Frustration with high food prices is among the underlying causes of the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, and a global food crisis may be brewing.
In January, world food prices rose to their highest level in 30 years, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, and a report released by the World Bank earlier this month said global food prices have risen 29 percent in the past year to "dangerous levels." There are a variety of reasons for the increase, including crop reductions due to drought and flooding; higher oil prices, which drive up transportation costs; and increased demand -- both for biofuels, which take land away from food production, and for meat, which requires grain to produce.
Here in the United States, we may grumble over rising grocery bills, but for most of us, the worst-case scenario is cutting back on discretionary expenses like eating out or going to the movies.
Yet we can't afford to be complacent. Because of our reliance on processed foods, we're more insulated than developing countries from price spikes in commodities such as wheat and rice. But you can be sure the corporate food giants that make our corn- and sugar-filled junk food will pass along the cost eventually. And with unemployment hovering at 9 percent, even a moderate rise in food prices could hamper our economic recovery.
Already, a growing number of Americans need help putting food on the table. Last year, the hunger relief charity Feeding America provided food to 37 million Americans through its network of community food banks, an increase of 46 percent over 2006.
With a growing number of Americans undernourished and/or overweight while our small farmers and producers struggle to survive, it's clear that our cheap-food culture is costing us. It's time for a change -- for the sake of our health, our economy and our national security.
I find it a bit ironic that McDonald's was part of the backdrop for some of the protests in the Middle East. McDonald's has upwards of 32,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries, according to its website. Wouldn't the world be better off if just a fraction of that real estate was home to small farms producing healthy food for the region, rather than artery-clogging food purveyors producing profits for the agribusiness industry?
Ultimately, it's consumers who drive the market. We can't afford to take our local farmers, feed stores, farm stands, creameries and apple orchards for granted. They won't survive if we don't patronize them. And once a strip mall replaces a farm, that land is gone forever.
Thanks to the grass-roots local food movement, as well as recent food-safety scares, consumers are becoming more aware of what's in their food and where it comes from. The market is starting to change in response. It has become trendy for restaurants to feature local grass-fed beef; grocery store chains such as Hannaford and even Walmart are featuring regional products; and there are many more farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture programs today than 10 years ago.
Even the USDA is getting on board, with a new "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" campaign that promises to "foster the viability and growth of small and midsize farms and ranches … by promoting locally produced foods." The 2008 farm bill contained some positive provisions, including start-up assistance for new farms and money to develop and expand farmers' markets. However, we need a better farm bill in 2012, one that reforms government subsidies and regulations to favor small family farms over large industrial operations.
Highly processed food isn't going anywhere. It's too profitable and too ingrained in our way of life. But in a world with increasingly volatile food prices, some corporations are starting to realize that sustainability makes good business sense.
PepsiCo -- maker not just of chips and soda, but also products such as Tropicana Orange Juice, Quaker Oatmeal and Aunt Jemima Waffles -- is working with Mexican corn farmers to develop sunflower oil production. By replacing palm oil (imported from Asia and Africa) with sunflower oil, PepsiCo may be able to make its Mexican products a little healthier by reducing their trans fat content while supporting small farms and reducing transportation costs.
Perhaps the corporate greed that has contributed to America's cheap-food quandary will also help pave the way for a new era of sustainability.
In the meantime, I'm making a list of seeds and plants to buy for my vegetable garden.
Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.