Last week in the Washington Post, on the front page, there was an article about the devastating effects of rising food prices. Officials stated they cannot afford to provide basic nutrition to children.
Rising costs of corn, wheat, fruit, and milk are "really hitting us," one official said, while lamenting that the situation "is not sustainable."
This is not a government official from a country in Sub-Saharan Africa. Or Haiti. This is a quote from an official in the New York City school system. Schools from New York to Florida are struggling to keep up with rising food costs in order to provide nutritious school lunches.
Last year, the New York City school system paid more than $3 million for milk alone. Now sharp rises in the cost of milk, grain and fresh fruits and vegetables are hitting cafeterias across the country, forcing cash-strapped schools to raise prices or pinch pennies.
For some time in the United States, we have taken for granted that an abundance of food is our divine right. Yet this myth has begun to meet hard reality. We can no longer afford food for our families.
Recent weeks have seen food-related protests in Niger, Haiti Cameroon, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Mauritania, Ivory Coast and Egypt. A National Public Radio story on Haiti's food crisis referred to Haiti as the "canary in the mine" and that the rest of us must heed the warning.
Ironically, leaders from the international financial institutions, which helped created the trade policies that led to food insecurity, are now expressing concern about the food shortages. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, concluded that if food prices continue to rise, "Hundreds of thousands of people will be starving ... (leading) to disruption of the economic environment."
Stable and secure access to food and drinkable water are basic human rights. At the 2002 World Food Summit, the United States alone stood in opposition to inclusion of "food as a human right" within a declaration to be signed by all governments. The United States has promoted genetically modified crops as key to eliminating poverty and ensuring food security. Yet, genetically modified crops decrease food diversity, force small farmers to use this technology at an increased expense, and ignore alternative, organic and indigenous agricultural development plans.
The recent release of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development Report, commissioned by the World Bank and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, said the crisis of rising food prices "is of a different complexity and potentially different magnitude than the one of the 1960s."
Food insecurity requires our immediate attention. First, we must accept that current U.S. and international economic policies have led to this current state of riots, violence, malnutrition, and death. We must accept that food insecurity is a national security priority that will not be addressed by a few quick fixes or more free trade, but that our economic structure requires systemic change. If not, given the reality of global warming, the effects of agribusiness and the decreasing options for sustainable livelihoods, Americans must face the real possibility of being on the losing end of the impending resource wars.
Nicole Lee is executive director of TransAfrica Forum. (NNPA).