A Hungry Future

Are the days of inexpensive food over?

June 18, 2009

Are the days of inexpensive food over?

Please forgive my ramblings," says the old man, sitting listless and hunched over six small cobs of corn that are drying in Malawi's tropical heat. “The hunger makes my mind wander."

In his lucid moments, Lucas Lufuzi recites the numbers, calibrating his catastrophe. Three days since he's eaten. One son dead. Two grandchildren to feed. Two seasons of crops spoiled by too few seeds, no fertilizer and erratic weather — rain one year, drought the next.

"I have never seen such starvation," he says to me, sitting on the stool in front of his hut made with mud and straw. He is so thin he looks as if he might break, and his stubble is so pearly white on skin as fine and black as gunpowder that it seems a magic trick.

In this village just east of Malawi's capital city, Lilongwe, peasants have resorted to eating banana stalks already plucked clean, pummeled into a lumpy mash in wooden gourds.

The mash is inedible, but it fills their stomachs for a few hours, until their bowels explode, sometimes in a fit of diarrhea, which neither the young nor the old are readily able to withstand in these conditions. "Eating the banana stalks," Lufuzi says, "that is the last kick from a dying mule. You are just trying to keep death at bay when you do that. I don't want to, but I fear I may have no choice soon."

The banana stalks are part of a growing international cuisine of desperation, the menu of last options that poor people turn to in the worst hunger they've ever known.

In Burundi, villagers eat a porridge of black rice flour and rotting cassava leaves; in Somalia, a thin gruel made from the mashed branches of a thorn tree. Haitians eat biscuits kneaded from a yellowish dirt and water, nutritionless but filling.

In the United States, grocery store managers in 2008 said that they couldn’t keep enough Spam in stock. Here in Malawi, hospitals overflow, not just with the malnourished but with the hundreds of people who have been attacked by club- and machete-wielding mobs who accused them of stealing corn or other food.

Just hours before we met up with Lufuzi, I had interviewed a patient at Lilongwe's main hospital who had lost two fingers in a daylight attack. "The people are crazed by this hunger," the man told us from a gurney in a hospital corridor. He would not say one way or another whether he'd actually stolen food, as had been alleged.

Outside Lufuzi's hut, I turn to my interpreter, a young Malawian woman who works for one of the local relief agencies, and ask her, "How can I help him? I'd give him money, but it won't do him any good if there is no food to buy."

"Oh, no," says the young woman. "The stores have food. The markets have corn and the shelves are stocked. It's just that no one can afford it," she says.

I empty my pockets of the Malawian currency that I had exchanged for dollars at the airport the previous day. I don't know how much it is — certainly not more than 50 U.S. dollars.

I'm ashamed it's so little, that there are others who need help, that I am staying at a beautiful hotel that offers a bountiful buffet, air conditioning and my favorite brand of whiskey. But with the crumpled bills in his hands, Lufuzi grabs my right hand, cups it between his own and kisses it three times, like a bird catching a worm in its beak. "Thank you," he says. "God bless you."

Inexpensive food is a thing of the past. The UN projects that food prices will continue to rise, by as much as 50% by 2016. With its evisceration of the middle class, globalization has sorted rich from poor in parceling out the world's food supply.

By driving up the incomes of the comfortable and affluent, global finance has increased demand for agricultural products that fetch their sellers top dollar and are typically more expensive than staple foods like rice, corn and potatoes, which are an integral part of the poor's daily diet.

Commercial farmers in Malawi and southern Africa began replacing their wheat and beans with more lucrative tobacco more than a decade ago. Australian growers, who once fed more than two million poor Asians with their rice, converted their farms to vineyards and now produce wine for monied customers in the United States and Europe.

After Malawians suffered famine-like conditions for a third consecutive year in 2004, the newly elected president, Bingu wa Mutharika, a U.S-trained development economist, waved off complaints from international donors and announced that for all Banda's Mao-style eccentricities and iron-fisted authoritarianism, he had had it right when it came to farm policy.

Ahead of southern Africa's 2005 planting season, agriculture agents began to flood the Malawian countryside, distributing wads of vouchers to tribal chiefs and village leaders, who in turn doled out the coupons to small farmers. Growers then took their vouchers to local feed stores and exchanged them for discounted high-yield seeds and 50-kilogram bags of fertilizer.

Because the government guaranteed a minimum price for surplus corn at the end of the season, farmers were assured of at least a small profit.
The result: a record harvest in 2006, followed by an even bigger one in 2007 and yet a third bumper crop in 2008.

When rioters took to the streets of Haiti, Somalia, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Mexico and at least ten other countries in late 2007 and 2008, Malawians were eating better than they had in nearly a decade. Cash poured into government coffers.

The only sector hurt by the shift in policy was the agribusiness dealers, who, with fewer crops available for export, saw their earnings decline by as much as a third.

Editor's Note: This feature is adapted from "Flat Broke in the Free Market" by Jon Jeter. Copyright 2009 by Jon Jeter. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Takeaways

"The stores have food. The markets have corn and the shelves are stocked. It's just that no one can afford it."

"Eating the banana stalks, that is the last kick from a dying mule. You are just trying to keep death at bay when you do that."

With its evisceration of the middle class, globalization has sorted rich from poor in parceling out the world's food supply.

Commercial farmers in Malawi and southern Africa began replacing their wheat and beans with more lucrative tobacco more than a decade ago.