Frenzy Over Potatoes, Bullets for Rice
Food has gotten more expensive, a fact that has become noticeable every time I make a trip to the local grocery. My overall expenses are low so I can dole out the additional cash without having to make any dietary compromises beyond that nagging question of how last year’s collection of refrigerator staples have suddenly jumped five to ten bucks a week. If my rent was higher or if I had more bills to pay then I might have to stop buying potato chips or, more alarmingly, start rooting around the plastic collection of produce marked “conventional”.
Over the months higher prices have been blamed as consequences of expensive gas and poor crop yields. Concurrently the economy was tanking and while overpaid talking heads took to the airwaves to debate the term “recession” people were losing their homes, their jobs and their ability to provide for their families. The most dramatic result thus far just took place outside Colorado where an estimated 40,000 people descended upon a small farm for gleaning– scraping the leftovers from the earth after a harvest.
Joe and Chris Miller had a good potato crop which covered their bases without fully reaping the fields. In years past they had allowed churches and food banks to comb the paddocks but realizing that winter was approaching and various charities were already running low on supplies they announced an open gleaning on television. They expected 10,000 people but it was obviously going to be a busy day with cars queued for three kilometers before dawn; the area cleared for parking was full before nine in the morning. Eventually they would have to open a second paddock for additional parking and, at the end of the day, Joe Miller says that he gave away 80,000 sacks to be filled.
America remains a rich country but currently people will line up for six hours to get a free bag of groceries in Los Angeles. There seems to be a growing fear shared by developed nations that food is going to be a major issue in the future. Climate change is inevitable and as the seas rise it will no longer be an issue of gas prices but arable land which dictate what you can afford to eat. Perhaps this is why Jacques Diouf, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, has recently spoken out against neo-colonialism taking place in the third world. Last week a South Korean import/export and “natural resource development” company, Daewoo Logistics, announced that it was negotiating a 99-year lease with the government of Madagascar for a million hectares of land. While the expressed intention of the firm is to cultivate palm oil and corn (presumably for biofuels) it’s worth noting that only 30% of South Korea is arable.
Large investment groups have begun to walk the corridors of power throughout Africa and Southeast Asia for a new kind of land grab. The Saudi Binladin Group is working to develop in Indonesia to grow basmati rice while the governments of Kuwait and Qatar are exploring their options in Cambodia. Laos has already sold 15% of its farmland to overseas investment and Pakistan has signed off on large plots of land to Abu Dhabi businesses. Perhaps the most blatant act is the Sudanese government who are actively courting offers from wealthy nations for land while still complicit in what could possibly be the word’s greatest current humanitarian catastrophe.
In regards to the Madagascar deal, the government minister in charge of land reform is excited by the prospect of a cash infusion which could go to developing infrastructure. The lease is on hold until an environmental review is conducted and something tells me that there will be no red flags raised to keep money from exchanging hands. Last I heard Madagascar had sold itself to industry long ago, with some of the world’s worst rates of deforestation leading to horrific flooding, extinction of unique species and, of course, deepening poverty.
The poverty will be the issue in the end. As food prices continue to climb small farmers will be priced off their land. Conglomerates will control the best farmland and the yields will be shipped back home to be processed, packaged and displayed in your local supermarket. The value of the food will be higher than people in the third world can afford, so they will watch the container ships leave the dock for richer pastures before going to wait in line for hours in hopes that charity organizations have brought enough rice and beans for a starving population. Eventually the poor will attack these new plantations, probably led by the underpaid workers plowing the fields– maybe one who was punished for taking a small sackful of grain home to his family. The first world will protect its investment the same way it has for raw materials, for oil, for diamonds and for influence. Dictators will be propped up, machine guns will be distributed, people will die. Those who aren’t gunned down will starve or will find themselves indentured on tracts of land once theirs, plucking potatoes from the ground that might one day grow up to be your french fries. Bon Appetit!