Food crisis: The blame game

Business Line, May 21, 2008

By Pradeep S Mehta and Siddhartha Mitra

The world food crisis, despite all efforts to shift the blame, has been born out of life-style imbalances in the US and like-minded nations, characterised by an excess of nutrition and locomotion, say PRADEEP S. MEHTA and SIDDHARTHA MITRA.

In a series of ignorant and insensitive comments, the US President, Mr George Bush, has blamed the current food scarcity problem and price spiral on the rapid development of India and China. Insensitive because these countries have not even reached 20 per cent of the level of affluence being enjoyed by the US and other developed countries and ignorant because the increased volume of food consumption by India and China is definitely not the primary cause of the price spiral.

Hidden behind the smugness of these comments, a guilt complex possibly lurks — of having engineered a disaster through opulent, wasteful and often gluttonous lifestyles which have taken consumption of food and fuel to unsustainable levels. It is in fact their effort to “sustain the unsustainable” which has led to the current food crisis. This is clear from the Table.

Some statistics

In 1979, according to the FAO Statistical Yearbook, per capita food consumption in the US stood at 3,180 calories — a level of consumption that maintains the body weight of a sedentary human weighing 96 kg. Even at such levels of excess, the US continued to make a fetish and virtue out of increasing levels of consumption.

As a result, around 2003, the average calorie intake had ballooned to 3,770 calories — an 18.5 per cent jump over the 1979 level — which is adequate to sustain a person weighing 114 kg. Though obvious, it deserves mention that such excesses are bad for the US as well. In 2002, 30.4 per cent of the adult population was considered obese by the American Heart Association.

Recent research suggests that obesity can also shorten the lifespan of both adults and children. Besides, obesity is expensive, with the WHO estimating medical expenses on obesity-related problems at 12 per cent of US’ total healthcare costs. The figures in the Table indicate that the average American consumes 1,629 calories more than what is needed to maintain ideal body weight when following a sedentary lifestyle. This implies that even physically active Americans are consuming way more than what they need. Thus, the way for Americans and other developed nations to come out of obesity is to consume less which, in turn, would facilitate better nourishment for the starving and the hungry in developing countries.

The Table also shows that even in many other developed countries, such as Germany, the UK and Australia, an excess of around 1,000 calories are consumed daily. China too has a reasonably large excess intake of over 900 calories, whereas Japan’s over-consumption is modest by developed country standards.

On the other hand, the per capita consumption of India at 2440 calories corresponds to an excess of 462 calories over sedentary consumption needed to maintain ideal body weight. In rural India, where life basically is still non-mechanised, the physical rigour of a bucolic life eats away such tiny surpluses.

The problem of obesity does exist in India but it has not yet reached epidemic proportions as seen in the US; there is still a 20 per cent incidence of under-nourishment.

To top it all, India’s relatively modest level of per capita calorific intake rose only 17.5 per cent in 1979-2002 — slower than that of the US. Therefore, if anything, purely from a consumption point of view Americans are more to blame for stoking inflationary fires in the food sector. Note that African countries bring up the rear as far as calorific consumption is concerned.

Under-nourished Africa

Countries such as Gambia and Ghana, for which data on average height and therefore ideal weight exist, show surpluses of 275 calories and 10 calories over sedentary consumption. With a lifestyle still based on physical movement, at least in the rural areas, even this average calorific intake might denote a state of under-nourishment.

Countries such as Ethiopia and Somalia, for which there are no estimates of average height and ideal body weight, are seemingly worse off with an average calorie consumption of around 1,800. It is this part of the world that scrimps and scrounges while the US and other developed countries splurge.

Declining US exports

The US is also guilty on another account — they have pulled the rug out from under a growing developing world’s feet through a decrease in food exports when the rapid rise of affluence in the latter actually warrants the opposite. Over the 1970s and 1980s wheat exports from the US to the rest of the world almost doubled. In the seventeen years that followed there has been a dip of 24 per cent in wheat exports, much of it being used to produce oil rather than food to maintain an unsustainable fuel guzzling lifestyle.

Such massive decreases in food exports make the US’ claim that bio-fuels explain less than 2/100th of the recent massive rise in food prices seem ridiculous. It is, therefore, interesting and relevant to note that the world food crisis, despite all efforts to shift the blame, has been born out of life style imbalances in the US and like-minded nations — an excess of nutrition and locomotion.

The authors are Secretary-General and Director (Research), CUTS International and can be reached at
and respectively.

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