Afghanistan and the global food crisis

The drawback with eating so much fruit is that it’s usually been washed: washed in the nearest muddy irrigation canal. After a couple of weeks of careless indulgence I finally got my comeuppance, but even after a day feeling sick as a parrot I regret nothing.

I’ve made a crass link between my own stomach and those of others before, in one of my first posts last December about the food shortages in Ghor. My stomach has grown stronger since then, but the food shortage has got worse, taking on global proportions.

The UN estimates there are 2.5 million people in Afghanistan who are at high risk from food shortages and in need of a safety net. Only 38% of those in need have been assisted.  The rain-fed harvest has failed for another year in much of the country. Neighbouring countries, themselves struggling, have blocked exports. The price of wheat has risen threefold since last year, making bread, the staple food, well out of reach of even more Afghans. People have been displaced because of lack of food in some districts. Some have taken to eating grass.

Afghanistan isn’t alone in facing sever food problems, but on top of everything else this country faces things are pretty bloody grim.

The global food crisis has been given a lot of attention by people who know a lot more than I. There’s a serious of great posts over at The Road to the Horizon, for one. But I can’t resist butting my oar in and adding my own two pennies worth (of silly clichés).

The general response to the shortage of food in the long-term seems to be to produce more of it, which is no doubt a good idea. Yet there’s a piece over here that I’d urge those interested to read, suggesting that the answer to food shortages isn’t increased production (tried and failed before), at least not alone, but land justice. And health care, clean drinking water, soil conservation measures and support for small farmers. And removing the huge subsidies paid by the U.S. and Europe to their own farmers.

Many people in Afghanistan farm enough land to feed their families, but since they don’t own that land they have to give a large proportion of what they produce to an absentee landlord. But it’s generally seen as easier to just call for an increase in production, using the latest technological tools at our disposal; somehow less ‘political’ than land rights.

And little thought is given to the question of consumption. As in, America consumes X tonnes of food per capita per person per year (and wastes a large proportion of X) or however it should be measured, while Afghanistan consumes a whole lot less than X. So I don’t have the figures but you know what I mean. Is there a global food shortage, or is there enough food globally if consumption were to be more evenly distributed?

One of the reasons given for the current crisis is the large increase in the middle-classes of India and China consuming more meat, as grain will go a lot further if it is eaten directly, not used to fatten up animals. I wouldn’t dispute that this is a cause of the problem. But it reminds me of debates about climate change: how India and China are growing too rapidly, with carbon emissions sharply rising, and so they must quickly curb them. European and American commentators seem to be suggesting the problem is ‘them over there’ growing too quickly, getting too affluent, too developed. They are in danger of catching up with us, and there is not enough food, or too much carbon, for them to do that.

With climate change there is the recognition that the West must also reduce its emissions. With the current food shortages, there does not seem to be any suggestion that the West should reduce its food consumption. Doing so wouldn’t mean people in America or Europe (a fair number of whom are obese) going hungry. It would mean governments implementing policies to discourage farmers growing grain for animals, and to reduce the huge amount of food that is wasted. Could there be a parallel of carbon trading schemes for food distribution?

I realise this is a ludicrous idea. Western countries have only reluctantly, if at all, realised that they need to reduce carbon emissions – a negative entity that causes self-harm. The suggestion that they should reduce consumption of a positive thing that does them little personal damage is patently absurd, like, god forbid, suggesting a redistribution of wealth.

In Afghanistan there is a problem with production: the country cannot grow enough food to feed itself. Huge support is needed, not for large agribusinesses, but for small farmers, addressing issues of land rights, irrigation, soil conservation, access to credit and so much more.

In Afghanistan, there is a food crisis. Millions of people are going hungry. I am not. There is enough food here for me, because I have the money to buy it. Things are a whole lot more complicated than that, of course, but the simple fact remains. It is distribution of food as well as consumption that is the problem.

It is a fact that should make me feel a whole lot more queasy than eating too many dirtily-washed cherries.

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7 Responses to “Afghanistan and the global food crisis”

  1. Roberta Says:

    One word missing here, or implicit in the shadows, is vegetarianitsm. Or indeed veganism. Put simply, the more people eat lower on the food chain, the more food is available directly to people. Grain grown to be fed to animals is an anomaly, and a luxury the world can ill afford.

    Most British vegetarians I know came to it from a background of animal rights. Protests against animal testing, fur seal culling, and fox hunting are all part of the package. Most American vegetarians I know came to it for health reasons. Awareness of food irradiation, coeliac disease, and transfatty acids are all part of the package.

    My food politics and philosophy (and thus recipe repertoire) came from other sources. A long time ago I came across a couple of paperbacks, battered even then, that advocated eating lower on the food chain. They were written in the 1970s in the wake of the first big worldwide oil crisis. Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet was a US best-seller; Colin Tudge’s Future Food wasn’t a UK best-seller as far as I know. Both could do with updating but present very sound points for people living and eating in the world’s rich countries. They do not pretend to address the choices available within a peasant economy perpetually on the edge of starvation.

    There is a cultural shadow the West casts for which we have to accept some responsibility. Our nutritional choices become the desired symbols of modernity for poor countries. A generation ago the Japanese president of McDonalds told the Japanese people that they were short and dark because they ate fish and rice; if they ate beef and milk their children would grow tall and blond. What lies are the Indians and Chinese being sold by food multinationals now? Both cultures have an enormously rich heritage of cuisine not based on meat. Is this to be shunned as backward?

    As I type this, I snack on a bourgeois treat of organic dried mango, imported from Sri Lanka. Which is lighter on the planet, tofu made with soyabeans from thousands of miles away, or hill lamb from a few hundred miles away? The sheep’s diet may well be topped up with pellets made of grain grown for animal feed….But at least I have the choices.

  2. harryrud Says:

    Vegetarianism was in the back of my mind as I wrote this. I’m not a vegetarian (which, living in Afghanistan, is just as well, as gristly meat is hard to escape). But to eat lower on the food chain as you put it strikes me as a good reason to become one. A humanitarian-vegetarian, pehaps?! The smell of bacon, however, would soon lower my resolve.

  3. Roberta Says:

    That’s the main difference in idiom between traditional Chinese and Indian cooking. The latter avoids meat for religious or spiritual reasons; the former embraces it by fragments — Tudge says, as a condiment — within essentially grain and bean and vegetable dishes. A humanitarian-vegetarian (good phrase!) would go ahead and enjoy that bacon sandwich, as a rare treat, but allow meat to be a flavouring to other dishes rather than the centrepiece. Even vegetarian activists have made the point that convincing 100 Western meat-eaters to limit their carnivorousness to one meal every other day, instead of daily, is ten times as helpful by many criteria than convincing 5 to give up meat completely. (Of course, they’d be lucky to get that many to foreswear meat entirely.) And there are other downsides to the industrial production of animals that we needn’t get into here.

  4. ash Says:

    i don’t know that becoming a vegitarian is exactly the answer b/c you do mention that people must be able to afford the meat in the first place. and what good does it do if you don’t buy it and eat it and they still can’t get access to it? of course, if you feel inclined- you could always buy the meat that you normally do and turn around and give it away, becoming a true “humanitarian vegitarian.” wink. you’re doing great work!

  5. harryrud Says:

    This is well worth looking at: http://theroadtothehorizon.blogspot.com/2008/06/news-venezuela-capitalism-behind.html

  6. Opium, food crops and food crises « Ghosts of Alexander Says:

    […] Afghanistan and the global food crisis (harry rud) […]

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