A workers’ answer to the food crisis

Elliott Robinson

Last week thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh went on strike in protest at rising food prices. Factory workers earn as little as a $1 a day and have seen the price of rice increase by a third since last year. Some 30 million people in Bangladesh – nearly a quarter of the population — may be going without a daily meal.

Food riots have taken place this year in Egypt, Haiti and Burkina Faso. The United Nations predicts that 33 countries in Asia and Africa face “political instability” as a result of food price rises. It says the global food bill has rise by 57% in the last year, with basic staples such as rice and wheat doubling in price.

The food crisis is not the result of too little food produced across the globe. Last year the global grain harvest was 2.1 billion tonnes, up 5% on the previous year – easily more than enough to feed the entire population of the world. Although harvests in some places (such as the US) were down a bit, the main problem is that only about half of this grain going directly to feed people. The rest is being used for other purposes.

According to the Independent (16 April), around 100 million tonnes of grain last year went on producing biofuels – more than quadruple the figure at the turn of the century. This was the result of a push by the big capitalist powers, both the US and the European Union – as well as by other regional powers such as Brazil with existing ethanol industries – to increase production in a vain and unplanned attempt to combat climate change.

Last week the British government introduced the requirement for transport fuels to be 2.5% biofuel from crops. The EU has plans for a similar measure. Yet the facts about biofuels have been well known for years. Apart from the deforestation that takes place to “clear” for biofuel crops, it takes 232kg of corn to fill a 50-litre car tank with ethanol – enough to feed a child for a year.

If nothing else, socialists should support Biofuelswatch and the Campaign against Climate Change, who want a moratorium on biofuels until they can be shown to be socially and ecologically sustainable.

However nearly a third of the global grain harvest – some 760 million tonnes last year, went on feeding animals. There is a growing demand for meat across the globe and this requires a big input of grain. Apparently it takes 8kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef, and 2kg of feed to produce a kilo of chicken – what is known as “conversion efficiency”. As well as consuming grain, cows also produce large quantities of greenhouse gases. One cow produces more methane per day than a 4x4 driving 33 miles.

In response to the food crisis, some greens have called for a vegetarian diet. George Monbiot has suggested a switch to tilapia, a freshwater fish that consumes 1.6kg of feed per kilo of food – the best conversion efficiency of any farmed animal.

I think socialists should generally avoid focusing on individual lifestyle solutions to problems caused by the anarchy of global capitalism, and resist attempts to coerce people into changing their eating habits. As William Morris put it in 1886, “But a man [sic] can hardly be a sound Socialist who puts forward vegetarianism as a solution of the difficulties between labour and capital… there are people who are vegetarians on ascetic grounds, and who would be just as tyrannical as other ascetics if they had a chance of being so.” However we should not dismiss lightly the human health benefits as well as the ecological gains from a better diet, brought about voluntarily.

For socialists, the food crisis is another symptom of capitalist crisis – the chaotic system of profiteering which drives down workers’ living standards. The food crisis, coming on the back of big increases in the price of fuels – for heating and powering homes, for transport (both public and private) — adds up to the most concentrated squeeze on working class incomes since the 1970s.

In Britain, food prices have risen fast. Bread prices have doubled in the last three years and are up by a third on last year. Rice prices are also up by a third; eggs by 40%; chicken by 70%; and pasta by 80% (the Guardian 16 April) And all this while the fat cat bosses still reap a fortune and while the government imposes pay cuts across the public sector.

The answer, both in Britain and across the globe, is for workers to take action. We need an authoritative estimate of the cost of living and a sliding scale of wages to keep up with the real cost of meeting basic needs. We need industrial action to smash the imposed pay ceiling for workers.

We also need political demands – particularly as the rising cost of living will hit many of the poorest, least organised and vulnerable workers. The government should levy a windfall tax on supermarkets, the banks, petrol companies and energy suppliers who continue to rake in huge profits. We should demand benefits and pensions be increased to guarantee a minimum standard of living. We should fight for these reforms now, and as part of our struggle for socialism – which will guarantee everyone’s basic needs are met.