The Problem of Food

Global food prices rose to a record in December, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported Wednesday, surpassing highs in 2008 when rising prices sparked riots in 61 countries.

Read more: http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2011/01/05/world-food-prices-record.html#ixzz1AEI6nlb5

A subject near and dear to my heart, the rampant increases in the price of food.

Back in the summer of 2007, while the rest of the world was gaping in wonder as Wall Street got caught with its fingers in the cookie jar, I was pondering something a little more practical and in the long run, more important than whether our children would be on the hook for $30,000 in bailout cash or $45,000. The price of food. You see, that spring I read “The Long Emergency” by James Kunstler. An urban architect, famous for his representation of suburbia as “the most costly mis-allocation of resources ($50 Trillion) in the history of mankind”, the book outlines what he sees as the consequences of us running out of cheap oil. One of those consequences is the ever increasing price of food. It is instructive that the last peak in food prices corresponded with the run up in the price of oil to $147 per barrel. Most of the cost increase was in fertilizers and transportation. This time we seem to be suffering from the effects of global heating. With oil at $90 and rising again, I fear things can only get worse as the market fundamentals of rising transport and other agricultural inputs come back into play.

So what is a Canadian to do? Well first, we can thank our lucky stars that we are Canadian and as one of the richest countries in the world our population won’t be facing starvation for quite some time as we have quite a lot of disposable income left that we can use to address our personal problems with food. But what about the billions who eke out a living on less than $2 per day? What happens as the starvation line slowly begins to rise up the income chain? At what point do we take action?

Cultures are defined by food. When we speak of agriculture, what we mean is a large scale food cultivation system and all of the social goodies that come of it. Compared to horticulture and hunter gatherer, agriculture seems to offer a number of advantages if you are a civilization. Our civilization took agriculture one step further which defined our social outcomes for the past 6000 odd years. If you have ever read Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, you will be familiar with that defining characteristic.

We lock up our food.

I put that idea on a separate line as it stands alone. And once you get it, it explains so much of what is wrong with our culture. From accumulation of the harvest comes the storage of the food, comes the need to protect it, comes the ability to have people who have more. Comes priests and kings, comes warriors and peasants. Comes the next generation and the next. Comes the oligarchy.

Comes all of the benefits of industrial civilization for the few and all of the externalized costs, both environmental and social, to the many. We need to take a real hard look at what we have gained through the devastation of other cultures, other habitats, other ecosystems. And again, we need to ask ourselves: At what point do we take action on this most pressing of human issues?

Perhaps, as Canadians, we could call on Ottawa to meet its commitment to allocate 0.7% of GDP to Overseas Development Assistance. By offering less than one one-hundredth of our GDP, we can help our world meet the most basic of goals: to make poverty history, cure disease, foster democracy, and support ecologically sustainable economies. It has been 19 years since Canada made this commitment and successive governments, both Liberal and Conservative have failed to meet the challenge, getting mired in petty ideological squabbles.

But the world is still there. And as a Canadian, I like to think that not all of our good name in the world has been squandered. I like to imagine that Canada still stands for what is good, what is right and what is moral. In the dark days ahead of us all, let us hope that this standing does not become destroyed by those who would have more of the limited resources we have left at the expense of the poor and the powerless.

As it ever was…

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