How a global food crisis may thin your wallet too

    The housing market is crumbling; the credit market is tighter than spandex; and retailers are closing faster than Cheney’s trigger finger. The U.S. domestic economy has already beaten our wallets into submission. Not too long ago, however, Bush claimed that “the fundamentals are strong.” It was no coincidence he made that ever-so-eloquent statement to workers at a Hallmark Card factory. The demand for Hallmark’s cheery one-liners has gone up as Americans desperately attempt to avoid the inevitable: recession.

    Economic malaise will not only likely lead to a longer job search for recent graduates, it will also increase the poor college student’s cost of buying groceries. Wait until Jewel becomes Whole Foods — without anything organic. Global food markets are preparing to sucker-punch our wallets with domestic protectionism — an “iron rice bowl,” perhaps.

    But how much will the economic downturn infiltrate the Northwestern bubble? Most expenses seem tiny next to the biggest college expense: our huge tuition. Will another fifty cents on a Burger King tab really make a difference? Will more-expensive meal plans bring you to the streets?

    The winds of economic unrest are real and they are blowing. There is a distinct possibility that they will pass through the Arch sooner than we expect.

    Global food prices have risen 57 percent in the last year, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. The World Food Programme predicts that more than ten million additional people could fall victim to malnutrition if inflation does not abate. More recently, the food crisis has incited riots in Mexico, Argentina, the Philippines, Myanmar, Haiti and elsewhere. Today, domestic food prices are rising alongside fuel prices, boding gloomily for inflation numbers.

    The seeds of crisis were sown in Iowa. In what seems to have been a sneaky attempt to increase corn prices, and profits, Iowa politicians lobbied to make it cheaper to refine corn into ethanol. This way, drivers filling up their Ford F-150s on ethanol or biodiesel can pretend to be eco-friendly. Subsidies passed through Congress, and Iowans began to refine their corn into a not-so-cheap, not-so-clean alternative to oil. The slick political maneuver decreased the supply of edible corn, increasing the cost of livestock feed, July 4 barbecues and cornbread.

    As the price of corn has gone up, farmers around the world have begun to plant more. But prices have continued to rise. That’s because newly planted corn is turned into fuel, not food. Farmers, using their fields for lucrative biofuel production rather than agricultural staples, are reducing world supplies of wheat, rice and other crops, increasing the prices of nearly all agricultural commodities.

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, chairman of the International Monetary Fund, has said that prioritizing fuel over food is “a crime against humanity.” Essentially, Iowa should be on trial at The Hague.

    George W. Bush disagrees. He claims that it is in our national interest to “grow energy.” George, Newton declared centuries ago that you cannot “grow energy.” Plus, it would be in our national interest to do a lot of things (cough, be nice to the rest of the world, cough), but we are not doing them. In sum, Iowa is screwing the world, but they’re not the only ones.

    China and India are becoming richer. Some say this is because they are stealing our jobs; others say it is because they have wicked-good economic policy. The answer: wicked-good economic policy — along with nearly complete neglect of the environment — has brought them jobs that they perform much more effectively than unionized Americans. As a result, the Chinese and Indian populations have more money to buy food. The global demand for food has thus gone up, increasing food prices even more.

    But Asia’s growth and Iowa’s politicking have been going on for years. Why is expensive food a crisis now?

    Much of it is politics. As food prices began to rise, people in Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere became angry. Presumably to prevent a coup led by angry, hungry folks, those governments and others slapped export taxes on major agricultural commodities to keep food in the country and at lower prices. The taxes worked, temporarily keeping domestic prices down and domestic politics calm. However, domestic pandering burned international markets. Export taxes decreased international supply, leaving those in food-importing countries with a higher grocery bill than ever.

    The long-term problem is that countries that import food pay for it by exporting other goods, particularly consumer goods. Because the cost of living for the laborers that make consumer goods rise with food prices, the wages in food-importing countries may increase due to political pressures. With increased costs of production, the price of consumer goods will increase, leaving your wallet much hungrier than your stomach.

    The true villains in this bleak saga are the agricultural lobby and politicians who don’t have the spine to stand up to trade barriers or angry voters. As for India and China, it’s difficult to point a finger at people for earning more money and using it to feed their families. If we want to blame a group of people, the French are always available.

    In the end, everyone seems to be a victim — the soon-to-be-malnourished more than others. The solution would involve hopefully eliminating most, if not all, commercial agricultural subsidies, abandoning biofuels as the inevitable energy solution, destroying international export taxes, creating regional agricultural cooperatives and expanding the World Food Programme’s emergency storage operations to avoid famine.

    Though Evanston is not on the brink of famine, rising prices will affect Northwestern too. As the university’s costs increase (fuel for shuttles to chemically induced oblivion is not cheap), so will tuition. The solution is simple: go to meetings and talks with free food, practice all religious holidays that include fasting, go to munchies, and take your significant other on a romantic excursion to the nearest dining hall. Your wallet — if it still has a voice — will thank you.


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