Rising Food Prices are a Problem Why?

Just snapped this pic of MSNBC’s website:

[The image reads: “Soaring food prices spark fears of unrest among world’s poor”.  The subtitle/teaser reads: “Rising demand and bad weather stretch the global food supply chain to the limit.”]

While I agree that unrest is bad (of course), I wonder why food prices would lead those poor people to be unrestful.  In the article there’s nothing about starvation in those countries (though it is implied):

As supplies tighten, prices surge. […]

Food price spikes hit less-developed countries much harder because a greater share of per capita income — half or more — goes to pay for food.

But the accompanying article does say these interesting things:

The reason for the modest price rise in the U.S.? People living in developed countries eat more processed foods, which are typically made from fewer raw materials.

“In this country, a much higher proportion of your food dollar is spent on processing, advertising and promotion and marketing,” said Tom Jackson, a senior economist with Global Insight. “There’s not really that margin built in between the farmer and the consumer in the developing countries.”  […]

Though strong global demand and tight supplies are bringing misery to some poor countries, the price surge is a sign of improving conditions in emerging economies. That’s because increased demand is caused in part to rapidly rising standards of living, according to David Malpass, president of economic research firm Encima Global.

They riot because they are starving and they know that other people are not.  They riot because it is unfair:

People are not going hungry because of a shortage of food. Currently, the world generates nearly 4,000 calories a day (about double what’s nutritionally required) for every man, woman and child on the globe.

“Hunger is a political and social problem,” writes food security expert Martin McLaughlin in his book, “World Food Security.” “It is a problem of access to food supplies, of distribution, and entitlement.”

Moreover, here and abroad, the corporatization of agriculture has taken wealth from the hands of many and placed it in the hands of a few, often by driving farmers off their land.

American farm policy aggravates the problem by encouraging overproduction of U.S. commodity crops, which are mass produced and subsidized, and then dumped on developing nations, thereby impoverishing their farmers. Former U.N. Development Program head Mark Malloch Brownhas said that wealthy nations’ farm subsidies, estimated in the tens of billions annually, hold down “the prosperity of very poor people in Africa and elsewhere.”

They riot because they are fearful.  They riot so someone, anyone who can help them will hear.  They riot because they feel invisible.  And they are scared they are going to die because they won’t be able to purchase enough food to live.

So, why can’t the MSNBC title instead read: “Soaring food prices spark fear of starvation among the world’s poor”?

Why?  Because then we would have to seriously think about why people around the world are starving.  It’s easier for us to simply tap into our cultural ideas about unrest and riots and poor people and focus on stopping that (send in the troops!  the police!) instead of dealing with the actual underlying problem.  The story is about the abstract idea of a “food supply chain” instead of malnourished children who eat plenty of US corn products and still have no nutrition.

And that is a lot harder for an MSNBC reader to stomach.


I was just re-reading this and realized that the title of that MSNBC article is passive ambiguous.  In whom is the unrest sparking fear?  I originally read it as the “world’s poor” being the ones fearing the unrest.  But I think it is the world’s non-poor who is fearful of the unrest, that unrest taking place among the world’s poor.  Which way do you read it?   Un-restful poor people who are starving are worth fearing, I fear.


7 thoughts on “Rising Food Prices are a Problem Why?

  1. To be fair, it’s not like people in developed countries always have a choice about eating more processed food–somehow, and I think most of us know how, fresh, unprocessed food has become a luxury in the US and many other areas, whereas heavily processed, nutrient poor food is cheap and therefore often what those who must feed many people per dollar are forced to purchase.

  2. Well a good start would be most of the developed world cutting their caloric consumption in half. The lowered demand would help a lot.

  3. I totally and completely agree with this. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. I would never fault someone for feeding themselves or their family in the best way they possibly can or in the way that they know best. I was trying to address larger structural fails in the system (one being the TYPE of nutrient-void aid that the US sends to the rest of the world because of the subsidies that our government pays to certain kinds of farm goods – Doctors without Borders has tried to address this imbalance: http://www.starvedforattention.org/#/stories/usa). I was also trying to draw attention to the way the media discusses these crises of food, specifically NOT focusing on the fact that people in developed countries (and in our own country) often have no choice about the type of food. And now even their limited options are going to cost more. Instead, we get another article about possible unrest because of the food shortage.

    That’s all to say – I agree with you.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. True. And also attempting to get more calories from fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes instead of meat. It takes so many more resources to grow, slaughter, and process an animal for consumption than it does to farm crops.

  5. not technically passive–it’s clear that the unrest is sparking fear (it’s the subject, and the actor)

    poorly worded and syntactically ambiguous, but not passive.

  6. I’d always wondered why this kind of story made me feel so uneasy. You’ve encapsulated it very well.

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