Food, Justice and Money in the 21st Century

A masterful review of whether the end of extreme poverty and widespread hunger are within our reach.


| April 2016



rice

The anger that this crisis produced is one that has, across the centuries, proven to be the most dangerous form of anger of all: anger in the belly.

Photo by fotolia/miracoure

In The Reproach of Hunger (Simon and Schuster, 2015), Daivd Rieff, a leading expert on humanitarian aid and development, searches for the causes of this food security crisis, as well as what lies behind the failures to respond to disaster.Rieff cautions against the increased privatization of aid, as well as the interventions of celebrity campaigners, whose business-led solutions rob development of political urgency.

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Food, Justice and Money in the 21st Century

I had asked most mainstream development experts in the year 2000 to name those factors they thought would most imperil their efforts to substantially reduce poverty globally in the new millennium, it is highly unlikely they would have mentioned a sudden, radical spike in the price of the principal agricultural commodities, and the staple foods made from them, on which the poor of the world literally depended for their survival. What seems obvious in hindsight — that the long period in which food prices had steadily declined would come to an abrupt end — seemed anything but obvious at the time. As Rajiv Shah, the then-administrator of the US Agency for International Development under President Barack Obama, put it, “by the late 1990s, global food security had mostly fallen off the world’s agenda.” The reasons for this were partly empirical (even if, self-evidently, in retrospect not empirical enough) and partly ideological, even in what was supposedly a post ideological age. The empirical part was based on what seemed to be a secular rather than temporary decline in the price of food staples, which, by 2000, were at an all-time low. The ideological part lay in the presumption that, in Shah’s words, “the success of the Green Revolution [in agriculture] had helped hundreds of millions of people in Latin America and Asia avoid a life of extreme hunger and poverty. Governments — developed and developing alike — assumed this success would spread and cut their investments in agriculture, allowing them to turn their attention elsewhere.”

They could not have been more wrong. At the end of 2006, the price of wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans—the four food staples that nearly three billion people who live on less than two dollars a day principally depend on not just as one element among several of their diets (as is the case in the rich world), but as the foodstuffs they almost exclusively depend on to avoid going hungry — began to rise vertiginously on world markets. By the time they peaked in early 2008, the price of corn had gone up by 31 percent, of rice by 74 percent, of soybeans by 87 percent, and of wheat by 130 percent, compared to what they had been in early 2007 at the beginning of what came to be known as the global food crisis.  

In many parts of the globe, the brutal secondary effects on the prices of food available to ordinary people in the market were almost immediate. In Egypt, for example, the price of bread doubled in a matter of months. In Haiti, the price of rice increased by 50 percent, while in South Africa, the price of maize meal increased by 28 percent. By some estimates, taken in aggregate the food bill for the world’s poor rose by 40 percent, while what soon came to be known as the global food crisis added 25 percent to the food import bills of many poor countries. And in thirty of the worst-affected countries across the globe, from Ethiopia to Uzbekistan, food riots broke out.