News & Politics

Food: A luxury Item?

The average price of food has tripled in the last twelve months. We may soon be buying our groceries from a boutique.
Who would have imagined having to go to a boutique to buy rice, beans, vegetables, and meat? But perhaps this reality is not so far off. The average price of food has tripled in the last twelve months.

Last year, the owners of the world invested $134 billion in the industry of death -- arms manufacturing -- a 45% increase from just ten years ago, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI. Governments invested 2.5% of the global GDP in military spending. Worldwide, $202 billion was invested per capita in feeding the beasts of the Apocalypse with missiles, bombs, mines, and nuclear arms. In summary: according to the FAO, compared to spending on food, the amount spent on arms surpassed it 191 times over!

In 2007, the United States accounted for 45% of the world's arms sales. Today, this market is dominated by 41 American companies and 34 in Western Europe. In the last ten years, U.S. military spending has increased by 65%, surpassing the total monetary investment in World War II. This is the price of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition to the brutal disparities between what is invested in death (arms) and what is applied to life (food), the petroleum crisis, with barrels costing over $130, raises the cost of food terribly. In the last fifty years, agriculture has industrialized, leading to an increase of 250% in global cereal harvests. But this does not mean that grains are cheaper or that they are reaching the mouths of the hungry.

Agriculture has become a consumer of petroleum in the form of fertilizers (this represents one third of the energy costs of production and has increased by 130% in the last year), as well as pesticides, agricultural machinery, irrigation systems, and transport (from the trucks that ship food to the markets to the motorcycle riders who deliver pizza).

Industrialized agriculture consumes fifty times more energy that traditional agriculture, as 95% of all food production requires the use of petroleum. To raise a cow and take its beef to market requires seven barrels of oil, at 158.9L each.

The rise in petroleum costs opens a vast new market for agricultural production as well. Before, these goods were intended for human consumption. Now, they are used to feed machines and vehicles. The price of gasoline increases the price of food simply because when the price of the fuel needed to transport a food product exceeds the market value of the food itself, that food is converted into agrofuel.

Who will invest in sugar production when the same cane can bring you more profit as ethanol? Clearly, sugar will not disappear from supermarket shelves -- but it will be sold as an item of luxury to offset the investments of those who are not producing agrofuels.

This is not a judgment against ethanol. Rather, itis a cry in support of food production, such that that foodisaccessible within the mean monthly income in Brazil, approximately $300. Moreover, no one denies the slave labor, or partial slave labor, that dominates in the sugar plantations of Brazil, according to Amnesty International's recent report on these conditions. It is urgent that the National Congress approves PEC 438/2001 against slave labor. Unfortunately, Planalto (the executive branch) has just published the Provisional Measure that does not oblige employers to register workers before they have been contracted for three months. How many temporary workers are going to be condemned to a perpetual -- and legal -- regime of three-monthly work contracts, without any labor rights?

Some companies that produce ethanol force their workers to harvest up to 15 tons of sugar cane per day, and they do not pay them for the hours labored, but for the crop gathered. According to specialists, such physical efforts cause serious spine problems, cramps, tendonitis and maladies of the respiratory tracts due to the sugar cane's soot, deformations of the feet due to the use of thick shoes, and damages in the vocal chords because of the neck always bent during work.

During the harvest, the workers are always soaked in their sweat due to the high temperatures and excessive effort. To cut one ton of cane, you have to slash with the machete one thousand times. The salaries paid for production are insufficient to secure adequate food. Furthermore, the workers do not only have to pay rent and transports from their homes to the center of São Paulo and Minas, but they also send parts of their income to their families.

The current working regime reduces the useful work-life span of the cane cutters to about 12 years. In 1850, when slave trade was free and labor force was abundant, the useful life span of these workers was between 10 and 12 years. Following the prohibition of the import of slaves, their better treatment prolonged their useful life to between 15 and 20 years.

If the federal government wants to promote economic growth by means of sustainable development, without these two challenges of our civilization process being contradictory to each other, it has to avoid the problems just pointed out. It also has to undertake agrarian reforms to increase the areas of food production, in order to countervail those occupied these days by agrofuels. (Translation: ALAI).

Frei Betto is the author of "Calendario del poder", among other books.
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