Food prices, drought, and poverty

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Across the globe climate change is wreaking havoc on cities and rural areas, and the people and other creatures that inhabit them. Floods, droughts, extreme storms and rising temperatures are here to stay.

Those paying the highest price are the world’s poor and low-wage workers. They are driven from their meager homes, and can’t afford the food they grow or serve in restaurants, as food prices rise under the strain of increasing shortages.

To make matters worse, governments are gutting social programs, particularly those that help to feed people, thus twisting the dagger that is already dealing such a savage blow.

Meanwhile, the world’s capitalists are doing fine, with the best and healthiest food grown especially for them. They profess “concern” at their annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, all while their wheel of poverty and environmental destruction keeps on turning.

Climate disasters everywhere. The severity of the California drought is truly sobering and no relief is in sight.

The U.S. Drought Monitor classifies 67 percent of the state as “Extreme.” Another nine percent of the state — prime food growing regions — is “exceptional.” This label means everything from wells running dry to no food for cattle to graze on, forcing livestock to be sold off. Some scientists say the 2013-14 rainfall season is the driest in 434 years! California’s 40 reservoirs can hold 8 trillion gallons of water combined, but currently hold 39 percent of their capacity when it should be 65 percent.

Snow pack in the mountains is 12 percent of normal, so replenishing the reservoirs is not likely. And since most of California’s rain falls in December, an already bad situation is likely to get much worse.

This has national repercussions too. The state is the top agricultural producer in the U.S. ($44.7 billion annually) and one of the largest in the world. It produces dairy, beef and wine and some of the largest fruit and vegetable crops. The lost revenue to its producers is $5 billion and counting.

As a solution to these historic conditions, Governor Jerry Brown has endorsed a $15 billion plan to build two 30-mile water tunnels. They would run from Northern California, under the ecologically-sensitive river delta system east of San Francisco Bay, to Southern California where the state’s population and 750,000 acres of farm land is most concentrated. Water customers and all state residents would foot the cost in higher water bills and taxes. Foolish and outrageously expensive, this scheme does nothing to solve today’s shortage, or confront the reality of when the entire state runs out of water.

California is not the only location in severe drought conditions. Brazil, one of the major food producers in the world, has gone 40 days without rain. The dry spell is one of the worst in the nation’s history, and is forcing 140 cities to ration water.

U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres recently said that extreme weather events are “giving us a pattern of abnormality that is becoming the new norm,” and these events are “going to increase in their frequency and severity. It is not that climate change is going to be here in the future, we are experiencing climate change.”

Food prices — the only direction is up! In the last seven years food costs have climbed steadily, interspersed by dramatic jumps and temporary plateaus. But the most telling global statistic is that food costs twice as much today as it did in 2003, and is remaining at a higher level.

There are many reasons for these changes, and a major one is climate change. Several months after a weather shock, such as drought, resulting shortages push up prices.

For some products, this may be eased by imports from other countries, where lower labor costs and in-season crops make prices seem lower. But it’s an illusion and temporary fix at best. The overall trend is food costs spiraling upward.

Congress makes matters worse. Impoverished workers, people who depend on low-wage jobs for survival, are one of the greatest recipients of social services, from Medicaid to Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

A study that focused on fast food workers in particular, revealed that 45 percent were enrolled in one or more of the government’s safety-net programs, with 24 percent needing SNAP assistance. These workers, surrounded by food all day, do not earn enough money to put food on their own tables!

Since the start of 2007, spending on SNAP has increased 76 percent to 46 million people currently receiving aid.

Under a policy of “heat and eat,” SNAP allowed states to use SNAP and the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program to aid the lowest income folks. Money flowed into the program so that people were not forced to choose between eating or heating their homes.

But the farm bill that was finalized in February 2014 through “bipartisan cooperation” cut SNAP by $8 billion over 10 years. Congressional cuts resulted in an average monthly benefit reduction of $90 per family, even as food prices climb to an all-time high.

In particular, these cuts target “heat and eat,” and when a group of Democrats asked the Obama administration to delay the cuts until Fall, the administration sent them packing.

The timing could not be worse. Food banks in southern California are trying to make more fresh and healthy food available, but are seeing a dramatic drop in their stocks. Because of the drought, farmers have less of surplus produce to donate.

Furthermore, with lower production and fields left fallow, unemployment for parts of the Central Valley will likely reach 50 percent. This means demand will rise and even more of a strain will be put on a food bank network that is already stretched thin.

California’s drought is a wake-up call. The broad assault on working people, especially those at the bottom of the economic ladder, is coming from every direction — stagnating and starvation wages, slashed social services, congressional budget cuts, empty food cupboards, and more. Climate change promises to add oil to this fire of growing inequality.

California’s drought is a harbinger of the steep price to be paid for sticking with the status quo and doing nothing. As long as capitalism exists, with its insatiable and destructive appetite for profits and wasteful consumption, people will be increasingly forced to choose between food or heat, farm land or salmon runs.

A humane and sustainable future demands that precious and dwindling resources be put under the careful stewardship and control of workers now, managed for the benefit of all people and the planet. Is this radical? Yes. But as climate change transforms the planet, so too will humanity evolve or devolve.

It’s time to get radical and make change for the better.

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