Global food prices continue to rise. United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has warned that "We risk the spectre of wider-spread hunger, malnutrition and social unrest on an unprecedented scale".
Food riots in Haiti, rice rationing in India and even the United States, panic buying in Britain: so far, Canadians have been insulated from these phenomena, but not for long. Our rendezvous with rising prices for life's essentials is on the way.
To markets, food is just another commodity, subject to the same profiteering and speculation as tech stocks, minerals and oil futures.
The difference is that food, like air and water, is the most basic of necessities. Not being able to afford food is a death sentence.
Markets for food used to represent a means to fairly compensate farmers and a motivation for them to keep growing food. Now, global markets have set up a powerful and dangerous competition for a vital resource.
It is a competition that is not just between rich and poor, Europeans and Asians, North Americans and South Americans, to feed themselves. With the heavily subsidized, environmentally catastrophic growth of the biofuel industry, a more sinister competition has emerged between hungry bellies and automobile gas tanks.
In any competition, there are winners and losers, although the winners of this competition are few. For most ordinary people across the world, it is more about degrees of losing: by spending more for food, as Canadians will lose, or much more drastically by outright starving to death, as many of those in developing nations.
Globally speaking, the ability for most Canadians to compete for food is unquestioned. Higher prices will be painful, but we will survive.
As we purchase higher-priced groceries at Fortinos, Loblaws, or A & P, however, it might be worthwhile to pause for a moment and consider what that act of paing a premium for food really means: it is our contribution to higher prices. It is our act of competing with others for food, many of whom simply cannot afford to compete with us.
Of course, attempting a boycott of particular supermarkets to drive down prices makes as little sense as those absurd emails urging the boycott of gas stations from one chain or another. Instead, more practical solutions should be sought, from the mundane to the far-sighted.
Consumers can change eating habits by eating more grains and bulky, in-season fruits and vegetables and less meats and imported produce. Try it: it will save you money, encourage local production, and leave more food for everyone else. By eating less beef, for example, you are essentially freeing up grain that is spent on fattening cows.
Policy makers (I'm looking at you, Hamilton councilors and City Hall staffers) ought to recognize prime farmland for what it is: an invaluable, irreplaceable resource.
As importing food from abroad becomes more costly, and as it becomes increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain high levels of agricultural productivity (consider that fertilizers are made from oil and that modern agriculture uses a great deal of petroleum), we may find ourselves wishing that we had sacrificed less prime agricultural land to sprawl, highways and "employment lands".
We are entering a difficult period of adjustment that we are woefully unprepared for. But as with any crisis, our society does have options. The question is, will we examine those options and pick the one that is least harmful, or will we continue to throw ourselves to the mercy of global events?
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