he question, “Are you hungry” is a loaded one.
Given the suggestibility of the average First World citizen, we can be convinced to be “hungry” with very little marketing stimuli.
Essentially, we’ve become an overweight, undernourished population, used to finding oral gratification for any occasion (the staff meeting, the late movie, coffee break); we always “deserve” a “nice, light snack,” even while suffering an accumulating pandemic of cancers, diabetes, heart disease, amid other diseases of civilization. We are urged to believe that we never have enough, that there is always some other “need” that must be filled, all while the surfeit is killing us.
Food, though, is not a given, especially considering that about 900 million people globally are undernourished or in fact starving. While local supermarkets appear a never-ending cornucopia of necessary and diversionary foodstuffs, if and/or when the long-distance deliveries fail, the shelves empty disquietingly quickly.
We’re reluctant to grow our own food, however. It’s hard work. Given that currently about ten calories of fossil energy are used for every calorie that makes it to our mouths, the abundance we are accustomed to would not come cheaply with human physical energy. “By the sweat of thy brow,” I think the Biblical phrase goes.
North Americans have begun manning those parts of agriculture that are non-mechanized with quasi-slave labour. In the American South, for example, illegal immigrants find themselves labouring under abuses not seen (or at least acknowledged) since post-Civil War sharecropping. These workers have virtually no protection at all, despite long hours (lining up for work at 4 a.m.) under dangerous conditions (pesticides and herbicides in the fields) for substandard pay.
In Canada, agricultural employers may apply for a Labour Market Opinion from Human Resources Skills and Development Canada, a permit to hire foreign nationals on temporary status. Although the Canadian system is meant to ensure that wages and working conditions in Canada are not driven downward, often such workers are paid up to 15 per cent less. Immigrant workers’ unfamiliarity with our language(s) makes it difficult for them to learn their basic employment rights.
Shamefully, Canadians ignore this exploitation, and governments abet it. Locals who buy supermarket food (most of us, most of the time) may grouse about high prices at the farmers market, even though those prices are far closer to what is reasonable for the products’ various input costs.
Adding to the conundrum is free trade, which has essentially licensed corporate agribusiness to drive small growers out of business, especially in Mexico, where several million small farmers were driven off the land as a direct result of NAFTA.
Another problem is bank speculation in food prices. Regulated futures markets were once instituted to create predictable prices for farmers, whose payday comes only once or twice a year. Now futures contracts and their derivatives pad corporate profits at the expense of the hungry. British Barclay’s Bank has made over half a billion pounds over the past couple of years speculating in wheat and soybeans prices. Complicating this situation, Oxfam reports growing speculation in prime growing land, particularly in Africa, to generate food for export, not for the local hungry.
The recent effects of climate change-driven droughts and corresponding political responses have diminished human “wiggle room;” both Russia and the USA have experienced heat waves that have led to a significant decrease in crop yields, leading to subsequent fears of lower food exports to food short nations from these great food-producers.
Canada’s Consumer Price Index ignores food prices as “volatile,” not part of the measurement of core inflation. Small wonder. Given recent price rises at the markets, many Canadians must be wondering what’s happening to their incomes.
Commodity food prices rose nearly 50 per cent globally between 2002 and 2008, and despite economic improvements, the prices have not come down since. Food insecurity, especially in the underdeveloped world, is on the rise, not declining.
What about us? Hungry? We haven’t seen anything yet.
Al Lehmann is a retired teacher living in Terrace, B.C.