Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bananas Going Bananas

Yesterday I was at the Park Slope Food Co-Op and I noticed a sign above the boxes of bananas. After a long haul of 69 cents per lb., organic bananas are expected to hit $1 per lb., with no price ceiling in sight. There goes the one and only fruit I actually enjoy eating. If cheeseburgers had the caloric and nutritional equivalent of asparagus, I'd be golden. But alas, I'm mourning the price of bananas.

I tried to google my way to knowledge about the banana situation, but I couldn't find much. I recently wrote about the world food crisis, but just this past week The Economist put out an excellent article, The New Face of Hunger.

“World agriculture has entered a new, unsustainable and politically risky period,” says Joachim von Braun, the head of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, DC. To prove it, food riots have erupted in countries all along the equator. In Haiti, protesters chanting “We're hungry” forced the prime minister to resign; 24 people were killed in riots in Cameroon; Egypt's president ordered the army to start baking bread; the Philippines made hoarding rice punishable by life imprisonment. “It's an explosive situation and threatens political stability,” worries Jean-Louis Billon, president of Côte d'Ivoire's chamber of commerce.

Some of the shift has certainly been an issue of supply. In the case of my beloved bananas, there was a devastating flood in Peru where the Co-Op purchases its supply from. But it is also largely an issue of demand. Countries like China and India increase their consumption of grain and meat as they become wealthier. In the meantime, biofuel production is pegged to Western governments' targeted goals, shrinking usable farmland (for food) in the process. Farming is not limber, and it is notoriously slow to respond to market forces. There are large swaths of unused land in Russia and Brazil, for example, that will take at least a decade before they are farmable. If that's a word. Farming, it seems, is experiencing some serious global growing pains.

But the food scare of 2008, severe as it is, is only a symptom of a broader problem. The surge in food prices has ended 30 years in which food was cheap, farming was subsidised in rich countries and international food markets were wildly distorted. Eventually, no doubt, farmers will respond to higher prices by growing more and a new equilibrium will be established. If all goes well, food will be affordable again without the subsidies, dumping and distortions of the earlier period. But at the moment, agriculture has been caught in limbo. The era of cheap food is over. The transition to a new equilibrium is proving costlier, more prolonged and much more painful than anyone had expected.

“We are the canary in the mine,” says Josette Sheeran, the head of the UN's World Food Programme, the largest distributor of food aid. Usually, a food crisis is clear and localised. The harvest fails, often because of war or strife, and the burden in the affected region falls heavily on the poorest. This crisis is different. It is occurring in many countries simultaneously, the first time that has happened since the early 1970s. And it is affecting people not usually hit by famines. “For the middle classes,” says Ms Sheeran, “it means cutting out medical care. For those on $2 a day, it means cutting out meat and taking the children out of school. For those on $1 a day, it means cutting out meat and vegetables and eating only cereals. And for those on 50 cents a day, it means total disaster.” The poorest are selling their animals, tools, the tin roof over their heads—making recovery, when it comes, much harder.


I encourage you to check out the article. It's a little long (it is The Economist after all), but I learned a lot about how agriculture plays out on the world stage.

4 comments:

servetus said...

I think you mean "before it is arable."

Lots of that land in Russia isn't going to be that productive even if it is improved--very very short growing seasons throughout much of its vast territory.

PiggyBankBlues said...

yes, thanks servetus. i obviously know nothing about farming...

frugal zeitgeist said...

Jeepers. And to think they were handing out bananas at the Boston Marathon like they were growing on trees. . .

PiggyBankBlues said...

well, i think that marathoners need them more than the rest of us... they don't grow on trees?