What caused the global food crisis?

From the rising prices at local grocery stores to food riots in Mexico to rice shortages in the Philippines and similar problems in some three dozen countries around the globe, it’s become clear that we are in the midst of a food crisis unlike anything the world has seen in modern times. For us in Sacramento, this has meant pinching pennies as we struggle to keep up with double-digit increases in costs for basic staples. But for 100 million people in poorer nations around the world, it has meant a desperate plunge into potential starvation.

What caused the crisis? And what can be done?

First, the good news: The problem is not really a shortage of food. Although a variety of factors have had an impact on supplies, including climate change and a diversion of some food crops into the production of biofuels, there is still more than enough food to feed the world’s population.

The bad news is that a growing number of people can’t afford to eat, and this situation will be very difficult to change. It’s the result of a global food system that was engineered over the course of the past few decades by agribusiness corporations and their allies in the U.S. government, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, and it emphasizes the production of cash crops for export over local, sustainable agriculture. As the globalized food economy has replaced local farming, food prices have risen out of reach for about 950 million of the world’s 6.5 billion people, even as profits for agribusiness giants like Cargill, Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland have soared.

This is not to deny the role that climate change and the rising cost of petroleum have played in the crisis. The critical need to address the overconsumption of fossil fuels that has created both problems is clear. Yet it is equally important to recognize and address inequities in the recently globalized food system, which has turned several formerly self-sufficient food economies into import-dependent ones. In countries such as Mexico and the Philippines, pressure from international financial institutions to service debt has resulted in decreased investments in agricultural infrastructure at the same time that liberalized trade agreements have brought in floods of subsidized crops, decimating local farm economies. The result has been a thriving market for food exports that is subject to volatile price swings, and which inevitably puts poorer nations at a fatal disadvantage.

In the short term, the only answer is for the United States and other affluent nations to give generously: The Bush administration’s recent release of $200 million in emergency aid is a good beginning, but we need to do much, much more. In the long run, we all need to support the concept of food sovereignty as an alternative to the system currently in place. We need to establish a system that rewards local, sustainable agriculture, bans export subsidies and focuses on the production of healthy, affordable food for hungry people, not profits for shareholders.