Food rationing hits America

“Them belly full but we hungry,” sang Bob Marley, adding, “A hungry mob is an angry mob.”

New Scientist | Apr 24, 2008

The world is about to discover that the slum survivor from Kingston, Jamaica knew what he was talking about. Food prices worldwide have nearly doubled, and wheat prices have trebled in the past few years.

But the increase has accelerated in the past few months, and consumers have noticed. Last week food riots brought down the Haitian government; there have been demonstrations in more than a dozen countries; and in the US, rice and flour are being rationed.

The US? The world’s biggest grain exporter, whose patriotic songs speak fondly, and accurately, of amber waves of grain?

Yep. The whole thing is the result of rising demand, due to rising population and prosperity ??? and yes, to the US plan to limit greenhouse emissions, and benefit its corn farmers, by turning food into gasoline, although that is, so far, a small part of the problem. And behind it all is the rising price of oil, essential to growing, processing and shipping food.

Food is traded globally, so a rise in prices anywhere means rises everywhere. The US government says food prices rose 5% during all of 2007 ??? but by March this year they’d already risen another 5.3%, with grain-based food rising fastest. And yes, that includes beer.
Ah, I see some of you are now paying attention.

But why should this lead to rationing in the US? Surely Americans are not about to run out of food?

Maybe not everyone. But price rises will hit the urban poor ??? and the US, with a more limited social safety net than many other rich countries, has plenty of those. People who spend a substantial percentage of their income on food, in the US as anywhere else, will feel the pinch. Many report eating more frugally, and resorting to food banks.

But rationing? First, small grocers only budget for buying the amount of wholesale food they normally sell. If prices rise fast they may not be able to adapt their cashflow quickly enough; they will have to buy less and may run out of stock.

But second, consumers who have seen prices rise rapidly are stocking up before they rise further. That is apparently the basis for reports that US food stores, including some owned by Walmart, the world???s biggest food retailer, are limiting the number of large sacks of flour or rice customers can buy. Presumably this is to avoid shelves emptying, not because they don’t expect to be able, eventually, to buy enough for everyone.

But that prospect is not certain. There is a finite supply of basic foodstuffs, and increasing demand, the reason for the price rise, means that when one country ups its bid to buy more, someone else will go without. Unless, that is, food production can be ramped up in a hurry. We’re working on a report that will look at the prospects for that.

Meanwhile, you tell us what’s been happening where you live. We’ve heard reports that food shoplifting is up in neighborhoods where hard-up college students live. Is this true? Are food prices up? Have you had to cut back on meat, or, heaven forbid, beer? Have there been protests? Let us know.

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