The World Food Crisis
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The World Food Crisis. Fred Magdoff [email protected] 1.) There is a catastrophic food crisis. 2.) In addition to “routine” hunger. 3.) It is interacting with a longer term underlying food crisis and making it worse. A Broad Overview. Total world population = 6 billion people.

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1.) There is a catastrophic food crisis.

2.) In addition to “routine” hunger.

3.) It is interacting with a longer term underlying food crisis and making it worse.

A Broad Overview

Total world population = 6 billion people

In cities = 3 billion people

In rural areas = 3 billion people

The Wretched of the Earth

  • 3 billion live on less than $2 per day

  • 1 billion live on less than $1 per day

  • 1 billion live in slums

  • 25 million per year migrate to cities

  • 1 billion have no access to clean water

  • 2 billion have no electricity

  • 2.5 billion have no sanitation systems


  • The UN estimates that 840 million people suffer from undernourishment, although the number may be considerably higher.

  • The number suffering from mineral shortages, food insecurity and temporary food shortage may approach 3 billion.

Hunger amid plenty in the U.S.

  • In 4 million U.S. families (with 9 million people) someone skipped meals because of lack of food.

  • 12 million U.S. families (with about 34 million people) are “food insecure.”

  • Huge increases in the last decade in those using food pantries, food shelves, soup kitchens, etc.

Hunger frequently occurs amid plenty in poor countries too

Poor in India Starve as Surplus Wheat Rots(New York Times, 12/12/02)

Want Amid Plenty, An Indian Paradox: Bumper Harvests and Rising Hunger

(Wall St. Journal, 6/25/04)

There is enough food produced world wide—and usually within most countries—to feed everyone.

Why are people hungry? within most countries—to feed everyone.

Because they are poor (working or not) and living in an economic system that

a) needs, creates, and maintains an underclass, and that

b) does not admit a “right” to basic necessities such as food.

The availability of food to people reflects very unequal economic and political power relationships within and between countries.

Percent of total national economic and political power relationships within and between countries.income (2001)












Household distribution of net worth in the United States (2001)

Percent of families

Top 1%

Top 5%

Top 10%

Top 20%

Bottom 80%

Bottom 40%

Percent of net worth







The Current Crisis (2001)

Bangladeshi demonstrators protest over high food prices and low wages

Haiti’s President Tries to Halt Crisis Over Food (2001)

April 10, 2008

The police in Haiti struggled Wednesday to control looting and rioting over high food prices…

Food Inflation, Riots Spark Worries for World Leaders (2001)

— Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2008

Rioting in response to soaring food prices recently has broken out in Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Ethiopia. In Pakistan and Thailand, army troops have been deployed to deter food theft from fields and warehouses. World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned in a recent speech that 33 countries are at risk of social upheaval because of rising food prices. Those could include Indonesia, Yemen, Ghana, Uzbekistan and the Philippines. In countries where buying food requires half to three-quarters of a poor person's income, "there is no margin for survival," he said.

The price of rice, the core of the Bangladeshi diet, has jumped by more than 30 percent since then — a major problem in a country where nearly half the population survives on less than $1 a day.

An adviser to the country's Ministry of Food, A.M.M. Shawkat Ali, warned of a 'hidden hunger' in Bangladesh and economists estimate 30 million of the country's 150 million people could go hungry — a crisis that could become a serious political problem for the military-backed government.

"Inflation of staples is really out of control. We've never seen this before…If we don't react now, this summer will be full of danger.”

—WFP representative Gian Carlo Cirri

The world's poor ``are living very close to the edge as it is…If they are pushed further, they are typically the first who will spark unrest.'’

— Robert Zeigler, director-general of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

Rising prices threaten millions with starvation, despite bumper crops

The Independent (UK)

Sunday, 2 March 2008

There has never been anything remotely like the food crisis that is now increasingly gripping the world, threatening millions with starvation. For it is happening at a time of bumper crops.

20% bumper crops





Effects in U.S. are less than in poor countries bumper crops

Ingredients are small part of price of highly processed foods.

In U.S. people have higher incomes and spend less a % of their income on food.

But it’s not just ethanol: also problems with biodiesel primarily from soybeans and oil palm

  • Increase in fuel prices primarily from soybeans and oil palm (“biofuels” plus food system is VERY energy intensive).

  • Increase in meat consumption(Per capita consumption has more than doubled in last 50 years.)

  • Formerly self-sufficient countries now importing food.

  • Weather(Australia, Bangladesh)

  • Speculation(local hoarding as well as speculation in the “commodities super cycle.”)

Governmental Responses primarily from soybeans and oil palm

Emergency imports

Eliminating import duties

Freezing exports of foods

More food subsidies


Governmental Responses primarily from soybeans and oil palm

Bush Orders $200 Million in Food Aid

By Associated Press

4:31 PM EDT, April 14, 2008

(A congressional analysis shows the Iraq war costing taxpayers almost $2 billion a week.)

The long-term crisis primarily from soybeans and oil palm

The long-term crisis primarily from soybeans and oil palm

Neoliberal Policies

Decreased support to small farmers

Lowered food production by small farmers

Increased migration to city slums

Increased larger farms

The Future? primarily from soybeans and oil palm

  • Fewer than 20 million highly productive and mechanized farmers can grow all the world’s food.

  • (Note: one person in Brazil — the governor of the state of Mato Grosso, the “soybean king” — controls about 250,000 acres.)

The Future? primarily from soybeans and oil palm

If 20 million farms can produce all world food needs — regardlessofwherethefarmsarelocated — what will be the fate of billions of people that will not find other employment?

How can poor nations keep the large mass of people in rural areas productively employed in agriculture?

One of the great moral, economic, and political issues of the 21st century.

  • Protection of, and active government support for, agriculture.

  • Developing agriculture — primarily to provide food for their own people — needs to be a priority for poor countries.

  • Promote farming carried out by small to medium producers working alone or in cooperatives.