is the title of the second part of the Washington Post series on the Global Food Crisis. Subtitled "Mauritania, and much of Africa, relies on imported food. As trade breaks down, destitute people face tough choices," it focuses particularly on that poor country as it tries to demonstrate the dimensions of the spreading problem. Like the first part, about which I wrote yesterday in Hunger, today's piece has accompanying tables and sidebars to illustrate the depths of the problem. For now consider just this applicable to Mauritania:
The price of sorghum, a major staple used to make porridge, has jumped 20% in six months, a sharp rise in a region where more than 60% of the people earn less than a $1 a day.
Before I proceed with the Post article, I want also to call your attention to Boston Globe op ed entitled Hunger affects us all. In it James Carroll begins by telling us
OF ALL the marks of difference that separate humans, none is so drastic as hunger. Not only does the physical sensation of being famished set a person off from those who are sated, but the well-fed are hard put even to imagine the desperation that goes with an empty stomach. Among the relatively well-off, hunger is like a vague rumor, having little more substance than the report of bad weather in a distant part of the globe.
And yet, as he makes clear, this problem is not merely that of poor countries overseas"
Here in Massachusetts, where the shelves of food stores are well stocked, it may seem that hunger is a phenomenon of the distant poor, but that is wrong. Government studies suggested in 2007 that nearly half a million residents of this state do not have enough to eat. In a place where the income gap between the richest and the poorest is vast, the high cost of living puts the supply of basic nutritional needs beyond the reach of many. If a silent tsunami has struck the globe, a quiet Katrina rolls in on Massachusetts families every day. In many households, three meals have become two.
I will return to Carroll later, for there is a key point of which he reminds us that I must be sure you see.
Perhaps you have heard the expression of "eating your seed corn." That phrase is meant to illustrate how attempting to address a short-term need of hunger can lead to long-term starvation. The Post article addresses it another way, using the example of a poor family slaughtering a female goat for a few day's meat and thereby depriving itself of an ongoing source of milk. Or equally as bad, attempting to sell a goat only to discover that so many families are so desperate for a little cash to purchase the crops whose price has soared that simultaneously the price of goats has dropped, further aggravating the desperation of those trying to sell.
Why focus on Mauritania?
Like most of the world's poorest nations, Mauritania is caught in a global food trap, producing only 30 percent of what its people eat and importing most of the rest. As prices skyrocket, those who can least afford it are squeezed the most as the world confronts the worst bout of food inflation since the Soviet grain crisis of the 1970s.
Strong global demand and limited supplies are key factors driving up prices, but perhaps just as important is a massive disruption in the free flow of global trade. In recent months, food-producing countries from Argentina to Kazakhstan have begun to slam shut their doors to protect domestic access to the food they grow.
Agriculturally challenged countries are left out in the cold. Mahmoud, whose family dwells just beyond the dunes in a desert shantytown here, earns roughly $1.50 a day to support his family of four. His wages have not risen. But over the past six months, the cost of the imported wheat his wife uses to make a chewy local bread has soared 67 percent, cooking oil is up 117 percent and rice 25 percent. Though those are the staples of life here, Mauritania, with only 0.2 percent of its land arable, produces scant amounts.
That is partly because there are fewer and fewer farmers. In a nation girdled by the encroaching Sahara, the slums of Nouakchott, the capital, are swelled with former tillers of soil who abandoned hard lives growing subsistence crops amid years of drought. City life was comparatively better, but in recent months as food prices have risen, those already living on the smallest of margins have despaired.
Mauritania is illustrative of how heavily the food crisis has hit Africa, which has 22 of the 30 nations most affected, according to the UN World Food Program, by the perfect storm created in part by market forces.
Hunger is spiking in parts of the continent in patterns similar to past bouts of drought, floods or civil strife. In Mauritania -- a nation of 3 million straddling Arab and black Africa -- the number of people not getting enough food is up this year by 30 percent in rural areas despite a relatively good annual harvest, according to the WFP.
And a key point to remember:
Globalization was supposed to eliminate this kind of recurring disaster. With economists radiating confidence about the new efficiencies of the global market, the need for food self-sufficiency seemed almost archaic. In that new reality, global markets would provide the long-term cornucopia that the arid earth here could not, and at reasonable prices.
So far I have only quoted from the first of four online pages in the article. I will not quote that much more, as it is important that you read the article, and also the accompanying links to sidebars and tables. You will read about how some import countries abandoned long-standing practices of subsidizing local agriculture only now to find they cannot help in meeting basic nutrition needs of their own people. Wealthy countries depending upon imports, like Singapore, exacerbate the problem by hoarding, buying up more than their current needs to store, thereby further driving up the price and limiting the quantities of what is available to poorer countries like Mauritania.
Meanwhile another source of food is not available to the locals. Mauritania has a coast, but the country, desperate for foreign currency, has sold industrial fishing licenses to foreign companies, often based in Europe. Much of what is caught gets exported, at the same time the stocks available for local fishermen become diminished. And as for grain, some nearby countries that are able to produce a bit more, like Mali, are now hoarding what they produce in order to ensure a food supply for their own people.
Let me return to Carroll. His column has the intent of promoting a local (in Boston) walk for hunger. If interested you can read his column. I want to focus on one more paragraph:
Compounding the profoundly physical problem of those who are deprived is the imprisoning moral problem of those who are well fed, for the culture of consumption, while it overfeeds appetite, starves the imagination. Here's where the divide between those who are hungry and those who eat enough is most manifest. Not only do the well fed fail to perceive the despair and fear that hunger breeds, until it explodes in riots of rage, but the well fed are equally incapable of seeing the causal link between their own privilege and the suffering of the dispossessed - although the substitution of bio-fuel corn production for the growing of edible wheat makes that link unusually apparent. Filling gas tanks of automobiles matters, in effect, more than filling bellies of children.
There are many moral dimensions to the current crisis. Millions upon millions face starvation, and some who survive direct death from starvation are so weakened that they are more vulnerable to otherwise survivable diseases. In Mauritania and other poor countries, malnourished children die at a rate that would shock most Americans, usually in the first 5 years of life. And as both Carroll and the Post article remind us, lack of food can easily lead to civil disruption and open warfare.
There is much the world could be doing, and is not. Somehow the processes of globalization have exacerbated the problem of meeting basic human needs for much of the world. International organizations such as the World Bank and the IMF have imposed on developing nations regimens and programs that make those nations dependent upon importing the food necessary to survive as they are forced to devote resources to things that bring in the currency necessary to meet the demands of those regimens, whether by turning to cash crops that are exported or to activities that remove people from local agricultural production, or both.
Thos of us who live comfortably in rich nations have a margin of error - we can adjust our diet and our other activities and still be able to sustain our nutrition and our health. For much of the world this is not possible.
The problem is becoming greater, at ever increasing speeds. There are elements of a feedback loop amplifying the worst effects, or what some call a perfect storm as a series of factors comes together to provide an impact whose scale is for some people almost beyond imagination.
There are many crises in the world. It is not possible for each of us to fully address them all. And yet, we cannot use that as an excuse to turn away from what is so obvious, merely because it does not have the same impact in the US, not yet, or because it does not confront us and our families as directly. Our actions and decision contribute to the world-wide situation.
The world's religious traditions have always recognized a moral responsibility to care for those less well off, whether it is the Hebrew mitzvah not to pick the corners of the field but leave that for the poor who perhaps had no fields, or it is the commands of Matthews 25, where Jesus is accusatory towards those who did not feed the hungry, reminding his listeners that whatsoever they did to the least of his brethen they did also unto him.
Whatever the basis of our own personal moral codes, methinks we have a responsibility to demand first of ourselves, and then of our society and our nation, that we act with mindfulness, with full awareness of the impact of our words and actions upon perhaps billions around the world.
So let me end with words of a sage more than 2000 years ago, Hillel. Perhaps they can serve to remind us of our interconnectedness, in this crisis and in all else:
If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?