"It was lunchtime in one of Haiti's worst slums, and Charlene Dumas was eating mud. With food prices rising, Haiti's poorest can't afford even a daily plate of rice, and some take desperate measures to fill their bellies. Charlene, 16 with a 1-month-old son, has come to rely on a traditional Haitian remedy for hunger pangs: cookies made of dried yellow dirt from the country's central plateau.
"The mud has long been prized by pregnant women and children here as an antacid and source of calcium. But in places like Cite Soleil, the oceanside slum where Charlene shares a two-room house with her baby, five siblings and two unemployed parents, cookies made of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening have become a regular meal ...
"At the market in the La Saline slum, two cups of rice now sell for 60 cents, up 10 cents from December and 50 percent from a year ago. Beans, condensed milk and fruit have gone up at a similar rate, and even the price of the edible clay has risen over the past year by almost $1.50. Dirt to make 100 cookies now costs $5, the cookie makers say."
This story by Associated Press correspondent Jonathan Katz last January was a shocking illustration of a new global food crisis that is growing fast. If you've noticed the sharp rise in food prices while doing the shopping, millions of others around the world are going hungry because of the same phenomenon.
Climate change, rising oil prices, rising demand and a US administration leading the push to turn food crops into biofuels have combined to drive up food prices sharply. Worldwide, food prices rose 23% from 2006 to 2007, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The price of grains rose 42%, oils 50% and dairy 80%.
And the price rises have escalated since then. In the past year wheat prices have gone up 83%, and in March 2007 rice prices in Asia were at a 20-year high.
According to the UN's World Food Program (WFP), global food reserves are "at their lowest for 30 years and commodity markets extremely volatile, subject to sudden spikes and speculation. The situation has been exacerbated by the falling value of the dollar, which is the currency in which all major commodities are traded", according to the Universal Rights Network.
In the last few months, there have been food riots in Haiti, Egypt, Zimbabwe, India, Namibia, Mexico, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Uzbekistan, Yemen and even in Italy.
It is argued that climate change denialism, the most fatal disease of the last three decades, has been near eradicated. But a much deadlier denialism remains rife: the belief that we don't have to change the capitalist system to avert the climate change crisis.
Leave it to the market? Just look what is happening with food and biofuels — and that's just a start. An increased demand for grains to make biofuels has pushed food prices up by 75% internationally, according to Kym Anderson, Professor of Economics at Adelaide University.
Green Left Weekly is sponsoring an important conference on April 11-13 to take this denialism head on. The Climate Change — System Change conference (<http://www.greenleft.org.au/conference.php>) features two world-renowned writers and activists on this subject:
John Bellamy Foster — author of Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature; editor of Monthly Review, and
Patrick Bond — director of the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa; editor of Climate Change, Carbon Trading and Civil Society.
The conference will also hear from Roberto Perez, the Cuban permaculturalist featured in film The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.
GLW puts on conferences like these only with the generous help of its readers. So far this year we've collected $53,723 towards our $250,000 2008 Green Left Weekly Fighting Fund. That's 21% of the way. If you would like to help us reach our target, you can directly deposit a donation to: Greenleft, Commonwealth Bank, BSB 062-006, Account No. 901992. Alternatively, send a cheque or money order to PO Box 515, Broadway NSW 2007, phone it through on the toll-free line at 1800 634 206 (within Australia), or donate online at <http://www.greenleft.org.au/donate.php>.