Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Price of Hunger

Almost thirty years ago, my wife and I traveled to Haiti. While in Port-Au-Prince, we visited a community clinic -- located on a hill, an hygienic island in a sea of shacks with corrugated tin roofs, no running water and buckets for toilets. During our visit, there was one of those tropical cloud bursts which are quick, sharp -- and leave the air more oppressive than before the deluge. The nuns who ran the place distributed and administered common medications to their destitute neighbours. As we left, they cautioned us to step carefully down the path to the street, explaining that the contents of the aforementioned buckets were regularly dumped on the path; and the rain would speed the waste on its way to the gutter.

We did as instructed; and, as we reached the street, a woman and a small child were sponge bathing in a large puddle -- like a fetid prairie slough -- where the path met the road. I thought of those people last week as I read of the food riots in Port-Au-Prince where, according to the New York Times, "children ate two spoonfuls of rice apiece and went without any food the following day." On the days when there is no food to be found, they eat patties "made of mud, oil and sugar."

According to David Olive, in The Toronto Star, "Already this year the price of rice, one of the world's critically important food staples, has increased a staggering 141 percent. And one particular variety of wheat jumped 25 percent in a single day during that period." The problem has touched us in North America, too. The cost of eggs has increased 24 percent in the past year; and the cost of dairy products has increased 13 percent. But the average annual income in Haiti is about $500 (U.S.). Haitians are part of the one and a half billion people on this planet who survive on less than two dollars a day -- and as food prices have spiked, they have quite literally been left to eat mud.

Those who analyze world agricultural production tell us that the number of acres in cultivation has actually gone up. But all the planetary problems we face have come to bear on the question of whether or not people have enough to eat. More acres are planted; but Australia, for instance -- which used to be the world's second largest wheat exporter -- has endured several years of drought, probably (say a number of scientists) one of the consequences of climate change.

In an effort to halt those consequences, American farmers have increased their corn harvest. But that grain is now used to produce ethanol; and, ultimately, it finds its way to gas tanks in wealthier countries, not to the stomachs of the poor. And, if some of that corn does find a human destination, it is used to feed cattle, which provide meat to the growing middle classes of China and India.

Because of the misguided public policy of recent years, we are now reaping our own harvest of desperate and violent protest. According to Jeffrey Sachs, who serves as a special adviser to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, "It's the worst crisis of its kind in thirty years . . . and it's obviously threatening a lot of governments. There are a number of governments on the ropes, and I think there's more political fallout to come." As Lynda Hurst reported two weeks ago in The Star, "According to the World Bank, 33 countries are now vulnerable to social unrest and political instability because of food insecurity -- and that has implications for all the rest."

At the recent "Three Amigos" summit in New Orleans, Mr. Bush, Mr. Calderon and Mr. Harper once again sang the praises of free trade. It's passing strange that they never -- to my knowledge -- make any public statements about fair trade. However, all three gentlemen appear to be well fed. Perhaps that fact accounts for the omission.

Whatever the reason, as someone told me just before our visit to Haiti, "Hungry people are dangerous people." One cannot appeal to their better angels if they face a fundamental choice between a slow, painful death from starvation or a short, violent death from a bullet.

The picture which accompanies this post was taken at a garbage dump in Port-Au-Prince, where many of those hungry people were scavenging for food.Those who are selling the same old snake oil will have lots to answer for. As Bob Dylan warned us forty years ago, "It's a hard, hard rain's a gonna fall."

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