In June 2009, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that, worldwide, the number of hungry people had reached one billion. Today, more people are hungry than at any point in human history. They are concentrated in the developing world, and their hunger has been exacerbated by the global financial crisis.
In 2008, world wheat prices reached a nineteen-year high, and over thirty countries experienced food riots. "Hunger seasons" have become the norm in many parts of the global south, and women bear the brunt of this food shortage.
According to ActionAid International, women produce up to seventy percent of food in developing countries. However, women also make up seventy percent of the world's hungry, and they own only one percent of the world's land. They might prepare most of the world's food, but they do not eat their fair share of it.
In the west, however, what strikes us is not hunger, but its opposite: obesity. According to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) study, more than 1.6 billion people globally are overweight or obese—that is 60% more than go hungry. As early as 1987, the American media began murmuring about an "obesity epidemic," and in 2001 the WHO began to speak of "globesity."
This epidemic is not limited to America and Western Europe: it is visible in East Asia, Central and South America, and even in Africa. In South Africa, 30.5% of black women are obese. In China, the prevalence of childhood obesity rose from 1.5% in 1989 to 12.6% in 1997.
Escalating global hunger and obesity levels might seem like a gigantic paradox. It is not. It is part of a single global food crisis, with economic, geopolitical, and environmental dimensions. It is perhaps the starkest, most basic way in which global inequality is manifest.
It has many tangled causes, one being simple competition for basic cereals. The growth of nonwestern economies like China almost invariably generates a shift to a more "western" style diet, which involves rising meat consumption, which in turn necessitates diverting vast quantities of cereals from humans to cattle. This is a high-status but inefficient way to consume protein and calories.
This competition has recently been magnified by the expansion of the biofuel industry, which diverts cereals from humans to cars. Southern Africa, for example, has been promoted as the new "Middle East of biofuels," to grow crops not to feed Africans, but to power automobiles.
Spiraling grain prices, increasing meat consumption, and the question of biofuels are merely three facets of a multidimensional global phenomenon that is affecting how we produce, distribute, and consume food.
Other aspects include climate change, which is making tropical seasons hotter and drier; speculation and collusion on commodity markets; dwindling grain reserves; and export restrictions imposed by panicking nations keen to protect domestic consumers.
More "medium-term" causes of the contemporary global food crisis include market distortions produced by large-scale government subsidies to European and American farming and World Bank programs of structural adjustment, which have systematically dismantled national systems of subsidized farming elsewhere in the world.
In other words, the world food crisis is a particularly instructive, if unsettling, event that can illustrate certain aspects of "globalization." It demonstrates how the basic act of eating a piece of bread or meat binds consumers seamlessly with distant farmers, large corporations, energy systems, economic forces, and international politics.
A History of Food Systems
The historical origins of today's global linkages between food, capital, energy, environment, and technology lie well before the mid-twentieth century.
For most of history, humans hunted or grew food for their own consumption, and food travelled only short distances from source to stomach. Yet, orchestrated, long-distance exchanges of food go back millennia: the spice trade dates back to ancient times, for example. Islamic farmers brought sugar to the Mediterranean around 600AD, and the Spanish, along with other European powers, brought it to the new world, and established the huge plantation complexes that formed a recognizably long-distance food system.