Life in the Post Food-Surplus World

BY Ray Suarez  July 21, 2011 at 12:04 PM EDT

A group of women and a young girl shell mussels in Kalibaru
Women shelling mussels in Indonesia. Photo by Cat Wise.

Hunger activists used to argue that the world produces more than enough food for all of its people — it’s the transportation, storage, and waste that cause the problem.

Now, that food surplus adage is no longer true, or even up for debate, Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program, recently told me. The problem has become more critical.

“We’re living in a post-surplus era now,” she said.

Production today is so tight that a bad growing season in one of the world’s breadbaskets — the United States, Canada, Brazil, Australia — leads to increased poverty and hunger among millions of the world’s most vulnerable people.

The NewsHour’s Global Health Unit was in Indonesia in the past several weeks, looking at the economics of food, and its intimate connection with health. I know — obvious, right? No food, bad health?

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

It is more complicated than that.

The globalization of the world economy has extended from manufactured products to food. Over the last several decades countries have been reassured that the world market is a smooth-working and efficient place, that they shouldn’t devote too much labor and resources to growing staple food items if their people can make money doing something else.

It would make more sense, they believed, to buy from more efficient producers than to produce high-cost food themselves.

Then came 2008, when the soaring price of oil had a shocking impact on the price of food. Costs of staples shot up, setting off food riots, forcing governments to spend much more money on subsidies, and making exporters suddenly reluctant to ship out their surpluses. It was a wake-up call about a lot of things, and the sudden leap in food prices pushed an estimated 140 million people into poverty.

Indonesia was a perfect place to examine this new reality. Its people are still working and living on the land in millions — an estimated half of the workforce. The fields are intensely cultivated, well-watered, and productive. But Indonesia, producing the world’s third-largest rice crop every year, still has to import rice to feed its 240 million people. When things are good, food might represent 30-40 percent of the family budget. When the price of just one commodity, rice, shoots up, it can push food prices up enough to soak up 70 percent of the family food budget.

People we spoke to named food prices as one of the reasons life is hard in Indonesia. Food prices can be politically sensitive anywhere, but in a country with a high poverty rate (60 percent of Indonesians live on less than $2 a day), they can change everything. In a teeming slum outside the capital, Jakarta, we visited a regional hospital’s emergency feeding center, where Dr. Saptarini, the director, said she sees more malnourished children whenever the price of food starts to rise.

Mothers try to adapt by using cheaper ingredients and less nourishing foods when prices outpace income. As uncomfortable as skipping meals can be for an adult, it’s real impact can be seen in children, like 15 month-old Ahmad, who arrived at the hospital a few weeks earlier tipping the scales at 15 pounds. The average weight for boys in the United States at that age is almost 24 pounds.

His mother said there just wasn’t enough food in the house these days, because there just wasn’t enough money to buy it.

Her little boy has been getting emergency feeding since he arrived, and he’s already gained two pounds. From birth to three years children’s brains hungrily absorb nourishment, growing and laying down connections that will carry a child through life. Bad food makes bad students and bad workers.

The people we encountered were very open about the day-to-day realities of their lives, explaining how food was acquired, prepared and eaten in the family home. Women spoke of skipping meals to feed their children, or of making sure husbands heading out to work got more food to give them the strength to get through long days of physical labor.

People welcomed us into their homes to see the tiny kitchens, water buckets in lieu of plumbing, the lack of space for storing food. Without fail, they offered us tea and soft drinks, chips or cookies.

Along with the disappearance of the surplus worldwide, the advantages for rural people have vaporized as well. Farmers used to grow for themselves and families, and their ability to make food provided insurance against times of want.

Increasingly, though, farm workers are simply hired labor, with little access and almost no stake in the land. When food gets more expensive their prices go up with everyone else’s, even though it’s their own labor that pulls food from the soil.

Mercy Corps has helped launch a business in the slum quarter we visited, making healthier foods for kids under five that supply more protein and micronutrients.

Get the price right, get the selection right, and bingo, the women of this tough neighborhood are willing to watch out for the cart to make sure their kids are properly fed.

Concerned mothers have little to say about the world price of oil. And along with tightened supply, the cost of energy has been a huge driver of prices.

Transportation, fertilizer and processing, all need energy, but a power-hungry world adds another complication: you can process a lot of different foods to make fuel instead of meals.

Indonesia is by far the world’s number one palm oil producer, and much of it used as cooking oil. When the price of crude oil jumped, biofuel producers swooped in, trying to buy a big share of the palm oil crop for processing.

The Indonesian government responded by slapping export duties on the oil, trying to keep it inside the country. Palm oil shortages would push Indonesian consumers to import more expensive cooking oils, pushing food prices even higher.

We in the West paid so much attention to the effort to push Suharto out of the president’s office in the late 1990s, but many haven’t paid much attention to Indonesia since. It was interesting to hear nostalgia for the Suharto era from ordinary Indonesians, who are living with food inflation in this era of rapid economic and population growth. “It was a better time,” they remember wistfully, “we could afford to buy food.”