Food prices near and far

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I read with interest the letter to the editor on rising food costs ("Food costs are far from unreasonable," Dec. 29). Rising food prices have certainly become a topic of interest.

The challenge the province faces is we have become overwhelmingly dependent on imported food. To understand why food prices are rising one needs to pay more attention to how the global food system is doing.

Over the past few years there have been major floods in Australia, wildfires in Russia and the Ukraine and this past summer we witnessed a severe drought in the breadbasket of the United States.

These extreme weather events in key food producing countries are but part of the reason for higher food prices across the globe.

The global food system is increasingly industrialized and is directly affected by fuel and transport costs - from the fertilizers and tractors to the delivery trucks.

And now that we decided to include ethanol in our gasoline mix, more and more corn is headed for car engines rather than bellies. And, of course, as oil prices increase so, too, does the demand for ethanol and other biofuels which in turn will mean a higher demand and price for corn.

Of course, in the big scheme of things, we are still quite fortunate.

On average families in North America can expect to spend less than 20 per cent of their household budgets on food purchases.

In many poorer countries and regions families can spend up to 75 per cent of their household budgets on food costs.

In such circumstances, even the slightest increase in food prices can prove catastrophic and can lead to hunger. In 2008 and 2010 many poor countries witnessed food riots.

Not surprisingly, the growing increase in food prices has triggered a keen interest in land deals, especially in poor countries where land is relatively cheap. Recent data indicates that, over the past decade, land eight times the size of the United Kingdom has been sold off globally.

For thousands of poor rural women and men who farmed this communal land, these deals have become land grabs where families are being forcefully removed without due compensation. Land that could and should be used for local food production is now owned by private investors.

Oxfam has discovered that more than 60 per cent of the land investments between 2000 and 2010 were in countries with serious hunger problems.

Yet two-thirds of the investors plan to export everything they produce on the land. Nearly 60 per cent of global land deals in the past decade have been to grow crops that can be used for biofuels.

If the province wants to keep food prices reasonable, then it is important we invest in our local food producers, be they farmers or fishers.

We need a provincial food strategy that looks to reduce our dependency on food imports.

We need to improve and build our local food system.

Likewise, the world needs to put a stop to land grabs and should increase investments in local farmers, especially rural women. Study after study has found that, with proper assets and supports, women farmers can be part of the solution to help feed the millions who go hungry.

Finally, we need to pay more attention to the impact of climate change and extreme weather patterns.

Our failure to slash greenhouse gas emissions only offers a future of greater food price volatility.

Bill Hynd is the Atlantic outreach officer with Oxfam Canada. He writes from St. John's.

Organizations: Oxfam

Geographic location: Australia, Russia, Ukraine United States North America United Kingdom St. John's

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  • mike
    January 07, 2013 - 06:15

    I would estimate over the past 20 years we have invested at least a BILLION dollars into our local agriculture industry, This includes direct grants to farmers and support organizations, public servants salaries, etc. We have at the most 150 serious farm enterprises scattered throughout NL. By serious I mean grossing over $50,000 in sales and not necessary making a profit. So do the math and ask yourself, Can we do more to perk up NL’s agricultural industry? Even with all that money the number of farms in this province in on the decline. It’s not just a matter of encouraging people to buy local, its far more complicated.

    • M is for Manure
      January 07, 2013 - 09:08

      A BILLION dollars??? I doubt it. That would be $50 million a year. A look at the public accounts show it's more like $20 million a year. That's still a lot of money but far less than your grossly exaggerated claim.

    • david
      January 07, 2013 - 11:53

      M: You gotta hand it to people here though...after a lifetime of hearing politicians throw out BS figures election after election, they take to it themselves like ducks to water! Of course, when it's all "government money", who could be bothered to count it, or recall the real number anyway?! The notable thing I CAN recall in my lifetime anywhere in the vicinity of even $20 million spent on anything to do with food was Peckford's "investment" (uuurrrpppp!) in Sprung. Good times.....cucumbers to fire trucks.

  • abby
    January 06, 2013 - 08:27

    If food prices are " far from unreasonable", are we to assume that they are "reasonable"

  • W Bagg
    January 05, 2013 - 08:42

    Global issues, well I bought a 2 liter of milk at the grocery store here 2 days ago. $3.69 for 2 liters, all milk consumed here is made here, and we have even in the past (maybe we still do) ship milk to NS. When I was in Alberta 10 years ago, milk was half as cheap in Calgary as it was in St. John's..................you could buy a 4 liter jug in Calgary for within 10 cents of what it cost for a 2 liter carton in St. John's. Maybe Oxfam should talk to the milk price fixing group here. Maybe time to start drinking Soda

    • RJ
      January 05, 2013 - 13:16

      Again ppl have to clue in...we are no different then animals..it is all about survival of the fit.If you are weak minded and cannot find a way to gain financial freedom...well you complain!!

  • Chantal
    January 05, 2013 - 08:02

    I too was expecting more for the letter of food prices. You put it so well and so concisely; this is a global issue and the Western countries have benefitted quite well to the detrement of the people living in the developing world upon whom climate change has had a devestating effect. Thank you Bill.

  • Jill
    January 05, 2013 - 07:53

    Consumers drive the markets. If consumers were more vigilant in their power to support local markets, the import business would dry up. Do we really need strawberries in January imported from the other side of the continent? Beware of "product of Canada" labels too; they often don't tell the truth about where the food was actually grown.