers and pesticides. One of the possible consequences of the latter is the decline in the number of bees, which will further negatively affect food production.

World's fisheries depleted

It's not just the land that is negatively affected by these developments. According to a National Geographic special recently shown on many U.S. public television stations, 90 percent of commercially important fish are gone, and productivity of the world's ocean fisheries is declining. This, too, is impacting the land, as the documentary showed.

In Ghana, for example, the wildlife population in Mole National Park is constantly impacted by the national fish supply. Before the construction of the Volta Dam shortly after independence, Ghana had an abundance of fish. The dam has had a negative impact on fish stocks at a time when the population has been rising fast.

Statistics kept at Mole show that when fish are plentiful the wildlife thrive, but when fish are scarce, the wildlife population is depleted. In the last four decades, elephants have declined by 70 percent, hippos by 50 percent and lions by 80 percent.

With a shortage, fish also become expensive and people instead eat what is usually referred to as "bush meat." This can be anything from deer to grasscutter, a large rodent that is commonly offered for sale at the side of the road. There are problems with diseases associated with some of the meats that come directly out of the bush.

Human actions affect food supplies

Weather is an obvious factor in global food supplies. Droughts and poor weather last year affected three of the world's four major wheat producers—Australia, Canada and Ukraine, leading to dramatic increases in the price of wheat. If that weren't bad enough, a worrying new fungal infection threatens as much as a quarter of the world wheat harvest.

This year it's floods that are the problem in the U.S. corn belt, with fields either under water or too soggy for plowing or planting.

But human actions and government policies also play a major role in food pricing and availability. For example, European countries and the United States often give large subsidies to farmers, badly skewering the playing field against third-world food producers.

Raj Patel explains why some of the small-scale farmers in poorer countries cannot compete with farmers in the United States, Canada and Australia. Through free trade agreements, often signed with industry in mind, local farmers are driven out of business. They simply can't compete.

"Notwithstanding an initial spike, the real price of corn for Mexican farmers has fallen continuously since NAFTA [the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement] began . . . The method farmers chose to face the falling price of corn was to grow more of it, to generate an income to meet the rising prices of all the things they couldn't provide for themselves. Although free market thinking assumes that farmers can invest in other crops, the reality was that few had the necessary resources in order to be able to switch.

"Lacking money, technology and access to distribution networks, already relegated to the poorest quality soil, without irrigation, and with indigenous corn so well suited to these conditions, there was little else farmers could do. As a result, after NAFTA, the farmers that could increase their production did so" (pp. 49-50).

Consequently, the price keeps going down and the suffering of people in the rural areas worsens. Many in Mexico head north to the United States. Also, urban dwellers do not benefit from the lower price of corn—food processing companies do!

Free trade also can leave countries at the mercy of other nations. For example, Australia has been a major rice producer. Through free trade agreements, a great deal of this rice was sold to Asian nations at a much lower price than local farmers could produce it. And now that the Australian rice crop has been reduced by 98 percent due to drought, the result is severe shortages of rice around the world. Even in the United States, some of the big food stores have had to ration it.

Making things worse across Africa is foreign food aid. When food is given out free, why bother to grow any? Farmers who do grow food find their selling price lowered as a result of the food aid. Additionally, food aid breeds corruption. It is often used, as in Zimbabwe, to gain political advantage—the food is given out to supporters of the ruling party and denied to opponents.

It also enables the unscrupulous to make lots of money. During Ghana's famine, we often found sacks of wheat, corn and rice for sale at exorbitant prices in the marketplace despite bearing the words: "NOT FOR SALE. Donated by the people of the United States of America."

The list of contributory factors to the rising price of food seems endless. Even the U.S. federal government deficit contributes. Reckless overspending has led to a fall in the value of the U.S. currency around the world. Lower interest rates have exacerbated this problem. This has led to food inflation, with too much money chasing too few goods.

As many commodities are priced in dollars, speculators have been able to push up the price of food along with oil and other commodities in high demand. Notes U.S. News and World Report: "The weak dollar has led to high commodity prices as pension, hedge, and index funds have bought oil, gold, and agricultural futures as a hedge against inflation" (Marianne Lavelle and Kent Garber, "Fixing the Food Crisis," May 19, 2008.)

Of course, government policies can often have far-reaching, unforeseen consequences. A major factor in the recent rise of U.S. food costs is the federal government's decision to mandate and subsidize billions of gallons of ethanol as a replacement for gasoline.

The resulting 30 million tons of corn converted into vehicle fuel in 2007 drove up the cost not only of corn, but also of beef, pork, chicken, eggs, milk and cheese—from animals that consume corn—as well as almost every other agricultural crop when acres long used for other crops were converted to corn production. This year a third of the U.S. corn crop is slated to be used in biofuels, a near 50-percent increase over last year, and will likely drive up food costs even further.

Famines foretold for the future?

Serious famines have plagued mankind throughout history in different parts of the world. And yes, there will be more in the future. The book of Revelation foretells a time of serious famine that will come upon the world.

One of the infamous four horsemen of the Apocalypse in Revelation 6 clearly represents famine: "So I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, 'A quart of wheat for a denarius; and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and the wine'" (verses 5-6).

Since a denarius was a day's wages at the time (see Matthew 20:2), this prophecy is describing a time when an entire day's work will buy only enough wheat for one good meal or enough barley for three meals, but with nothing left for oil or wine. In comparison, in the United States the average family spends about 10 percent of its income on food; in many third world countries it's already up to 90 percent. This prophecy shows a time is coming when the cost of food will no doubt create great upheaval.

I cannot read these verses in Revelation without remembering an incident in Ghana involving an American couple there for a brief period during the country's time of food shortages.

They were millionaires in California where the two normally lived. But in Ghana during that painful time, when the lady spilled some sugar on the floor while serving tea, she carefully swept it up and put it back in the sugar bowl. "If you had told me back in the States that I would ever do that, I'd have said you were crazy!" she said. But when food is scarce, you can't afford to waste any. Such a time is prophesied to come on the whole earth.

With the threat of global food shortages set to worsen and global food stocks at their lowest in decades, it's a good time for heads of government to read the story of Joseph in the biblical book of Genesis.

Joseph was the 11th of 12 sons. His brothers sold him into slavery. Eventually, Joseph rose up to be the prime minister of Egypt, second only to the pharaoh.

What gave Joseph this position of prominence is that God used him to explain a dream the pharaoh had, a dream that predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph as prime minister had the task of building up food stocks during the seven years of plenty to prepare Egypt, the greatest nation in the world at that time, for the seven years of want. You can read an account of this in Genesis 41.

What the world needs right now is another Joseph—a wise leader who can see what's coming and act on it!

We need much more than another UN conference where delegates stay at the best hotels in the capital cities of third-world countries. What we need now is for each and every nation to look carefully at its own situation, at its own food needs, and set in action policies that will encourage farmers to grow enough food to feed themselves—with some to spare, so that reserves can be built up as in ancient Egypt when the patriarch Joseph was given insight by God to avoid a catastrophic famine.

More than anything, though, we need to remember and turn to our God, Creator of the land from which all our food comes and the One who controls the weather that can bring either famine or great abundance. GN