Archive for category: Food
Pigs on a farm in Cambodia. Over the last 60 years, meat production has exploded in high-income countries and is projected to do the same in low-income countries in coming decades. | Universal Images Group/BSIP via Getty Images
A new report shows a drastic decline in wildlife. But farmed animals could have it even worse.
If you could choose to be alive at any point in human history, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better moment than right now. We’re living longer, richer lives with better access to clean water, education, electricity, and basic human rights than ever before.
We can celebrate human progress without becoming complacent — after all, there’s never any shortage of bad news to report, and gaping disparities between rich and poor countries will remain far into the future. But McCartney and Lennon were onto something when they sang about things getting better all the time, even if they were talking about love, not life expectancy.
But for just about every animal species besides Homo sapiens, today is probably the worst period in time to be alive. According to a new World Wildlife Fund report, wild species populations have shrunk on average by 69 percent since the 1970s. And it’s due in large part to the demands of food production: Commercial fishing in the sea, and deforestation on land to make room for cattle grazing and the production of palm oil and animal feed crops.
As the report suggests, a not-insignificant amount of human improvement has come at the direct expense of these animals, with rapid human population growth — and all those people leading longer, richer lives — creating a surge in demand for cheap meat over the last 60 years. And producing all that cheap meat uses up a lot of land once occupied by wildlife.
The irony is that while populations of wild animals are clearly declining, numbers of domesticated animals — chickens, pigs, cows, and farmed fish — have been booming to meet the demands of a rising human population. Yet many of those farmed animals live lives of such intense, concentrated suffering in our industrialized agriculture system that they arguably have it even worse than their disappearing wild cousins.
Human prosperity and animal suffering exist in a kind of twisted symbiosis: Economic growth leads to more food production and consumption, which in turn results in faster population growth and longer life expectancy, which then requires more intensive, factory-farmed meat to satiate growing populations.
The cycle has been miraculous for humans. For all the problems of our global food system — including a recent rise in world hunger due to the Covid-19 pandemic and price hikes for grain caused by the war in Ukraine — far fewer people are undernourished today than they were in the 1970s, and the specter of famine has largely diminished. But the cycle has been disastrous for the environment and animals, as hundreds of billions of them are now raised on factory farms each year, accounting for about 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Growing prosperity and human population have also meant that more and more animals are being used in testing for drug development and consumer products, and that deforestation of massive areas of wildlife habitat is increasing — primarily for beef and livestock feed.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. An exception to this rule — that some of human flourishing has come at the cost of animal welfare — is pets; US euthanasia rates at pet shelters have plummeted since the 1970s. Despite a general decline in wildlife populations, many wild species’ populations are stable or increasing. And perhaps more consequentially, we’re at the start of what might be a moral revolution in our relationship to other animals. Countries are passing laws to ban the worst factory farming practices; leading philosophers are calling for an expansion of who we include in our moral circle; and scientists are building technologies that could one day eliminate the use of animals for food, medical research, and textiles.
Though currently low levels of meat consumption across Asia, Africa, and Latin America are projected to skyrocket in the coming decades, they’ll likely still be much lower than consumption in the West. But meat eating seems to have more or less peaked, or will at least grow very slowly, in richer parts of the world like the US and Europe.
Some countries, like Germany and Sweden, are actually starting to eat less of it overall, thanks in part to heightened campaigning over the environmental toll of meat production. The European Commission projects a 4 percent decline in per capita meat consumption within the bloc by 2031.
However, declining consumption is relative. Recent figures show Sweden’s per capita meat consumption is almost five times that of Pakistan’s, while the average German eats about as much meat in a month as the average Nigerian does in a year.
But just as some countries have figured out how to decouple greenhouse gas emissions from economic growth — improving quality of life while lowering the national carbon footprint — someday we might do the same for animal welfare.
We’ve made 11 charts that lay out the grim case for how human progress has too often come at the expense of animal welfare, while indicating some hope for a future where both humans and domesticated animals can flourish together.
In 1961, there were 2.5 land animals farmed for each human; in 2020 there were 9.5, a 280 percent jump. There’s now 74 billion of them churning through our farms and food systems each year.
But meat from all those animals is not consumed equally around the world: The average American consumes around 273 pounds of meat per year while the average Ethiopian purchases just 12 pounds.
It’s not just sheer numbers, however. As demand for meat has risen, conditions for animals have worsened. To raise those tens of billions of chickens, pigs, and cows, farmers and meat companies have prized efficiency over animal welfare and environmental conservation. The resulting factory farming model, first built in the United States and Europe in the post-World War II era, has since spread across the globe.
By one estimate, almost three-quarters of farmed land animals in the world are reared in factory farms, in which they’re crammed tightly into industrial warehouses and given little to no fresh air, sunlight, or access to the outdoors. And nearly all of the land animals raised for food are chickens — around 95 percent of them.
The rising demand for meat, especially beef, doesn’t just mean more animals suffering on farms. It has also destroyed wildlife habitats in the Amazon rainforest and elsewhere in the tropics.
Agriculture — clearing trees for farmland — is the overwhelming cause of deforestation. In 1700, just 9 percent of the world’s forests and wild grasslands had been cleared for agriculture. Today, it’s 46 percent, primarily for livestock grazing, growing crops like soy to feed pigs and chickens, or for the production of palm and other oils.
Meat production doubly affects climate change, too. Not only do the animals we farm emit greenhouse gases, all that related deforestation releases carbon stored in trees, contributing to climate change and accounting for up to 10 percent of human-induced carbon dioxide emissions.
The world produces around 200 million tons of seafood each year, but we don’t know how many animals that represents, as fish are measured by weight, not individual animals. But one group — appropriately called Fish Count — estimates that anywhere between 1 trillion to 3 trillion fish and crustaceans, like shrimp and crabs, are eaten each year (though this figure excludes wild-caught crustaceans, which the group hasn’t yet calculated).
The farming of land animals is a mere rounding error when compared to seafood production.
To put that into perspective, there are far more fish and crustaceans raised and caught for food each year — 1 trillion on the lower end — than there are humans who’ve ever existed, which is estimated at 117 billion people.
Seafood production is unusual in that it relies on both catching fish in the wild, and farming them on land or in offshore pens. For most of human history, wild-catch was the dominant method. The fish we caught lived normal fish lives and only experienced pain for the minutes or hours it took to catch and slaughter them. Then, in the 1980s, fish farming took off over fears of declining wild fish populations.
Now, more than half of the fish we eat comes from fish farms. They are essentially underwater factory farms, repeating many of the same problems found in farms on land: overcrowding, disease, and injuries.
Just as agriculture has transformed natural landscapes through deforestation, commercial fishing and fish farming have transformed oceans through pollution and overcatching. Discarded fishing gear accounts for around 10 percent of plastic found in the ocean, offshore fish farms pollute oceans, and the fishing industry is a leading threat to coral reefs, according to the US National Ocean Service.
If the demand for meat and seafood keeps rising, the toll on both the environment and animal welfare, including that of wildlife, will be immeasurable. But there’s some early evidence that at least some countries may have hit their peak of meat consumption.
Over the last decade, Germany’s per-capita meat consumption fell 12.3 percent. Experts attribute much of the change to the country’s environmentalists, especially the younger set, who’ve raised a big stink about meat’s contribution to climate change. Other factors may have contributed to the drop too, such as increased awareness of animal cruelty and labor issues in the meat industry.
Germany isn’t alone — Sweden’s meat consumption has been on the decline since 2016.
Sweden’s per-capita meat consumption fell 9.2 percent from 2016 to 2021 (with a slight uptick from 2020 to 2021).
Anna Harenius of Djurens Rätt, a Swedish animal protection group, told me environmental awareness also played a role in the country’s shift to plant-based eating (after all, Sweden is home to perhaps the most notable vegan environmentalist, Greta Thunberg).
Harenius also says Swedes are unusually fond of boycotts. They even boycotted the company that put Sweden on the plant-based map, Oatly, for taking investment from Blackstone, a private equity firm that’s linked to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and whose CEO has been a donor and adviser to Donald Trump.
The two countries demonstrate that change is possible even without forceful government policy, which goes against the idea, often floated among some environmentalists, that individual choices don’t matter all that much. Germans and Swedes just kept hearing the arguments for reducing meat consumption and seemed to take it to heart. (There’s no doubt that in order to move the needle on meat and dairy production’s environmental impact, governments will need to take stronger action at some point, as they have on energy production and transportation.)
Humanity has become accustomed to eating a lot of meat, and cheap meat at that. Campaigns to persuade people to eat less of it might work in some countries, but for most consumers, rich or poor, it’s a hard sell. Enter alternative protein products that aim to provide the taste and nutrition of meat and dairy without killing animals.
Alternatives to animal meat have been around for centuries, but only in recent years have they become more like meat than plants. Now, investors — and a growing ecosystem of scientists and advocates — are eager to make them taste much better and come down in cost.
Until 2016, a few companies dominated the plant-based meat market. Then, burgers from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods changed the game. Suddenly, consumer interest in plant-based meat spiked, and investors followed. In 2013, meat and dairy alternative startups received just $23 million in funding. In 2021, it was $5 billion.
Much of that went to plant-based startups, but companies that are racing to commercialize cell-cultured or “cultivated” meat — meat grown from animal cells — have gotten in on the frenzy. So have companies using different methods of fermentation.
Some governments, including the US, are funding alternative protein research, while others are even investing in plant protein companies. But it’s going to take awhile to see if all that investment pays off and actually changes how we eat; plant-based meat is still estimated to comprise less than 1 percent of total meat produced in the US.
For years, sales of plant-based meat grew at a rapid clip. But in 2021, that growth stalled. That’s partly because the growth in 2020 was unusual — the pandemic, and all the panic-buying it induced, sent all grocery sales to the moon, plant-based meat included.
But now, repeat purchase rates are lower than companies anticipated. Maple Leaf Foods, a big plant-based meat (and animal meat) producer in Canada, walked back some of its ambitious plans to scale up plant-based meat production after lagging sales, and Bloomberg has reported disappointing trials of veggie burgers at fast food chains.
But the global outlook for plant-based meat alternatives appears rosier than North America’s.
A lot of the noise about the plant-based meat market comes out of the US, where some of its biggest companies are headquartered. But Asia and Europe are also major producers and consumers of meat alternatives.
According to an analysis from the Good Food Institute, using data from market research firm Euromonitor, grocery sales of plant-based meat are estimated to have doubled around the world from 2017 to 2021.
The growth is expected to steadily continue. Bloomberg Intelligence is forecasting global plant-based food sales to more than triple from 2022 to 2030.
The meat and milk alternatives industry hasn’t made a dent in displacing conventional animal agriculture, but it’s still quite young. Advocates for a more humane food system aren’t putting all their eggs in that basket, though, and have been steadily working toward regulations that make factory farming a little less awful.
The US egg market looks a lot different today than it did at the start of 2015. Back then, only about 6 percent of hens raised for eggs were cage-free. The rest suffered miserably in what the industry calls battery cages, where each hen is given less space than a sheet of paper. They’re forced to live that way for 1 or 2 years until their productivity wanes and they’re turned into soup stock, animal feed, or pet food.
But in 2015, a California law that bans cages for hens went into effect. Big food companies, like Panera Bread and Starbucks, started sourcing more and more cage-free eggs following pressure from activists. Then more states banned cages and more companies moved on the issue, creating a virtuous cycle. Now 35 percent of hens in the US are cage-free, showing that progress can be made on the welfare side of things, and that it can happen quickly.
Still, it will be important to keep an eye on a pending case in the Supreme Court about another California animal welfare law that bans the use of crates for female breeding pigs — if it’s struck down, it could have lasting negative effects on efforts to improve farm animal welfare in the US.
A word of caution: Cage-free, while superior to conventional farming practices for the chickens’ welfare, does not equate to cruelty-free. Most cage-free hens never have access to the outdoors. Many still die prematurely from disease. They live in their own waste in cramped barns. But it’s progress nonetheless, and that progress has moved even faster across the Atlantic.
Some of Europe’s biggest countries have a majority of cage-free hens, like Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy. The rest of the continent is catching up; in 2017, 47 percent of hens were out of cages, and by 2021, it had risen to 55 percent. That equates to millions fewer hens in cages over the last few years.
And the effort might accelerate over the next decade. From Vox contributor Jonathan Moens:
The European Commission — the executive branch of the European Union — announced in June  a ban on cages for a number of animals, including egg-laying hens, female breeding pigs, calves raised for veal, rabbits, ducks, and geese, by 2027. The plan would cover hundreds of millions of farmed animals raised in 27 countries. It puts Europe on track to implement the world’s most progressive animal welfare reforms within the decade. If ultimately enacted, it could turn out to be a pivot point in the decades-long fight to ease animal suffering.
There’s no doubt that the spread of factory farming across the globe, and the rise in meat consumption in lower-income countries, erodes the effects of many changes afoot in Europe and the US, as developing nations try to catch up with Western lifestyles.
But there is also strong public support for farm animal welfare across low, middle, and high-income countries, and there are budding animal advocacy movements and plant-based food startups sprouting up across the Global South, all trying to head off what could be a looming tsunami of industrialized meat production on the horizon.
Update, October 13, 12:30 pm: This story was originally published on September 12, and has been updated to reflect new data about the state of wild animal populations.
An open letter signed by over 200 humanitarian groups calls on world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly to urgently take action on world hunger, citing that one person dies of hunger every four seconds. We speak with Abby Maxman, president and CEO of Oxfam America, one of the letter’s signatories, who just returned from Somaliland, where a famine may be declared as early as next month. Climate change, COVID and conflicts such as the war in Ukraine are largely to blame for rising hunger, she says, and “those who are the least responsible are suffering its worst impacts.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: One person is dying of hunger every four seconds. That’s the warning from a coalition of humanitarian groups, who say global hunger is spiraling out of control. Oxfam, Save the Children and other groups say 345 million people are now experiencing acute hunger — double the number from 2019. Humanitarian groups from 75 countries sent an open letter to world leaders and high-level diplomats gathering this week for the United Nations General Assembly here in New York Ciy. This is the first U.N. General Assembly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a key meeting Tuesday focused on how the war is contributing to skyrocketing levels of hunger. This is the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: At the outset of 2022, conflicts, COVID-19, the effects of the climate crisis had already driven more than 190 million people into acute food insecurity. According to the World Food Programme, President Putin’s brutal war of aggression in Ukraine may add 70 million people on top of that — an already staggering number becoming even more staggering.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the United Nations is warning of a looming famine in Somalia, where a searing drought fueled by the climate crisis has withered crops, killed livestock and left nearly 8 million people, or half of Somalia’s population, in need of humanitarian assistance. The U.N. says millions more are at risk of hunger and famine across East Africa, including Kenya and Ethiopia.
For more on the world hunger emergency, we’re joined in New York by Abby Maxman, president and CEO of Oxfam America. She recently returned from a trip to Somaliland, where a famine may be declared as early as October. Oxfam is one of the signatories to an open letter submitted by over 200 NGOs to world leaders this week, calling on them to take immediate action.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Abby Maxman. Can you start off by laying out the scope of the problem and what you’re calling for?
ABBY MAXMAN: Thanks so much, Amy. Good to be with you.
Having just returned from Somaliland last week, I’m able to connect what we’re seeing in the lived, real lives of people and how they’re affected, and connect them with those global numbers you already outlined. Three hundred and forty-five million people are facing extreme hunger as a result of that confluence of climate, COVID and conflict — and that number, in and of itself, 345 million people, more than the entire population of the United States, and this in the 21st century.
Now, we know that we have been calling the alarm for several years. And we’ve had used our early-warning systems to trigger, to show — that have showed drought has continued to erode the lives and livelihoods of pastoralist and agropastoralist communities. Someone I saw in Somaliland, the stories were very similar. A woman named Safia, mother of eight, divorcée, who had stayed in her community as long as she could over the past several years, and ultimately went to a displaced persons camp near Burao called Durdur after she had lost 90% of her livestock. And hyenas were literally circling her family and her community as the livestock weakened. They had no choice but to move.
What is so egregious about this is the cause of this is climate change. The increasing frequency and ferocity of intense climatic shocks, droughts, floods and heat waves, that we’re observing from Pakistan to Puerto Rico and, of course, across East Africa, are evidenced in all of the news. But we know it’s people like Safia and the 74-year-old farmer who said this is the worst drought he has ever seen in his lifetime, they are down to one meal a day. And they need and deserve our help.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Abby Maxman, you mentioned conflict, as well. To what degree has the Russian invasion of Ukraine affected the food supply, especially to the Global South? And also, to what degree, from your sense, is it the corporations taking advantage of situations? We see the secretary-general mentioning oil companies or energy companies exploiting the current crises. Your sense of these two things — the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and general super profits sought by some international companies?
ABBY MAXMAN: Yeah, Juan, thanks for pointing those two things out. Yes, the war in Ukraine has exacerbated an already dire situation. The economic consequences of COVID and the climate crisis have been supercharged by the war in Ukraine. Prices have gone up exorbitantly. And people in Somaliland who I was talking to and seeing were spending more than 90% — 90% — of their income on food just to survive, and they were using coping strategies, down to one and two meals a day. That just is one anecdote of many about the impacts, direct and indirect, of the global crisis and conflict and its impact on those in East Africa and Somaliland.
Your point on fossil fuel profit and others, it can’t be understated. It is extraordinary that as humanity faces this existential crisis of climate, that there is still more incentive by fossil fuel companies to destroy our planet and people than to save lives and to save the planet. Now, we know that the oil and gas industry has enjoyed staggering profits as they have wrought havoc on the planet. They’ve been amassing $2.8 billion a day. That’s more than a trillion dollars a year over the last 50 years. And just let me contrast that against the fact that 18 days of fossil companies’ profit could cover the entire U.N. humanitarian appeal for 2022, which has been woefully underfunded.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you also mentioned that you were in Somaliland recently. Particularly, could you talk about the situation in Africa? Obviously, there are major conflicts still raging there, especially in Ethiopia. Your sense of the impact of those regional conflicts in terms of hunger and poverty in Africa?
ABBY MAXMAN: Yeah, Juan. Well, that confluence of those toxic three Cs — COVID, climate, conflict — are just supercharging the situation. And those who are least responsible are suffering its worst impacts. So, we need to make sure — we know that when humanitarian access is limited, that exacerbates people’s lives and livelihoods and the ability to get basics of their human rights — food, shelter, water, safety, protection. So, that is part of the cocktail, if you will, the toxic one, that people who — are experiencing, people like the countless pastoralists who are facing existential crisis to their lives, livelihoods, and that of their ancestors. They have rights and dignity that we need to protect and support in crisis. And the international community has a responsibility and a moral duty to act. And this week, in New York, around the U.N. General Assembly, we are calling on those in power, member states and policymakers, to take action now.
We need to do three big things. Save lives — and there’s a number of ways of doing that: make sure we resource the humanitarian appeals and get the resources to people who need them, support local organizations, women-led organizations. Second, we need to build resilience. We cannot repeat this pattern of pulling resources to respond to crises that we know are coming. And we need to invest in both now. It’s an investment in the future. It’s an investment in protection. It’s an investment in promoting lives and livelihoods and dignity. And third, we need to invest in that future, beyond the resilience. We need to double climate adaptation funds. We need to make sure that special drawing rights are modified so that countries are relieved from debt and debt burden. And we need to fund nutrition and other fundamental issues that need to be supported at this time.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about the growing inequality in the world and how this relates to the crisis of hunger around the world. According to a report just released by the investment bank Credit Suisse, the number of “ultra-high-net-worth” individuals, UHNW people, also increased exponentially last year to a record 218,200. Can you comment on this extraordinary rise in wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, while hundreds of millions are dying from hunger and hunger-related causes? And how must this be addressed?
ABBY MAXMAN: It must be addressed. And I appreciate there’s an acronym now, UHNW, though that’s sad, a sad fact that that needs to be called out. This is a failure in our economic system, a system that is broken and serving a privileged few. It’s not — it’s immoral, it’s wrong, and there’s an opportunity to fix it. It’s not happening by chance. It’s happening intentionally by those in power and political capture and those who are wreaking profits to benefit themselves.
There can be an opportunity to have a global wealth tax, to ensure that fossil fuel companies’ profits can be fairly taxed so that things like the U.N. humanitarian appeals, at a minimum, are funded. This is — nobody suffers. This is a race to the bottom versus a race to the top. And extreme inequality is harmful to all of society and all of humanity. It is very frustrating, it makes me very angry, to hear that, “Oh, there are no resources. That’s why we cannot save lives, build resilience and invest in the future.” That is not accurate. In the 21st century, there are enough resources to ensure the integrity and dignity of people’s lives and livelihoods and a more equal world. And there’s an opportunity to end extreme inequality by changing this failing economic system.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Abby Maxman, we thank you so much for being with us, president and CEO of Oxfam America, recently returned from a trip to Somaliland, where a famine may be declared as early as October.
Next up, Adnan Syed has been freed after spending 23 years behind bars. His case gained international attention when it was the subject of the podcast Serial. We’ll speak with the first attorney to represent him. Stay with us.
According to 130,000 years’ worth of data on what mammals have been eating, we’re in the midst of a mass biodiversity crisis. Not great!
This revelation was borne of a new study, conducted by an international team of researchers and published in the journal Science, that used machine learning to paint a detailed past — and harrowing future — of what happens to food webs when land mammals go extinct. Spoiler alert: it’s pretty grim stuff.
“While about 6 percent of land mammals have gone extinct in that time, we estimate that more than 50 percent of mammal food web links have disappeared,” Evan Fricke, ecologist and lead author of the study, said in a press release. “And the mammals most likely to decline, both in the past and now, are key for mammal food web complexity.”
Ecosystems rely on interconnectedness — bees pollinate the flowers, predators eats prey, and so on. But these webs, though highly evolved, can be delicate. One link goes missing, and a ripple effect is felt throughout the entire system. As more species are lost, that balance becomes increasingly fragile, sometimes to the point of collapse.
“When an animal disappears from an ecosystem,” Fricke added, “its loss reverberates across the web of connections that link all species in that ecosystem.”
Back to the Future
The researchers utilized a machine learning system — trained “using data from modern observations of predator-prey interactions,” according to the release — to reach their conclusions. It’s worth noting that machine learning isn’t always perfect, though the authors of the study at hand claim that their program has shown promising accuracy.
“This approach can tell us who eats whom today with 90 percent accuracy,” ecologist Lydia Beaudrot, a senior co-author, noted in the press release. “That is better than previous approaches have been able to do, and it enabled us to model predator-prey interactions for extinct species.”
In other words, this machine has offered a glimpse back in time — and as looking backwards often does, a glimpse into our potential future, should we fail to intervene in the ongoing extinction crisis.
More on mass extinction: A Mass Extinction Has Already Started, Scientists Say
The post The Entire Food Chain Has Started Collapsing, Scientists Warn appeared first on Futurism.
Results of 10-year project reveal that rewilding areas can boost biodiversity and crop yields
Putting farmland aside for nature does not have a negative effect on food security, a study has found.
A 10-year project by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology revealed that nature-friendly farming methods boost biodiversity without reducing average yields.
Protesters in Sri Lanka gather at the Presidential Secretariat, the president’s offices, on July 14, 2022. | Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images
Why rising costs of food and other essentials are leading to protests around the world.
Sri Lanka’s president finally resigned. Protesters celebrated, and they had reason to: Their mass demonstrations — including a takeover of the presidential mansion — drove President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from office.
Sri Lanka’s economy is in free fall. The country doesn’t have enough money to buy essentials: food, medicine, and especially fuel. Buses can’t run, schools can’t open. The economic crisis was years in the making because of mismanagement, but terror attacks in 2019, and later the Covid-19 pandemic, which shriveled Sri Lanka’s tourist economy, pushed it to the brink.
But the domestic political turmoil unfolding in Sri Lanka also links back to the instability across the globe, including the war in Ukraine and all of its consequences.
It may seem strange to link street protests against the Sri Lankan government to a war in Europe, but food and oil markets are global. A shock in one place ripples everywhere. The Ukraine war compounded supply chain pressure in the wake of Covid-19, and Moscow’s war in Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia have squeezed agricultural exports — critical supplies like grain and sunflower oil — from the entire Black Sea region. These products can be replaced on the global market, but at a cost. Fuel prices are also up, and if it costs more to buy diesel for a tractor or to transport cargo, food becomes more expensive still. Food becomes all that much harder to afford for poor countries, and for poor people in rich countries.
The United States and Europe are seeing these price shocks. So are people in Ghana and Mozambique and Mexico and Ecuador and Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Food, fuel, and other essentials are getting more expensive, everywhere. Many of these governments want to intervene, but their economies were already pummeled by the Covid-19 pandemic, and so they don’t have the funds to respond to these crises.
That means standards of living will fall in many countries, and that more people will slip into poverty. The United Nation’s World Food Program has warned that the number of food-insecure people has risen to 345 million; nearly 50 million people in more than 45 countries are at risk of falling into famine conditions.
But the global instability that causes prices to rise also creates more instability. Food prices, for example, are rarely the only reason that a government falls, but they can help crystallize simmering discontent in a country. “If you can point to rising food prices, it is a sign that something is failing in the implicit contract between the government and the governed,” said Cullen Hendrix, a nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.
Vox spoke to Hendrix about why food costs can coincide with political unrest, and where and when that happens — and why Sri Lanka likely represents just the beginning of the volatility about to envelop the globe.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This is a big question, but what is happening, broadly, around rising prices around food and fuel, and political unrest?
We need to decompose that into thinking about food prices and thinking about fuel prices.
Up until about 2000, the two of those weren’t really correlated. You had periods where you had very high food prices and very low oil prices, or very high oil prices coinciding with low food prices.
The 2000s are when those two things start to trend much more together. In some ways, the current crisis looks the most like the 2007-2008 food price crisis, because we have simultaneous crises in both food markets and oil markets in terms of elevated prices as a response to, in this case, instability caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In 2007 and 2008, it had more to do with climatic shocks, and then the ways that many producer countries — countries that normally export food — decided to institute export bans.
So, having kind of decomposed those two things, we probably need to take food and fuel prices separately.
Okay, so how do they work?
Generally speaking, there is a positive relationship between higher prices for food in international markets and protest activity. This relationship is particularly evident in democratic and semi-democratic countries. Protest dynamics tend to be less responsive to global food prices in more authoritarian countries.
With respect to oil prices as separate from food prices, the research on this topic is a bit more mixed. It’s certainly the case that higher fuel prices can erode real incomes. They can eat into purchasing power, and they can generate significant grievances with incumbent regimes, who are being asked to do something about these higher prices. But it turns out that these higher oil prices are also a source of revenue that many governments that export oil can capture, and they can use that to reinvest back into price supports and mechanisms of ensuring social stability.
A good way of thinking about this is to look back at the Arab Spring, and the places where the Arab Spring protests got the most traction, like Tunisia and Egypt, are small oil exporters, if they export oil at all. Whereas countries like Kuwait were able to weather the storm because although they were paying a higher bill for their food imports, they were also reaping these windfall profits associated with higher commodity prices for their main export, being oil. They were able to invest in lavish public spending at a time when, in the wider region, many governments were having to go on austerity diets and slash social spending at precisely the time when doing so was most likely to enrage the populace.
So people are frustrated with inflation in places like the United States and Europe, but as yet, we haven’t seen a mass wave of protests over, say, gas prices. That may happen, but I’m also wondering if this is more likely to happen in countries with less-developed economies, and where the government may have limited ability or capacity to respond.
We know less about the ability of the government to respond, but your point about average incomes is definitely well taken. If you’re in a developing country, and you’re spending 50 percent of your take-home income on food, and much of that food is unprocessed — you’re actually buying bulk wheat, or maybe wheat flour — the increase in food prices hits you much harder than it does, say, for you and me, where we spend a much smaller proportion of our income on food. It’s not as significant a source of hardship. And a lot more of the money that we spend on food, actually, is money spent on packaging and marketing and the like, as opposed to people who are living maybe half a step removed from the underlying bulk commodity.
So higher-income countries see less of this kind of protest. We have seen things like the antecedents of what you’re talking about. If you remember back to the yellow vest protests in France and Belgium, those were protests in response to reductions in the subsidies for diesel fuel.
One of the things I sometimes struggle with in covering protests is that food and fuel prices can factor among them, or be the “spark,” but they ultimately lead to a longer list of grievances against a government. It can be hard to disentangle, and I am wondering, how do you make sense of exactly what role food and fuel prices play in protest movements?
At any sufficiently large protest, people are going to be there for a variety of reasons. Food and fuel prices may be significant for some participants, but they may not be particularly significant for others.
It’s not typically the most food-insecure people that wind up participating in these protests. It’s not the truly hungry. It’s that if you can point to rising food prices, it is a sign that something is failing in the implicit contract between the government and the governed, in terms of being able to secure people’s ability to have plentiful and appropriate food at a bearable price. If you think about that as being the bedrock of the social contract in these regimes going all the way back to Roman times — that’s where the concept of “bread and circuses” comes in — then, yes, they’re kind of a canary in the coal mine for the broader inability of the government to address the grievances and the needs of the populace.
And so I think part of the challenge now, and correct me if I’m wrong, but for countries like Sri Lanka, where you have that fundamental breakdown of the contract, because of what’s happening around the globe — specifically, the war in Ukraine — it is much harder for those countries to figure out an adequate response because they have less tools at their disposal?
One hundred percent. The issue in a place like Sri Lanka — and if you look through the list of other places that are experiencing these kinds of inflation protests, like Albania, Argentina, Panama, Kenya, Ghana — these are not places with a ton of what economists would call fiscal space. They do not have the ability to offset these price increases with ramped-up government spending and targeted transfers and subsidies to offset the pain. These are cash-strapped governments; they went into the crisis cash-strapped, many of them because of the ongoing effects of the Covid pandemic.
You mentioned the food crisis in 2007 and 2008. But what are some historical precedents for when higher global food prices created political instability?
I was getting ready to say — I hate to bang on Russia, but I don’t hate to bang on Russia, as this has been their fault before. If you go back to 2010-2011 and the Arab uprisings, the food price spike occurred because Russia decided unilaterally to impose an export ban on wheat, barley, a bunch of other kinds of grains, in response to heat waves and wildfires that were projected to decimate their harvest. In order to maintain domestic food supplies and lower prices, they decided to not export.
The problem was that many of the countries that were counting on those exports — the same way as it is now, the countries that are counting on Black Sea exports, both from Russia and Ukraine — were the countries in the Middle East and North Africa, which are deeply food import-dependent. Then, as now, they’re basically thrust back into international markets at much higher prices to try and satisfy their need for food imports.
There were obviously elements to the Arab uprisings that had nothing to do with food prices, but it is important to understand the contributing factor that food prices can play.
The Arab Spring protests were largely coordinated and organized by people who had lots of anti-regime sentiment and had been organizing around it. But what brings otherwise apolitical people out into the streets to participate in these mass movements often are these kinds of political issues that are much more picayune, as opposed to the broader dissatisfaction with the regime, or indeed, the regime type.
Over time, a lot of those protests that were related to food and fuel prices metastasize into protest movements around the form of government, like, “Why don’t we get to elect our government? Why are we run by these corrupt authoritarians?” But there was a significant part of it that began with the food and fuel price spikes.
Is there something of a tipping point when it comes to food price spikes — like when they reach certain levels, the likelihood of instability increases?
I’m hesitant to say that there is a tipping point where I can say, “Once food gets above X price, then it’s on.” I don’t think there’s sufficient evidence for that.
I will say that the prices we’re currently seeing are, if not historic, near historic. The last time we saw food prices this high in international markets was in 1974. Back then, global food trade was a much smaller share of actual food consumption. Higher global prices mattered less for people’s ability the world over to feed their families.
What are the places you’re paying attention to when it comes to political unrest as a result of rising food prices?
I would keep an eye on West Africa, particularly Ghana and Nigeria. I think that there is potential for maybe Pakistan. The non-oil-rich Middle East and North African countries, and maybe Central America. I think that’s a significant issue, because it’s co-occurring with droughts. But it’s also the case that these countries, because of rapid rates of urbanization, are becoming increasingly dependent on global markets, and these are countries with fragile governance systems to begin with.
Basically sounds like the whole world.
I mean, the outlook isn’t great. These markets are being reined in a little bit. The higher oil prices that are a function of these kinds of political instability tend to be relatively short-lived. They’re persisting longer now, just because of how large an exporter Russia is and the scale of instability. Typically, in the past, other big exporters have increased exports to offset the effects of this kind of destabilization. But I wish I had better news for you.
What are some possible interventions that the United States or other wealthier governments might be able to do to ameliorate some of these brewing crises in poorer parts of the world?
The G-7 and then the G-20 both attempted to push through agreements not to use export bans. India gets a carve-out because India is, you know, a developing country, and I think it’s more political theater than it is actual constraint on food supply and food exports.
In terms of longer-term — and this is where we get really speculative — ultimately, we need to reform the global food producing system in ways that increase resilience, not just to climate change, but also to these kinds of geopolitical shocks, because I don’t think this is going anywhere. If you look at the projections of the kinds of countries that are going to be seeing increasing yields and potentially larger harvests moving forward, it is places like Russia, Kazakhstan, the United States, and Canada.
That said — and this is the thing that I think is potentially more controversial — I’m of the opinion that we probably need to see more subsidization of agriculture in developed countries, as opposed to less. I wish it were the case that we could convince voters in Iowa to subsidize food production in places like Thailand or Kenya; unfortunately, electoral politics don’t work that way. But the subsidies that are paid by taxpayers in developed countries are actually subsidizing consumption at the global level.
That’s not necessarily a super popular opinion, especially among folks who are fairly wedded to agricultural development in developing countries as a mechanism for growth. But I do think that’s something we need to be getting serious about, because I don’t think, in the near term, we’re going to be able to offset these kinds of volatility that can be created by these countries with very large market shares having their supply just go offline. There’s not enough slack in the global food system to make up for that.
If I’m understanding you correctly, the global food market basically works the way it works. But having a place like the United States or Canada, which does have the capacity to supply more people, they could make up for some of the pressure when Russia or another major area is taken offline or creates major disruptions?
I tend to believe in markets, but I will say that markets for basic necessities like food, these are not markets you want to operate according to cold economic logic. The market for food is not a market where you want to wind up at the end of the sale with no available supply. We can’t have that because we need to have buffers in the system precisely because of events like the ones we’ve seen. And so if that’s physical grain reserves, [or] if it’s governments willing to use what they call virtual reserves, which are basically governments, in a coordinated fashion, intervening in markets to short these futures contracts to drive prices back down.
There are things that can be done. It’s just going to take an investment of resources and, I think, broader awareness of the enlightened self-interest that it does not make the United States any safer and more prosperous to exist in the world where many of our trading partners and many of our strategic partners around the world are facing instability because they can’t feed their populations.
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