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Food Crisis (2008)


The new food movement: politics and pleasure

Mon, 04 Apr 2011 18:58:42 +0000

The emergent movements around the politics of food are a vital component of debates on the planet’s future, says Geoff Andrews. The international food debate has exploded over the last decade, extending from the many banal and trivial TV programmes - “food pornography” as some call it - to the proliferation of local food groups, the development of ideas of “slow food”, and a burgeoning interest in all aspects of the food economy. A broader politicisation of food is evident in the emergence of some unusual political alliances and new political subjects - the gastronome, the dinner-lady and the small farmer (the last of which has reached almost cult status in the rapidly evolving food movements in the United States).Indeed, I would argue that the movement around food in the US is one of the most significant of modern times, drawing as it does both on the traditions of the 1960s-1970s and the energy of the new social movements. Food has become - to use an older phrase now being recycled by contemporary activists - the “edible dynamic” at the heart of mainstream economic and environmentalist debates (see The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure [Pluto, 2008]).Slow Food USA is becoming the most powerful political wing of the international Slow Food movement. It has a rapidly growing membership and a strong presence on university campuses, and is supported by an impressive range of writers and activists (such as Alice Waters, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser). The popularity of films like Food.Inc has touched a chord with a new generation; with more than 100,000 twitter followers, @SlowFoodUSA is now out-tweeting McDonald’s.Britain’s Conservative-Liberal coalition government, in power since the election of May 2010, is pursuing a regressive health policy in regard to food. The health minister Andrew Lansley’s decision to involve fast-food chains like McDonald’s and supermarket monopolies in so-called “responsibility deals” threatens to halt encouraging initiatives to improve school dinners and tackle obesity and alcohol abuse.Many of the new food movements have denounced the proposal. Jeanette Longfield of the food and farming group Sustain argues that this is the equivalent of allowing tobacco companies to decide on smoking legislation; the TV gardener Monty Don questions whether this is a “junk-food government. Yet the response from most of Britain’s centre-left, from the Labour Party and trade unions to assorted intellectuals, has been (to say the least) tepid. There has been little attempt to galvanise opposition amongst the growing movements, or prioritise food as an area where the government is vulnerable. Food, compared to other issues - fundamental as it is to so many of them - remains marginal for many on the left.The appetite for changeThis reflects a deeper flaw on much of the left (and here too Britain is something of a exception in relation to much of Europe). The enduring suspicions of sensual pleasure on the left reach a different sort of peak where food is concerned. The tendency to miss the unifying and egalitarian potential of food politics - and see only the divisive aspects - has led to their removal from some of the new movements.The cultural underpinning here is partly that the left in Britain often confuses “pleasure” with “luxury” - in direct contravention of one of its heroes, William Morris, who condemned luxury as the “sworn foe” of pleasure because the race it entailed to provide goods for the rich had replaced the simple pleasures of life with ugliness and waste. Moreover, historians like EP Thompson (Morris’s biographer) and Raymond Postgate gave great attention to food in their accounts of early working-class movements; and Postgate went on to become the first editor of The Good Food Guide.A positive sign here is Slow Food’s commitment to the “universal right to pleasure”, which draws on the energy of earlier social movements while arguing that everyone should have access[...]

Ethiopia: the tears and the rains

Wed, 23 Jul 2008 15:07:38 +0000

It was raining in Addis Ababa when I left, but would it be raining in Wolayita? The spring rains had failed, bringing awful consequences for the people in this remote, beautiful and harsh area. Wolayita is in the far south of Ethiopia, seven hours drive from the capital. It is a part of Ethiopia where people live on the edge at the best of times, and this is one of the worst of times. The energy and ingenuity required to survive in these dry lands is extraordinary, and the courage and endurance of the people who survive here is impressive; but now, they are desperate and overwhelmed. Despite the early-warning systems put in place by government and NGOs (with support from the one I represent, Concern); despite better reserves of grains; despite the resilience of the farmers and their families - despite all this, the twin evils of drought and soaring food prices have engulfed the people here. Their reserves of food, resources and energy are exhausted. It is a terrible sight to see a mother who you know has such deep reservoirs of courage - the kind that you or I can only dream of - bow her head and quietly weep, exhausted by her efforts and her despair. She was sitting on the bed, tenderly holding her small baby close to her under a cotton wrap. I asked if could see the baby; she gently drew back the cover and I saw the wizened infant, his body overwhelmed by malnutrition, his immune system shut down - the consequences of starvation. This tiny, pale baby coughed a dreadful, wheezy, wracking cough - a cough that belonged to a very old man. I wondered if the baby would last the week, and I am sure his mother also questioned if her loving care and the determined but limited help from the health centre and Concern would pull him though. Pneumonia had attacked him as his body, in desperate survival mode, shut down his immune system. Lyndall Stein is executive director of Concern, an International NGO headquartered in Dublin. To learn more of Concern's work on Ethiopia and its current emergency appeal, click here Also by Lyndall Stein in openDemocracy: "Darfur journal" (18 November 2004) A saving system That is what happens when you are malnourished, starved of vital nutrients. Your body closes down unnecessary functions, desperately saving your vital resources to keep your heart and brain going. You will go though many agonising stages, until your body will even begin to digest its own tissues. Starvation will reduce you to a shell, and will reduce a small child very quickly to a silent, limp, passive, sad memory of all that a child should be - laughing, crying, yelling and quietly, happily burbling. All the children who are acutely malnourished are dreadfully quiet. The nutritionists, nurses and helpers are always cheered by a screaming child - it means they still have some strength, resilience and vital life-force left. In the next bed was Misrach Shiburu, also deathly quiet. Tending him was his sister, a tiny 15-year-old, who gently brushed the flies away from his face as he lay listlessly on the bed. She was in charge of him; his mother had to stay at home to look after her youngest and could not be with her 5-year-old little boy. Though acutely malnourished, he was getting better and sat up gingerly while we were there, not well enough to cry or smile, but at least able to look around. The team at Duyango Fango felt he would be alright. He was being fed "plumpy-nut", a vitamin-enriched peanut paste which - dense with vitamins, minerals and calories - quickly builds up small children suffering from the effects of food shortages. In 2004, Concern introduced a new and innovative technique to tackle malnutrition across Ethiopia and other parts of Africa, where food shortages take such a dreadful toll on the health and life-chances of children and mothers. It requires the involvement of the community, the local health system and a remarkable supply-chain and logistics operation, bringing the specialised food for the under-fives an[...]

Development in a downturn

Fri, 04 Jul 2008 13:17:37 +0000

The Millennium Development Goals (MDG), the blueprint of eight key areas where progress by 2015 would make a real difference to the lives of the world's poorest people, were agreed at the United Nations "millennium summit" in September 2000. This year, 2008, thus represents the pivotal half-term period - reflected in the way that international development agencies have carefully prepared a series of events to focus on the MDGs' delivery. This moment has coincided, however, with an international financial crisis in which credit crunch, rising prices and economic slowdown makes governments nervous and citizens fearful: circumstances that create the risk of eroding political support for development. A shift of focus in the development message - one that makes clear that the MDGs are about "us" as well as "them", that development is in everyone's interest - is needed to maintain momentum. Simon Maxwell is director of the Overseas Development Institute Also by Simon Maxwell in openDemocracy: "Inside the palace of glass" (27 June 2001) "Chemical warfare in the bathroom" (15 August 2001) "The global development agenda in 2007" (21 December 2006) "Rome's food summit: a baton passed" (6 June 2008) A fraying thread The MDGs - from poverty reduction to universal primary education, gender equality to environmental sustainability - are about more than policy. They are underpinned by a sense of shared humanity. The same ethos is reflected in public concern for the victims of cyclone Nargis in Burma and the Sichuan earthquake in China. The threads of humanity cross national boundaries, and emergencies make real and active the commitment embodied in the Millennium Development Goals and campaigns such as Make Poverty History. But there is a problem. For opinion polls routinely show that support for international development is simultaneously broad and shallow. In particular, enthusiasm for poverty-reduction overseas is vulnerable to how citizens in richer countries feel about their own economic prospects. The impacts of rising food and fuel prices, debt, unemployment and bankruptcy - including their social and psychological effects - are reflected in people's immediate concerns and priorities. In Britain, for example, an Ipsos-Mori poll in April 2008 finds that 70% of people agree with the proposition that rich countries have a moral duty to help end global poverty; but when asked to name the most important issue facing the country today, the lead responses are crime, immigration, health and the economy. Poverty-reduction in the global south does not feature in the top ten. The enduring threads remain intact, but the moment calls for a new messaging - one where the conversation returns from "them" to "us", where it is understood that social justice, inclusion and security can only be reached domestically if they are also achieved internationally. A new narrative The need for such a shift is highlighted by the failure of several donor governments - including France, Germany, Italy, and the United States - to meet the pledges they made at the Gleneagles summit of the G8 in 2005. If debt relief to Iraq and Nigeria is excluded, aid fell in both 2006 and 2007 to the extent that the global aid shortfall is now close to $30 billion a year. Meanwhile, the global trade deal promised by the Doha round of talks still looks elusive. Also in openDemocracy on the G8 and global development policy: Leni Wild, "China, Africa and the G8: the missing link" (11 July 2006) Ehsan Masood, "The aid business: phantoms and realities" (18 July 2006) Michael Hopkins, "Sustainable development: from word to policy" (11 April 2007) Stephen Browne, "G8 aid: beyond the target trap" (6 June 2007) Paul Collier, "The aid evasion: raising the ‘bottom billion'" (11 June 2007) Kweku Ampiah, "Japan and Africa: a distan[...]

The world’s water future

Tue, 01 Jul 2008 13:41:36 +0000

The global food crisis of 2007-08 has propelled governments and international agencies into a series of emergency responses, designed both to meet the needs of desperate citizens in many of the world's poorest countries and to maintain their own authority in face of a surge of popular protest. The flurry of activity and discussion around the issue has tended to deflect attention from the global problems associated with the source of food: water. If the questions of agriculture, land use, supply, distribution and price that lie at the heart of the food crisis are to be addressed, the clouds over the world's water future must also be taken far more seriously (see Paul Rogers, "The world's food insecurity", 24 April 2008). Mike Muller is professor in South Africa's Witwatersrand University graduate school of public and development management. He is a former director-general of South Africa's department of water affairs and forestry Mike Muller was invited to CSD16 to address delegates on the issue of improving water management in the face of climate change and other challenges Also by Mike Muller in openDemocracy: "A global thirst: water, power and the poor" (10 November 2006)There is a slow evolution of understanding among governments that tackling global development requires an integrated focus in which climate change, poverty and food security are among the constituent parts of a whole rather than separable concerns. It remains to be seen whether the G8 summit in Hokkaido on 7-9 July 2008 will advance policy or mere rhetoric in this respect - and whether the leaders and their advisers will recognise how vital water is in relation to these other topics. If they do, they may find that their capacity to make water part of a global-development strategy has been seriously weakened over the past decades by the way that the resources for its management have been allowed to dwindle. The problem United Nations member-states are usually too careful to set targets for themselves that may later going to embarrass them. One such target did slip through, however, during late-night negotiations at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in 2002: that all countries should produce integrated water-resource management and water-efficiency plans by 2005. Three years after the requisite date, the sixteenth annual review of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) found in its May 2008 report that more than half of eighty countries surveyed still had no plan in place. Moreover, many of those that had a plan were not implementing it. Just one more failure of an well-intentioned but impossibly impracticable system of global governance? Yes, but something more. The problem is that water is a complex subject and its challenges differ widely from one place to another. So there is no generic "roadmap" setting out how water should be managed to contribute to national well-being. This is the precise reason for the initial agreement by countries to design approaches suitable to their particular circumstances. Something that needs to work is not working. The enormity of the challenge of (for example) sustaining the population of burgeoning cities while producing more food and more energy crops without destroying the natural environment is recognised. It does not take a great deal of technical knowledge to understand that climate change will make this challenge even more acute. The climatic impacts of the increasing use of carbon-emitting energy use include the drying up of rivers and the desiccation of land. This suggests that if energy is the focus for mitigating climate change, water will need to be the focus of adaptation efforts. The countries who made the WSSD commitment may not have produced the documents promised, but all at least agreed that it was critical to have an integrated approach to the management of the water that underpins so many development projects. A huge[...]

Russia: lessons from the poverty line

Thu, 12 Jun 2008 23:00:15 +0000

I've managed to live for a month off the minimum sum which the Ministry of Statistics says you can live on. It wasn't all about surviving of course, about losing weight or   having fun, although it was all of those things: I crossed the finishing line triumphantly, with my jeans falling off, after keeping office workers in stitches with my adventures. Yes, one of my colleagues had the nerve to suggest that the aim of the whole experiment was really to find a husband. ‘It's the crudest kind of self-advertising', observed Mikhail, ‘Liza showing off how economical she is, how well she cooks. Though doing it through a heavyweight political e-zine isn't your average girl's way of looking for a husband..' Somewhat haphazardly, three aspects of ‘the Rosstat fast' have come to dominate my blog entries. Distinct, but related, they are the nutritional, the economic and the social. 1. Nutrition The norms, calculated as ‘minimal requirements for sustaining health', don't bear scrutiny. Basically the diet is a great deal of bread, things made from flour and potatoes, and a minimum of meat, fish, beans and vegetables. Is this enough for minimal nutrition and survival? Yes - for survival or less. Is it enough for a healthy diet (especially for ‘a man of working age')? Hardly. The nutritionists say that on a diet like that the metabolism slows down and weakness and apathy set in. So what's the point of working out this minimum consumer shopping basket, if it's got no practical application? This is implied by the fact that completely different norms and levels expenditure are applied in state institutions like nursery schools, summer camps or the army. It costs 60 rubles a day to keep a working dog, 81 rubles to feed a soldiers allowed, a soldier must live on 81 rubles a day, while the food allowance for a child in a foster family in Moscow is 180 rubles per day. So as an average citizen, I'm worth about 1.18 working dogs, 0.87 of a soldier or 0.4 of a foster child. There are questions here for the Ministry of Health's Institute of Nutrition. 2 Economic The concept of the ‘minimal grocery selection' is used to differentiate prices in the regions and to evaluate the index of consumer prices. According to Rosstat, consumer prices in Moscow have risen by 4.6% since the beginning of the year. In the last month potatoes (which make up the largest part of the ‘grocery selection') have risen in price the least, and cheese, eggs and vegetable oil (which make up a small proportion) the most. The conspiracy theorists would conclude that this is a way of indicating that inflation is considerably less than it really is. You could vary the consumer basket even more, changing the amounts, introducing more of the products whose prices are rising more slowly (rice and potatoes) and reducing those whose price is rising faster- vegetables and milk products. Fruit and vegetable products went up in price most of all in March - by 5.9% - and they made up almost a third of my budget for this month. Milk products - which only went up by 1.2%,made up 11% of my basket rather than the recommended 18%. Meat products, which made up 10% of my basket rather than the 18% recommended by Rosstat, went up by less than 1%, and the cheaper eggs made up 1% of my basket. Almost 9% of expenditure went on fats, and they rose in price by 4.6%. If I'd bought larger proportions of these items, my own personal inflation would have risen over the 2% stipulated by government statistics. Since we make no official calculation of the middle class consumer basket, we have no hard facts on the rate of inflation going on there. Yet, in fact, the middle classes are suffering even more than the poor from price rises: nobody's stopping the distributors from raising prices on other products because they've had to freeze prices on ‘socially significant' food staples. As a result, the most ord[...]

The world food summit: a lost opportunity

Tue, 10 Jun 2008 11:37:50 +0000

The timing of the United Nations' Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) summit in Rome on 3-5 June 2008 was fortuitous. It had already been scheduled as the latest of the body's regular six-yearly gatherings, but the prominence of food issues on the current global agenda meant that the summit also took on the appearance of an emergency meeting. Sue Branford is co-editor of Seeding and manages the publications of the agricultural-diversity NGO, Grain. She reports regularly from Latin America for the BBC and the Guardian. She is co-author (with Jan Rocha), of Cutting the Wire: the Story of the Brazilian Landless Workers' Movement (Latin America Bureau, 2002) and (with Hugh O'Shaughnessy) of Chemical Warfare in Colombia: The Costs of Fumigation (Latin America Bureau, 2005) Also by Sue Branford in openDemocracy: "Colombia's other war" (14 November 2005) "Brazil's historic test" (19 June 2006) "Brazil's Amazonian choice" (19 May 2008) No wonder: for desperate hunger has been the trigger for worldwide protests in 2007-08 after rapid increases in the price of essential traded foods, particularly rice. Food insecurity haunts hundreds of millions of people from at least thirty-seven countries - twenty in Africa, nine in Asia, six in Latin America and two in east-central Europe. The plight of people across the globe on the edge of very survival is a test of the way food economies - from owning, seeding, planting, and growing to producing, selling, distributing, and consuming - are currently being run. The messy compromise The Rome summit - formally the "High-Level Conference on World Food Security: the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy" - was originally intended to be discussing agriculture and global warming, but the agenda was modified to concentrate on the immediate food crisis. At its opening, FAO director-general Jacques Diouf said that he was daring to hope for a positive response to his call for "urgent and coordinated action to combat the negative impacts of soaring food prices on the world's most vulnerable countries and populations". He pointed out that in 2006 the world had spent $1.2 trillion on arms, and asked: "Against that backdrop, how can we explain to people of good sense and good faith that it was not possible to find $30 billion a year to enable 862 million hungry people to enjoy the most fundamental of human rights: the right to food and thus the right to life?" This passionate appeal fell on deaf ears. Maybe, as argued by the Overseas Development Institute's Simon Maxwell, the outcome was not as bad as had been feared (see "Rome's food summit: a torch passed", 7 June 2008). True, new pledges on aid were indeed made; though, as Maxwell says, it is difficult to decide what are new commitments rather than old promises decked out in new clothes. It is clear, in any case, that the final figure will fall well short of Diouf's $30 billion target. Moreover, the final declaration agreed on 5 June contained a jumble of different - and often contradictory - aims. For instance, it spoke of the need to "maintain biodiversity" and to support "the world's smallholder farmers and fishers, including indigenous people, particularly in vulnerable areas"; but this nod towards the environmental agencies and social movements was combined with backing for "efforts to liberalise trade in agriculture by reducing trade barriers"', which ignores the fact that many in the developing world blame the forced opening of markets for the destruction of local livelihoods. The biofuel dispute A similar incoherence was apparent in the final declaration over what was probably the most contentious issue discussed at the summit - biofuels. The Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) had calculate[...]

Rome’s food summit: a torch passed

Fri, 06 Jun 2008 22:45:59 +0000

The high-level conference on world food security in Rome on 3-5 June 2008 under the auspices of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) turned out better than expected. It was not derailed by Robert Mugabe; it survived the unedifying wrangling over a final communiqué; it gave the topic a good hearing; it confirmed some practical actions; and it passed the torch successfully to the next major international gathering, the G8 in Hokkaido, Japan on 7-9 July 2008. Simon Maxwell is director of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) This article was published on the ODI's website on 6 June 2008 Also by Simon Maxwell in openDemocracy: “Inside the palace of glass” (27 June 2001) “Chemical warfare in the bathroom” (15 August 2001) “The global development agenda in 2007” (21 December 2006) As usual, delegates spent too much time arguing about statements of principle and too much time on political issues only loosely linked to the summit theme. Not surprisingly, they found it hard to reach agreement on contentious issues, like biofuels. But there have been some large new funding pledges, and a high degree of consensus on the twin issues of agricultural development and social protection for the poorest. The summit showed that the United Nations works best when it works as one. There was good cooperation between the Rome agencies (the FAO and the World Food Programme [WFP]) and the World Bank, for example. Now, as the G8 prepares for its own summit, it has work to do. An unremarked feature of the current focus on the world food crisis is that large financial pledges are being made by donors, but there is, as yet, no clear evidence that current pledges are additional to existing aid budgets. This raises questions about who or what will lose out. When the World Bank pledges $1.2 billion, for example, this is not new money, but comes from the existing budgets of the World Bank Group. The same is true of other big multilateral pledges, like the $500m offered by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and by the many bilateral pledges of food and cash, for example to support the humanitarian programmes of the World Food Programme. This is at a time when donor aid funds overall are falling way below the pledges made at the G8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland in 2005 – by as much as $30 billion a year. Who will pay the price? The knock-on effects of this crisis will need to be watched, and the pressure kept on donors to keep their promises. There is one exception to the lack of additionality, which is the funding promised by non-traditional donors. Saudi Arabia, for example, gave $500 million to the WFP in May 2008, helping that agency to exceed its appeal target for emergency aid. That’s a generous, one-off gift. But, at the same time, Saudi Arabia is reaping huge profits from the rise in the price of oil. When the price of oil goes up by, say, $30 per barrel, then Saudi Arabia is gifted nearly $300 million a day in extra revenue – so the gift to WFP represents the windfall profit from one weekend. Saudi Arabia is not alone, of course. The top ten oil exporters include Russia, Iran, the UAE, Venezuela, Kuwait, and Algeria, none of which are mainstream aid donors. Click here for more on the 2008 world food crisis Some have suggested a windfall tax on oil producers. A better suggestion might be to sign up large and rich oil exporters to the club of aid donors. One-off gifts are very welcome; even better would be long-term commitments, predictable and accountable, delivered bilaterally or through the United Nations, the World Bank and the regional development banks. The richer oil producers should commit themselves to the UN target of providing 0.7% of GNP as aid, and sign up to donor best practice in areas where they can make a real difference. [...]

Russia: life on the poverty line

Wed, 28 May 2008 22:08:18 +0000

From now on, I'm becoming a lonely pensioner. For the next month, I'm going to live off what the Russian State Department of Statistics, Rosstat, calls its minimum consumer shopping basket. Rosstat publishes a quarterly budget of the minimum cost of living. This takes into account inflation, the index of consumer prices and the cost of the food required to live on. At the beginning of March 2008 it read like this: ‘The monthly cost of a subsistence selection of grocery products in Moscow was 2,181 rubles and 70 kopecks." This is about 62 Euros. If you've ever tried living in Moscow, the very fact of putting the words ‘groceries', ‘month', ‘Moscow' and ‘2,181 rubles 70 kopecks' into the same sentence will provoke the sorts of reaction I got from the editorial staff at What's that? Where can you find prices like that? What's actually in that basket? Russia has suffered rapid inflation in recent months. According to Rosstat, it was 5.3% over the last three months. In some regions the price of bread is almost 30 rubles a loaf. Surveys in April suggested that Russians are now more afraid of rising prices than of terrorism. Elections have only made things worse. There were the State Duma elections on 2 December and the presidential elections on 2 March. Then Dmitrii Medvedev was designated to become our next president on 7 May. Last autumn, the government ordered a price freeze on some staple foods during this pre-election period - bread, flour, milk, eggs, vegetable oil. But this price freeze only served to heat up the price of other foods. What's more, we can expect a steep rise in prices after the ‘unfreezing' on 1 May. Since this more or less coincides with Medvedev's inauguration, the new government, headed by the Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is going to have to sort that one out. This ‘consumer shopping basket' consists of a list drawn up by several departments of the minimum required for subsistence. It includes foodstuffs (107kg of potatoes, 23kg of fruit and 238 litres of milk per year), as well as clothes (5 pairs of tights or socks per year, 5 sets of underwear every two years), plus housing, utilities, transport etc. It was established in 1992 as a way of calculating a poverty threshold (desperate poverty, I'd say). The contents of this basket are reviewed once every five years, and the cost is recalculated once a quarter. In theory at least, the minimum wage, the level of pensions and other social security benefit are determined on the basis of it. For one day, I tried to live on exactly the foodstuffs suggested by Rosstat's ‘shopping basket.' But it rapidly became clear that I wasn't going to be able to keep this up. So I decided to stick within the sum of money rather than limit myself to the contents of the basket. Brilliance and poverty. The first day. Items purchased: bread, two cabbages, 0.5kg of carrots, 1 onion, 2 heads of garlic, 1 litre of vegetable oil, 1 kg of rice, a selection of chicken bits for soup (0.5 kg), chicken pieces for stewing (0.7 kg), 100g of tea, 1 kg of potatoes, a bunch of dill, 250g of sour cream, 1 kg of buckwheat, 250g of butter, 10 eggs, 1 litre of milk , 150g of cheese, 10g of saffron and an apple. Cost: 628 rubles 90 kopecks. Balance remaining: 1552 rubles 80 kopecks I decided to buy vegetables more cheaply later in the evening, from the vegetable kiosk at the metro. There are only three stalls there, where three brothers sell the same vegetables for the same price. I always go to the same one - he never cheats me, and always wishes me bon appetit. But by the time I got out there it was dark and ‘my' kiosk was shut, so I went to another. Because it was dark, I couldn't see what the man was doing through the kiosk window. When I came home I found that three of my eight potatoes are slightly rotten and the cabbage is yellow insi[...]

Russia: report 2 from the poverty line

Wed, 28 May 2008 22:08:17 +0000

Day ten. Balance remaining: 920 rubles 50 kopecks. I'm utterly fed up with what they call the ‘soup selection', and the so-called ‘stewing selection'. But I've not got much option -I can't afford meat, poultry or fish. For those of you who can't imagine what I'm on about, let me explain: when they cut the fillets (200 rubles per kg) off chicken breasts (180 rubles per kg), there are bones left. These they sell separately (50 rubles per kg), and call it a ‘soup selection'. You can make broth from these, but there's no meat on them. A ‘stewing selection' is much the same, with added skin and fat. If you're cooking rice, it'll make it smell nice, but don't give it to your guests or they'll think you're weird. Sweet things. Until people started asking me how I was getting on without them, I wasn't really missing sweet things. I did buy a kilo of sugar on the way home, along with oat flakes (for breakfast), margarine (which people keep telling me to use instead of butter), carrots and flour. I really hadn't been bothered till then - I hadn't even finished my sweets from last week. Then late last night the craving began. It got so bad that I couldn't get to sleep. In the end I had to get up, haul out the mixer and turn on the oven. I threw in the oat flakes and the margarine (yes, that's what's its for), three eggs, (my weekly quota - no omelettes for me for the next seven days), a little sugar, and hey presto - a whole basinful of raw flapjack. I watched telly as I stirred this mixture and half an hour later I found that a quarter of it had gone - seems I've got more of a sweet tooth than I thought. There was that loaf of bread I hadn't managed to eat before it got stale and mouldy. I gave myself a hard time for wasting food so recklessly. I'd also spent 15 rubles on a kilo of flour. I remembered hearing about this really primitive kind of bread you can run up in an emergency: mix flour and water then cook in flat cakes in a frying pan. So that's what I did. During the day I'm at work, so I don't eat anything. I can't afford a business lunch in a café in central Moscow. Yoghurt and cottage cheese are money down the drain (20-25 rubles per pot, and you're hungry again after half an hour), and a bun is hardly what I'd call lunch. Looking at food in a shop reminds me of that kids' game ‘edible-inedible': rice, buckwheat, peas, cabbage, bones - edible; cheese, eggs, fruit, greens, meat, butter - inedible. Why I'm not managing 1. I'm inexperienced. This is my first attempt at living on so little money. The worst time in any crisis is the beginning, when you haven't worked out a survival strategy. 2. I'm irrational. I can't even turn the classic female trick of making a salad and a scandal out of nothing. My grasp of energy and nutrition values is weak. 2000 calories still means half a kilo of sugar to me rather than so much cereal, milk and meat. Apparently I even use carrots inefficiently - I've had readers explaining to me that that the body can't digest raw carrots without fat. 3. I haven't got my bearings. I haven't a clue where to get things cheap, or what to buy. In the first week I discovered that a perfectly fresh carrot that's broken is half the price, and that apples that cost 15-20 rubles per kilo do exist - they just don't look so great. For me, the word ‘meat' means an expensive cut, and I haven't yet learned what to do with cheaper cuts, bones and offal. 4. I don't belong to the local network. Those who live on really limited means belong to a sort of informal club, whose members know where, what and how much. The moment cheap dairy products appear on a neighbouring stall or good cheap meat in the market, its members find out about this from one another. Outsiders like me only get to hear about these bargains by accident. 5. I live alone. Of course it's a bit [...]

Russia: report 3 from the poverty line

Wed, 28 May 2008 22:08:16 +0000

Day twenty. Remaining balance: 583 rubles, 70 kopecks. I've been chatting to some elderly shoppers. Although they manage on a slightly larger monthly sum, its comparable, and even they don't buy any old rubbish: they don't go for the cheapest milk because of the quality and short shelf-life; they prefer butter to margarine, except for baking. They go for damaged fruit and vegetables, and offal - liver, kidneys and bones. So I forgave myself the butter. I also bought more oat flakes for baking, a kilo of apples (I'm gasping for vitamins!), dried fruit for porridge, a ‘soup selection' and frozen vegetables for soup (more than enough for a week). And I'm left with a measly 500 rubles in my purse... No more shopping for me this week. After a few weeks of this experiment I find myself comparing all prices to my food budget: I could live for half a day on dictaphone batteries, and as for a ticket for the Paul Anka concert at the Kremlin, I'd last almost six months on that. Readers letters ‘Eat ground elder and dandelions. Sunbathe. Make rusks. Buy sea kale. Make friends with some Uzbeks and eat pilaf. Plant Jerusalem artichokes.' In general my advisers on how to live on an extremely limited sum of money divide into two large groups: а) Students, people in a temporary crisis, bachelors, hikers. Shared characteristic: dealing with a short-term problem. Recommendations: lots of kasha, margarine instead of butter, buying vitamins rather than fruit and vegetables, tins instead of meat. If you follow this advice, you can make a very little money go a long way. However, that's not what I'm trying to do.I'm trying to live on what the Ministry of Health regards as a balanced diet. b) Girls, women and celery-eating ‘girls on a diet' who are full of useful advice These recommendations come from people who are all quite young, female, and not the remotest bit greedy. This kind of young woman needs no more than a spoonful of cottage cheese for breakfast and soup for supper, or porridge for breakfast and nothing for supper. I can more or less manage for six days like that. But let me remind you once again that a man of working age is meant to be able to live on this monthly sum - that means a cooked breakfast, three-course lunch, and perhaps even a little supper. Not one of these girls who offer me their brilliantly healthy, nutritious and tasty diets have tried managing on a budget like that. c) Then there are those who believe that ‘We live badly, so everyone else should too.' Let's not bother with them. Day thirty one Balance remaining: 18 rubles. Kind colleagues started feeding me gingerbread and crackers. More rigorous ones proposed fines for any unsanctioned feeding of Surnacheva. The offers tailed off... I've started being invited to restaurants, though. These are not the most romantic of invitations - ‘I'm prepared to take Liza to any restaurant in Moscow - she's wasting away!' to ‘I'd be happy to give Liza lunch, but unfortunately it's Lent, so it'll have to wait till after Easter...' Then I met this beautifully well-brought up young man who, being well-brought up, invited me out to supper. I was thrilled - he's going to feed me!. Then I had second thoughts: I'm meant to be an independent young woman - I can't go letting strange young men pay for my supper. Damn emancipation. And on 50-70 rubles (my daily budget) you can't even get a cup of espresso in central Moscow. So I got out of my date: ‘You see, I'm really picky about my food - I like it home-cooked'. He must take me for a complete idiot. But he doesn't seem to be fazed: "Fine,let's go to the cinema then, then we can go back to my place - my friend and I will whip up something". What a mover! We've only just met, but already he's got me staying over. But I'm a nice girl, and I don't ac[...]

The food economy's missing link

Fri, 02 May 2008 15:26:35 +0000

Economics - roots and food Tony Curzon Price May 3rd 2008 Xenophon wrote the first economics book as a treatise on how an Athenian nobleman should best manage his estate. It is often useful, when thingking about big questions of resource allocation in the World economy, to return to the Socratic simplicity of that context. If the world were your estate, what would you be doing? Ischomachus has a small mediterranean estate. To make it more like the world, assume it is self-sufficient and does not trade. His good husbandry has made the estate rich, and he has promoted in rank many laborers who are now productive artisans and managers. With their rise in station has come a taste for the good things in life - lighting oil, meat three times a week amongst others. Demand for food and energy are up. What is more, Ischomachus has got it into his head that some of his grain should be turned into alcohol for burning. The tar-pit he has used before is running low and no one likes the acrid black smoke burning it produces. All this adds up to trouble for Ischomachus in his idylic estate. While it used to be pretty easy for him to parcel out food according to everyone's expectations, he now finds that once he has distributed food to his family, his lieutenants, managers and other important people; once he has diverted some of it to his alcohol programme, those at the end of the queue are still hungry after their rations are eaten. Ischomachus does not even have any stocks left to wait and hope for a better harvest next year. His workers and their families are getting so jumpy that there are parts of his estate he is worried to walk through without weapons. He even has a nasty suspicion that some of the cannier managers are hoarding grain to profit later. Martin Wolf, judging by his analysis of today's problems, would give this advice to Ischomachus: Help out the poor by cutting back a small amount on the lifestyle you offer your senior staff check the running of your estate carefully. Are there any places where you are reducing the amount that could be produced because of someone's pet project. Yours on alcohol, for example ...or your wife's attachment to wild flowers and thick hedgerows ...make sure that these schemes are cut back as much as you can without losing the support of your household. Get thinking for ways to increase your production. Why is that land over there lying idle? Couldn't this piece produce more? Paul Collier agrees with Martin Wolf's general line, and adds the observation that the problem is a sign of how much has gone right with the management of the estate. So many laborers have risen by their ability in rank to more productive members of the estate and have adopted the land-intensive meat tastes due to their station. Paul Collier strongly reinforces Martin Wolf's second recommendation: go after the non-food supply interests that are lurking in the estate's management. It is more important to feed your people than to keep outmoded privileges for the few. Even if Ischomachus might have nodded along with Wolf and Collier, I hope an alert Socrates would have pulled them up. You can feed six times as many vegetarians as carnivores on the estate. If the fillet-mignon loving elite would eat meat with half the frequency they do now, the poor of the estate would not go hungry. ``Now'', Socrates might ask, ``can you make your elite and rising stars vergetarian--those who are eating meat less frequently--without issuing heavy-handed dictats? Without Ischomachus becoming estate Nanny?'' Can we all be both vegetarian and libertarian? The environmental movement teaches us how hard this is. Policy--like a meat tax or a carbon tax--and consciousness have to move hand in ha[...]

The world’s food insecurity

Tue, 29 Apr 2008 16:54:33 +0000

The food crisis is now affecting many countries across the world. Millions of people in dozens of countries are unable to afford the food they need, and malnutrition is on the rise. From Egypt to Indonesia, Haiti to Thailand, and across many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, increasingly vociferous public protests over food prices or shortages have exploded; some governments even fear for their survival (see Marc Lacey, "Across globe, hunger brings rising anger", International Herald Tribune, 18 April 2008). United Nations analysts and other research specialists describe this as the worst crisis since the early 1970s. They blame many factors: increased demand for meat diets in richer countries climatic factors, especially the kind of drought that has cut Australia's rice production by 98% (see Keith Bradsher, "A drought in Australia, a global shortage of rice", New York Times, 17 April 2008) the diversion of agricultural land to grow crops for biofuel (see James Painter, "Indonesia: the biofuel blowback", 30 August 2007) the steep increases in the price of oil (see Paul Krugman, "Running Out of Planet to Exploit", New York Times, 21 April 2008). The 1970s precedent What is extraordinary about the current situation is that it echoes in so many respects an earlier world food crisis: that of 1973-74 (it also remains fresh in the memory, as I worked in tropical-agricultural research in the late 1960s and attended the world food conference of 5-16 November 1974 as an observer for Britain's World Development Movement). In comparing the two moments, what is truly astonishing is that - despite all the supposed progress of the globalised world Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001 economy, all the much-lauded economic growth, and all the scientific and technological developments in the interim period - so little has changed (see Heidi Fritschel, "The price of food: ingredients of a global crisis", 9 April 2008). The crisis came to a head in the winter of 1973-74. It caught most agronomists and food-policy specialists by surprise, especially as the decade beforehand had seemed to show much promise. The first fruits of the "green revolution" in crop-breeding - the new "miracle" rice varieties such as IR8 and IR11 among them - were giving hope that radical advances in tropical agriculture would enable the poorest farmers to become much more self-reliant. The world still had over 400 million people suffering from malnutrition (in a total population of 3.7 billion in 1970), but there was optimism that substantial progress to address the roots of their condition and improve their lives was possible. In only a few years, this mood dissipated. The terrible famine in Bangladesh in 1971 (related to the disruptive effects of its war of independence from Pakistani rule) contributed to the shift. By early 1974, one senior United Nations source was warning that 40 million people in thirty countries were at risk of starvation - a catastrophe that could be ten times worse than the appalling Bengal famine of 1943-44. The immediate problem was that those countries most at risk needed at least 10 million tons of additional food grains within a year - yet most could not afford to pay for them. A further problem was a world shortage of fertilisers (amounting to around 1.5 million tons), which had to be addressed to avoid further bad harvests (see Paul Rogers, Food in Our Time - But Not Just Yet, World Development Movement, London, 1975). The United Nations system, then led by (the later discredited) sec[...]

Haiti: empty stomachs, stormy politics

Mon, 21 Apr 2008 15:12:51 +0000

Haiti has been hard hit by the global food crisis. The turbulent events provoked by the sharp rise in prices of basic commodities have included riots across the country, in which five people were shot dead on 7 April 2008 and many others wounded by gunfire; an attempt to invade the national palace in the capital, Port-au-Prince, on 8 April; and repeated protests against United Nations peacekeepers, with three Sri Lankan soldiers shot and one Nigerian police-officer killed on 12 April. This accumulating series of events led to the removal from office of the prime minister, Jacques-Édouard Alexis, also on 12 April. The entire cycle of instability has caused immense disruption and suffering, and led the major international donors' conference scheduled for 24-25 April - designed to help facilitate stability and progress in Haiti - to be postponed. Amélie Gauthier is a researcher at the Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (Fride) in Madrid What makes Haiti's current predicament even more devastating is that the country had made major progress during the last year, in that violence had diminished and the United Nations peacekeeping operation (officially the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti / Minustah) had reoriented its efforts to focus on state-building. It may still be too early to evaluate the full impact of the turmoil, yet they are likely to be catastrophic: the effects of a global food shortage in a country already suffering from a profound structural crisis could seriously undermine all the achievements made to date by Minustah and the international community. The dramatic increase in the prices of staple foods has been fuelling tensions for several months. By February 2008, the people were appealing to the government for subsidies and assistance to compensate for the price increases. The government initially declared that it would not undertake any measures to help the population. This unsympathetic answer provoked days of demonstrations in front of the national palace, and eventually a no-confidence vote from parliament on 28 February. At the time, the question was whether the test was of prime minister Alexis's leadership or merely his capacity to call on the ex-chimères ("hotheads", or members of violent gangs) in a show of strength in front of the palace. The situation was already fragile; government weakness, ongoing ties between government and chimères, and an angry and hungry population all contributing to the tensions. But in retrospect, the events of late February were the harbinger of the far more serious events of April. Food demos, gang riots At the time of writing, major cities in Haiti have been completely paralysed for days. The country is another victim of a worldwide food crisis that has many regional and national components (see Heidi Fritschel, "The price of food: ingredients of a global crisis" [9 April 2008]). A combination of factors is responsible: agriculture being replaced by agrofuels, increasing demand by emerging markets, and reductions in rice exports. Haiti is affected mostly by the price rises in food imports; 25%-30% of the national budget is spent on imported goods, and $270 million on rice. The estimated 40% increase in prices in 2007 has made life even more difficult for the 56% of Haitians who are extremely poor, and the 76% living on less than $2 a day. The price of transport has increased by 50% in a matter of days; twenty-two petrol stations have been vandalised, the traditional "tap-taps" are not running. Haiti is suffering from the same broad conditions that have hit Egypt, the Philippines, Cameroon, Senegal and Palestine and many other count[...]

The price of food: ingredients of a global crisis

Wed, 09 Apr 2008 09:28:29 +0000

Prices are surging for food commodities worldwide, posing a tough policy challenge for developing countries - can they protect poor consumers without crushing new opportunities for farmers? Heidi Fritschel is a writer and editor. This article is also published on the website of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Poor consumers across the globe are protesting about their rising food bills. In December 2007, Mexicans rioted in response to an enormous jump in tortilla prices, which quadrupled in some parts of the country; in January 2008, Indonesians took to the streets to protest high soybean prices; in February, protesters in three major towns in Burkina Faso, angry about the rising cost of food and other basic goods, attacked government offices and shops; unrest linked to food markets has occurred also in Guinea, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. The new "agflation" that has riled poor consumers marks a sharp break with the generation following the mid-1970s, a period generally characterised by years of slowly falling food prices. The Economist reports that in 1974-2005, real food prices declined by 75%; but 2005-08, they have risen by 75% percent (see "The end of cheap food", 6 December 2007). Moreover, the price increases affect nearly every food commodity. Prices of wheat, butter, and milk have tripled since 2000; those of maize, rice, and poultry have nearly doubled; those of meat, palm oil, and cassava have all gone up, too. Overall, the food-price index of the United Nations's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) rose by nearly 40% in 2007, compared with a 9% increase in 2006; in the first months of 2008, prices are higher than they have been in decades. The years of falling food prices were good for consumers, but not so good for farmers. Now, while consumers in urban areas cannot be expected to welcome soaring food prices that eat into their wallets, the higher prices should theoretically reward farmers with greater profits and better livelihoods. "Many media are reporting that high prices are good for farmers, which is true for much of the sector, but it's more complex than that", Daniel Gustafson, director of the FAO's liaison office for north America, said at a recent International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) seminar. "Many poor farmers in developing countries are net food buyers." The task for governments is to help farmers take advantage of higher prices to increase productivity - and thereby production and incomes - in order to improve their living standards and ensure that poor consumers who are already living on the edge are not pushed into destitution. This balancing-act will not be easy. Why have they risen? A confluence of factors underlies the dramatic rise in food prices. They include major new sources of demand for agricultural products. Millions of people in developing countries, especially fast-growing China and India, are benefiting from rising incomes; and their food preferences are shifting from grains and other staple crops to high-value products like meat, dairy, fish, fruits, and vegetables. The new urban middle class in countries where diets were once based on rice or maize is now developing a taste for products made from wheat. And demand for meat is surging - per-capita consumption of meat in China, for example, more than doubled between 1990 and 2005 and is still growing, leading to rapid increases in demand for feed-grain. At the same time, with petroleum prices up by 19% in February 2008 alone and now hovering around an all-time high of $100 a barrel, it has become profitable to divert maize and other feed and food[...]