FIQ (Fédération Interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec)

When grain stops being food

For several weeks now, the food crisis has made front-page headlines and received extensive coverage. Hunger riots have broken out in many countries around the world: Egypt, South Africa, Morocco, Cameroon, Senegal, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Philippines, Haiti, Mexico, Madagascar, to name only a few. What exactly does this mean?

The price of foodstuffs, especially grain, has soared on the world market: in some places, the price of wheat has increased 130% in the past year, while soybean and rice prices have risen 100%. In the poorest countries, where households spend an average of 60% to 90% of their meagre income to feed themselves, grain is the basis of their diet. So it isn’t difficult to understand why the situation is dramatic for these populations, whose very survival is in jeopardy.

How can this sudden surge of prices be explained? There is no food shortage. Indeed, since 1961, world grain production has tripled while the population has doubled. However, less than half of world grain production is consumed directly as food by the population. A large part of this production is used for livestock feed and another portion for biofuel production. It also seems that the biofuel craze is largely responsible for the current crisis, because the rising demand for grain on the world market has driven prices sky high.

According to the very serious magazine The Economist, the corn required to fill the tank of an SUV with ethanol would be enough to feed one person for one year. In the United States alone, the biofuel production policy means that 138 million tonnes of corn are drained away from the food market. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), between 20% and 50% of world corn and colza production has thus been diverted from its initial use. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, recently declared that conversion of food into fuel is nothing less than a crime against humanity.

It mustn’t be forgotten that Canada has followed the example of the other Western powers by also encouraging biofuel production from corn. The Harper government recently tabled a bill on renewable fuels (C-33) that would increase the minimum ethanol level in fuel by 5% by 2010. This bill would contribute to raising the price of corn, in the midst of a food crisis.

Before the recent price surge, one child under 10 years old died every five seconds and 854 million people were severely undernourished! According to the United Nations World Food Program, the food crisis means that 100 million more people will not get enough to eat. Unfortunately, these are consequences of a policy that has transformed foodstuffs from subsistence goods into commodities subject to market laws. What if agriculture were allowed to regain its real vocation – to feed populations? Food is much too important to be abandoned to market forces!

Yours in solidarity,