Speculators Playing God with Food Distribution

Some three years ago I wrote a little noticed diary about speculators pushing up food prices and its sister piece, Panic Buying from Speculators: Casino Capitalism, both dealing with what I call artificial food insecurity. Reading the latest on The United Nations’ World Food Program site, it seems that nothing has changed and in fact it’s getting worse: its budget has dwindled so much as donor countries focus on their own economic problems, aid workers face the unpleasant task of deciding who gets food and who doesn’t.

The ranks of the hungry have been growing to the current level of just under a billion people, a clear result of the food crisis (2008), the banking crisis (2009) and the current, continuing economic downturn. The massive bailouts for banks meant that most countries sharply reduced the amount of money paid to the WFP and other agencies. Again, financial speculators have rediscovered agricultural commodities via the crop failures due to flooding & effects from Climate Change, and the result has been skyrocketing prices for wheat, barley and other grains. Another worrying situation is the massive land grabs by multinationals in Africa. That will be another post.

As you know, the WFP’s mission is to identify the most serious cases of the world’s hungry (the poorest of the poor) and feed them as effectively and inexpensively as possible. Their programs can only target some 100 million people in 73 countries, and if their mandate seems unrealistic at times, it has made encouraging, albeit intermittent, progress. A short time after Haiti’s horrendous earthquake, one of the WFP’s director made an impassioned plea at Davos, though the uber rich did not exactly wave open check books despite their -miserly- well-meaning pledges.

United Nations food agencies say that people living in 22 countries suffer chronic hunger or difficulty finding enough to eat as a result of what they called protracted food crises. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP) said in their new report that wars, natural disasters and poor government institutions have contributed to a continuous state of undernourishment in 22 nations. Most of these are in Africa like Somalia and Sudan but they also include Afghanistan, Haiti and Iraq.

A little back story: in 1970, one in four people was hungry, a number that has since declined to one in seven, despite the fact that the world’s population has doubled in the interim, from 3.5 billion to almost 7 billion people, in line, unfortunately, with the WFP’s budget decline from $5 billion in 2008 to $4 billion in 2009 (all these figures are available on their site, linked in the intro). In 2010, the WFP will be lucky to receive $3.7 billion of the requested $7 billion (totals were not yet computed for that year), despite such major disasters as the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, the flooding in Pakistan, China and the landslides of Bolivia & Mexico. The reduced budget is insufficient to reliably feed the world’s most suffering people. 2012? Your guess is as good as mine.

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To make matters worse, the dwindling glaciers of the Himalayas are playing havoc with the surrounding populations: as the Himalayan glaciers disappear, ten major Asian river systems, the Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yangtse, Yellow, and Tarim are threatened. Twenty percent of the world’s population faces a future of catastrophe, according to a report released by University College, Chinadialogue, and King’s College of London in May 2010. Extreme glacial melt, seismic activity and extreme weather events are already affecting the region’s rivers, lakes, wetlands and coasts. As a result, in Bangladesh villages are destroyed every year, and it is often their poorest residents who lose everything because the poor in Bangladesh -don’t count- are forced to live at the water’s edge, in the most dangerous place of all.

John Aylieff, director for the WFP in Bangladesh says the job is becoming far more difficult and quite often he has to make a choice: who gets the food today and who doesn’t. Witness this scene, a daily occurrence for him and his team:

Begging for Rice Water

Aylieff’s response is incomprehensible for the men and women squatting in front of him. They see the two Landcruisers and the men accompanying Aylieff. How can someone who behaves like a prince be unable to get them rice? Alif Jan looks at Aylieff, holds up her empty hands and says: “Please.”

Aylieff doesn’t need his interpreter to understand the word. He shrugs his shoulders, shakes his head and says: “I’m sorry.” But the women sitting at his feet remain undeterred. They say that none of them has eaten any rice in recent days. They have begged for rice water, the water other families used to cook their rice, and they have eaten banana leaves.

They are embarrassed to be saying this to a man who is young enough to be their son. At the end of their lives, after spending more than 50 years working in the fields, it is humiliating for them to have to beg this man for a sack of rice.

“Please,” says Jan. There are tears in her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Aylieff repeats. “We have nothing left to distribute.” The interpreter translates, and Aylieff hears the women weeping.

This is the ugly, inhuman side of international aid. As long as there isn’t enough money to go around, and as long as countless billions are being spent to rescue banks and countries, aid will be doled out in accordance with a system in which the poor are continually marginalized. Such is life for the world’s poor. And the prices keep going up, and up.

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Obtaining and distributing the food is a gargantuan task. It begins with purchasing with the raised money. Year after year, the WFP buys about 4 million tons of rice, wheat and corn on the world’s markets, as cheaply as possible and as close to the recipients as possible, to avoid transport costs. The WFP charters ships, aircraft and trucks, some 5,000 of which the WFP dispatches to the world’s hunger zones and crisis regions every day. The convoys have to be provided with security, and the drivers need to be paid on time. As far as possible, the drivers’ integrity is checked, as is the condition of the vehicles. It is important for the WFP to avoid bad publicity stemming from news reports on accidents, deaths and unsafe rented trucks.

This calamity has been foreseen and written about for decades and yet little has been achieved. The following excerpt is from Lester R. Brown’s excellent book on food scarcity:

Tough Choices notes that while the growth in production is slowing, the growth in demand may be growing faster than ever before. The world continues to add 90 million people a year, but in addition, the Asian economy, led by China, is growing by 8 percent a year, boosting incomes and the consumption of grain-intensive livestock products at record rates. As the region’s 3.1 billion people, more than half of the world total, move up the food chain, it puts great pressure on the earth’s land and water resources.

Yeah, we hear you, but the politicians and the banksters don’t. And the speculators go on with their gambling.

Here is the button to donate to the WFP (just 1 dollar can fill 4 cups) if you can spare a few bucks.

This entry was posted in Activism, Ecology, Food, Health, Politics, Water and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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