When 72-year-olds take their shirts off in anger on a cold winter's day in Melbourne, you know something is wrong. Seriously wrong.
Victorian pensioners took to the streets the day after the federal budget's release, protesting the lack of recognition that the current seniors' pension leaves people destitute and desperate in the face of rising living costs and soaring food prices. To express their frustration, some of the protesters stripped down to their undies.
The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research estimates that overall food prices have increased by a phenomenal 75% over the last eight years, with wheat prices up 200% since 2002. Forecasts predict further price hikes, no doubt resulting in more large-scale protests and hunger riots around the globe.
While soaring food costs have driven people in Haiti to eat dirt, the Australian Bureau of Statistics also notes dramatic price hikes in Australia. In Melbourne, prices for basic goods such as potatoes rose by 32% between 2002 and 2007 and eggs 48%. ABS figures also indicate that the food price index rose by 2.1% in the March 2008 quarter, outstripping a rise in inflation.
Welfare organisations are noting a surge in people accessing their food provision services. Kylie McNamara from Melbourne's Sacred Heart Mission (SHM) told Green Left Weekly that her organisation has recorded a 300% increase in their breakfast service uptake over the last 12 months, and an average of 400 people access their lunch services each weekend. This is in one Melbourne suburb alone.
"The combined effect of living costs and increased food prices forces more and more people to rely our services", McNamara said. Meanwhile, the drought has also seriously reduced the donations the SHM used to get from farmers.
Some families are forced to default on utilities bills in order to feed their kids. In Anglicare's Financial Hardships in Victoria 2008 report, one survey participant said "eating meat has become a treat for our family and we only eat it twice a week".
High food prices: a danger to public health
Associate Professor John Coveney from Flinders University told an Australian Science Media Centre briefing in January that an ordinary healthy food basket for a family of five now costs $250 dollars per week.
For a low-income family this translates into having to spend one third of their weekly income on food. On average, households are spending around 18% of their income on food. In other words, people are not eating healthily: if they want to, they're going to have to spend a lot more of their income on food. Poor families are choosing cheaper food, which is often high in fat, sugar and salt. Such food can lead to increased rates of heart disease, obesity and chronic illnesses, and a lower life expectancy.
Food prices have increased faster in rural areas than in cities. A National Rural Health Alliance study reports that in remote areas, 80% of Aboriginal people live on less then $20,000 per year, compared to 42% of non–Aboriginal people.
The study also estimates that in remote areas the extra cost for a typical food basket increases from anywhere between 30% to 160% compared to capital city prices. These exorbitant prices threaten food security for Aboriginal people, making access to food needed for a healthy life increasingly precarious.
As consumers fork out ever more for food, supermarket chains cry poor, complaining about being squeezed by cost pressures resulting from high petrol prices. This is disputed, however, by the National Association of Retail Grocers of Australia, representing 4500 independent grocery retailers. According to the March 8 Age, the association blames transnational giants Coles and Woolworths for keeping grocery prices high through their monopolisation of the market.
Australian farmers also feel short-changed and say they have not benefited from the food price rises on supermarket shelves and the world market. This despite a retail mark up of more than 1000% on some of their produce. Farmers have also been hit hard by the effects of climate change, which led to a massive years-long drought reducing Australia's wheat crop by more than half.
In his study Global Warming and Agriculture, scientist William Cline found that climate change could see a reduction of food production of up to 50% in some regions in the world within the next decade or so.
Climate change and rising oil prices, combined with the domination of the global food trade by a few rich countries, has pushed food costs sky high. And now large swathes of land are being used for the production of agro-fuels instead of necessary food.
Food is not like just any other commodity, yet in a global corporate-controlled economy profits override even the most essential of human rights.