Week 3 / The Real Cost of Food

Bangladesh / 2008

This is the third instalment of six blogs during a six-week coffee fast Steve is doing in support of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank’s Fast for Change campaign.  Links to the other blogs and to the Fast For Change Radio Player are listed at the bottom of the page.

When I first started traveling to developing countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Bangladesh etc., I assumed that  food unavailability in one area of the world could simply be solved by motivating generosity in another part of the world.  But alas, like most things in life, it’s not that simple.  And in an rapidly globalizing world, the root causes of hunger are increasingly complex.

Stu Clark is the senior policy advisor for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. He is also one of three servant leaders at Grain of Wheat Church Community here in Winnipeg.   Nance and I attended that church for the better part of 15 years. And so, Stu is also a long and dear friend. In fact, back in the early-eighties I fell in love with  a guitar that was to be my first hand-made instrument.  It was Stu who lent me the money to make the purchase.

Stu and I have had countless lunches together discussing theology, politics, environmental concerns, music, beauty etc.  It was through Stu that I became involved with the work of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.  Here’s what Stu has to say about world food prices, volitility and and reliable food supply:


The real cost of food?  by Stu Clark

What is the real cost of food?  When I buy food from the local farmers’ market, most likely I pay a price that the farmer has figured out from his/her costs to grow it, harvest it and then bring it to the market.  Of course, the price can’t be too different from those offered by others on the market.  Simple.

But when I buy food at the supermarket or if I am a poor person buying food at a city market in Africa, it is not so simple.  That’s because in these situations I am dealing with the globalized food system where the farmers are just one of a crowd of people who decide the price.  Four groups are important.

The first group is the world’s farmers and their production.  If it is a good year and everything works very well, there may be such a large production that prices are pushed down.  But with less and less predictable weather, it is increasingly common that production is good one year but bad the next, causing prices to fluctuate.

Ethiopian Injera

The second group is those who eat the crops for their food.  Global population is increasing but the growth is gradually slowing.  Their total demand changes slowly but in the rapidly expanding countries like China it is not so much how much but what they are eating that changes.

And that brings us to the matter of meat consumption and the third group, us meat eaters.  It takes a lot of grain to make a kilo of meat – 2.5 kilos for chicken, 4 kilos for pork and 7 kilos for beef.  And more and more Chinese are wanting to eat meat like us.  This means that a rapidly increasing amount of animal feed for that meat is competing with grain used for bread, pasta and other grain based food products.

Finally, there’s me again when I start my car.  The growing amount of grain, mainly corn, that is being converted to ethanol to extend our oil-based gasoline is starting to effect global food prices.

All of this means that the balance between what the farmers produce and what we all use for food, feed and biofuels is becoming precarious. The surpluses we have enjoyed for many years have come to an end.  And that precarious balance will mean that global food prices will continue to be unstable unless we take measures like following Joseph’s example in the Bible by setting aside grain in years of higher production to ensure enough in the lean years.  “Just-in-time” food won’t work any longer.  We are in a new world-situation that requires a different management paradigm to ensure a reliable food supply.

Related blogs:

Further Reading:

  • Waste Not, Want Not   by Terence Z. Sibanda.  “One third of all food produced is wasted, says a recent report from The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Food is lost at every stage, from initial production, through the supply chain, the retail stage, and finally at the household level…In medium and high income countries about 220 million tonnes of food is lost at the household level. This loss is the equivalent of the total net food produced in Sub Saharan Africa.”
  • A Biblical Perspective on the Problem of Hunger by Walter Brueggemann. The persistence of hunger in a world entirely capable of producing enough food for all, in the end, is an issue of fidelity; a fidelity that issues from a three-way covenant between God, the earth, and its people. For our part, our covenant is to a “love-fueled justice –one that is binding not in the remote, legal sense, but rather in the familial sense.”

To listen to the Fast For Change Radio Player (music), click HERE…