Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Food Prices And Shortages Surge: Let Them Eat Dirt?

Though not nearly as compelling as lesbian rumors surrounding LiLo, or gay rumors surrounding Scott McClellan, or gay/lesbian/horrifying reality surrounding the “Sex and the City” movie (the reality being that it made over $55 million on its opening weekend), you may have heard that there are food shortages and riots around the world. You may not have yet heard that more and more Americans are going hungry, though it would be spurious to say that we are anywhere near as desperate as some of these starving nations.

Bangladesh, Egypt and India—to name a few—have all had violent and occasionally deadly food riots in recent months as failed crops, storms, gas prices and government corruption continue to cause food shortages. The ultra-rich in these countries are—as always—doing nothing. I won’t debate the ethics of this, or whether or not they are morally obligated to help. But could they at least not do things like building the world’s most expensive house, estimated at $2 billion, in the thick of it all?

Marie Antoinette is famously misquoted as saying: “Let them eat cake.” It seems today’s grande bourgeoisie has a different approach: “Let them eat dirt!” And in Haiti, that’s just what they are doing.

No longer able to afford staples like beans and rice, impoverished Haitians are increasingly reliant on mud cookies for sustenance—and I don’t mean grandma’s chocolate, walnut recipe. The confections are made of baked river mud mixed with salt and vegetable shortening and called Terre (as in ‘Terra-cotta’, ‘terra firma’, and ‘terrifying’). Eating mud does not make one ill, but it isn’t exactly a balanced meal and it effectively serves only to stave off hunger pangs.

I have followed Haiti’s situation closely over the last decade, and I’m glad to see that quite a bit of media attention has been bestowed on the troubled island in recent months. However, in terms of our ability to give aid, it couldn’t come at a worse time, as we too are seeing signs of food shortage...or at least fund shortages. An AP article recently printed in the International Herald Tribune reveals that 99 percent of 180 food banks have seen an increase in clients, some listing an estimated increase of 40 percent. According to the Labor Department, the highest increase in food prices in 18 years just occurred in April. Food banks are begging for increased funding, and so I find it doubtful that we will be able to do much for other countries at the time.

Another article shows that Americans are turning to dirt for sustenance, too, but not in the same capacity as the Haitians. The largest seed company in the U.S. has seen a double in sales over the last year as more and more people are deciding to grow their own produce, according to an AP article on MSN Money. And they aren’t the only ones:

“Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving heirloom vegetables, ran out of potatoes this year and mailed 10,000 tomato and pepper transplants to customers in early May, double its usual amount. The organization, based near Decorah, Iowa, sold 34,000 packets of seed in the first third of this year, more than it did all last year.”

William Blake said, “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” But those days of leisure might be over. The new dictum appears to be, “In seed time sow, in harvest reap, in winter eat the cat.” And sorry, Santa—no cookies this year, unless you don’t mind a nice, silty aftertaste.

What does the future of the food shortage hold? Will Wolfgang Puck Express find competition against a chain of Michel Lotito Pica Buffets? Will the South Beach Diet give way to the Donner Diet? My crystal ball says things won’t be getting too dire just yet. As grease vats are emptied by grease bandits, we may have to forgo fried food, and people may be apt to take their toast with little spots of penicillin rather than chucking it at the first sign of mold (a smear of bleu cheese will cover that right up!), but we won’t be starving just yet.

Still, some investors may want to follow these food price surges and invest in farmland or consumables. Investors may also find a cash cow in dairy industry investments. With controversy surrounding biofuel production and its contribution to food shortages, investing in biofuels seems a little riskier, but keep your ears to the ground on that one. And taste some soil while you’re down there. It never hurts to try...

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