The 2007-08 Global Food Crisis And Its Factors In Africa

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The 2007-08 Global Food Crisis led to a humanitarian crisis culminating in starvation and poverty. This piece of academic work places specific emphasis on the interlinked factors that affected Africa, particularly the poorest socio-economic demographic. A lethal combination of both manmade issues and natural causes brought about disaster, with these groups being adversely affected. Five factors were assessed and analysed qualitatively from salient literature of varying perspectives and, using a geographically widespread selection of African countries, showing how similarly they were affected despite distance. However, it emerged from the research that analysis of the countries could not be extricated individually due to the extent of the knock-on effects such as international trading and commodification. The conclusion places emphasis on the most pertinent causes and in sum,states that Africa was not financially secure or politically ready for such extensive western financial influence, due to its own issues of stagnating production, lack of government accountability, climate change repercussions and population growth. 

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Introduction

The 2007-08 Global Food Crisis arose from a culmination of political, economic and social factors resulting in extreme rises in basic food prices. The crisis was particularly prevalent in developing countries, specifically in Africa, where riots occurred in at least 14 countries. This essay will be focusing on the causes attributed to the crisis and food insecurity in northern Africa. 

Food prices rose steadily in 2006-07, before spiking “during the last few months of 2007 and first half of 2008, with the doubling of prices of key staples such as wheat, soya beans, rice and corn”. This food price volatility meant the price of maize “more than doubled in price in Central and Northern Uganda” (Wodon and Zaman, 2009, p.165), within a year. Ironically, there were “record grain harvests in 2007”. However, the working classes experienced increased financial vulnerability and food insecurity, which “occurs when an individual has limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways”. Fossil fuel dependence was key in the build up to the Global Food Crisis, creating a need for viable substitutes such as biofuel, increasing the burden on agriculture, in addition to the extensive pressure caused by climate change which affected the rural poor more profoundly. Secondly, increasing globalisation and the effects of food commodification, resulting in “significant increases in food price inflation” causing starvation in the Global South and financially benefiting developed countries financial markets. Thirdly, due to a consequence of the excessive interlinked “political regime of global value relation” (Araghi, 2003 cited by McMichael, 2009, p.283), economically growing countries put pressure on agricultural-producers. All these facets caused a “perfect storm” combining with other relevant causes, building up in the 2000s, such as floundering African production, poor internal governance and a lack of social protections. 

The poor were typically the most affected of the socio-economic groups and this essay will deconstruct the reasons why. These interlinked factors created a vicious cycle as “global price surges were reflected in local markets, exchange rate movements, trade policies, transportation costs, and domestic market structure”. Meaning the 2007-08 global food crisis negatively affected Africa under the influence of the Hegemonic Global North and increasing globalisation, as a lack of internal governance and natural causes of population growth and climate change would be insufficient to precipitate riots by themselves. 

Fossil Fuel dependence and diversion of grain

Fossil fuel dependence is the crux of industrialisation causes extensive climate change, adversely affecting the ability to grow food. Thus, Biofuels are actively encouraged in the US as desirable substitutes, in an effort to meet the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol and to reduce foreign dependence. However, this came at the expense of raging “food prices and intensifying the crisis of social reproduction”. The resulting less grain proves “one-fourth of the total corn produced in the US was used for biofuel during 2007-08 as… 11.9 percent five years ago” (Chand, 2008,p, 117). This scarcity directly affects the Global South, who have less financial autonomy to counterbalance decreased supply. This is in conjunction with rising costs due to other peak oil and fuel crop substitutes. Inflating food prices was caused by increased competition for crops, exacerbated due to Brazil’s goals aiming to “replace 10% of the world’s fossil fuels by 2025 with sugar ethanol…Malaysia and Indonesia are expanding…plantations to supply 20% of biodiesel needs”. Presenting an ethical and moral crisis of fuel versus the food in a world living beyond its means, resulting in countries taking protectionist measures. For instance, “Ukraine and other major cereal exporters restricted or banned exports due to poor harvests and to protect domestic prices”, directly impacting what Africa could import. 

Western financial influence

Globalisation meant a forced adoption of liberalisation by the western world, resulting in financial commodification, negatively affecting the global South, through the interlinked nature of the Food Crisis. Investors began “to shift their funds into agricultural commodities and oil” (McMichael,2009, p.282), because of the effects of the Subprime mortgage crisis. This meant “50-60% of the wheat traded on the world’s biggest commodity markets” (Grain, 2008 cited b McMichael, 2009, p.287), resulted in “speculators and traders…having a field day” and creating extensive profits. However, an “artificial cheapening of traded food” meant liberalised African agriculture was hit with a lack of minimum pricing, with Nigeria reducing “duties on rice imports from 100% to 2.7%” (Berazneva, 2013, p.30), thus effectively sending prices into freefall. By December 2006, there was limited import tariffs or sales tax, on items such as “rice, maize, legumes, cotton, palm oil, ox meat, dairy products, poultry products and fish products”. This was corroborated by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission chairman Gary Gensler, “increased speculation in energy and agricultural products have hurt farmers and consumers”. This extreme volatility, is notably linked to the “Egypt salary and wage worker strike attempts… indicating that agflation is generating elemental struggles around the question of social reproduction”. As the World Bank and the IMF advocate liberalisation as the “most efficient system for producing and distributing food”, simultenously defending their own interest. Transnational food corporations and economists defended this by stating it provided “greater liquidity in the markets in the ways that increased their efficiency, rather than distorting their functioning” (Clapp and Helleiner, 2010, p.189). However, these “structural changes mean that while food is often available in local markets, prices are unaffordable for many consumers”, presenting local social and economic inequalities as a consequence of international governance and “macro-level food prices”. It is also explicit that the effects were only felt by the lower classes, as “wealthier households… tended to be more food secure in 2008” creating a vicious cycle. 

Growing demand for food from countries experiencing rapid economic growth

Over the last 50 years there have been extensive “hegemonic transitions” and industrialisation, experienced by, inter alia, South Korea, Mexico, Turkey, Poland, China and India, which would rival the influence of the old western world. As wealth of countries increases, their purchasing power grows in tandem, and there is augmented demand for “car ownership, meat consumption, increased processed food” (McMichael,2009, p.282). These all require more energy, oil and water a facet of which is illustrated by the example of 15,415 litres of water needed to yield a kilo of beef. Numerically the global increases in middle-classes, is “1 billion new consumers in 20 aforementioned ‘middle-income’ countries”, who in “purchasing power parity terms… match that of the US”. These developing countries, apply pressure to the agriculture-producing rural poor, by putting export taxes on “grains and fertilisers…hiking fertilizer costs in parts of Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Somalia” (McMichael, 2009, p.282-3), subsequently increasing scarcity of food, for “the burgeoning urban mass”. Through poverty mapping techniques, we notice that “those in rural municipalities” are more likely to be affected. For example, in Ethiopia, “a country with a large rural population” food prices increased up to “184% higher than baseline domestic prices” (Hadley et al, 2011, p.1535). This is further heightened, by the rise of consumer culture, in these “middle-income” countries, exemplified by “large portion sizes, plate waste and price incentives” (McMichael, 2009, p.282), causing increasing demand. For example, in 2007, “UK consumers threw away 6.7 million tonnes of food. One third of purchased”, highlighting and forecasting the issue if all countries followed this tendency, upon their development and cataclysmic influence of the West. 

Stagnating production and its social and political consequences

As some countries developed, they demanded more food yield, particularly originating from Africa. However the world’s poorest countries’ production was stagnating leading to further shortages and indefinite price rises. “Low domestic food production in 2007…shown by the negatively signed coefficient on the food production index variable” (Berazneva and Lee, 2013, p.35). In conjunction with the aforementioned factors, this created political unrest and social consequences. For example within the Sahel, “the harvest of 2007-2008 registered a gross deficit of 913,000 tons of grains which subsequently had to be imported”, the knock on effect precipitated a need for imports and food aid, further adding pressure to the international climate and causing political unrest. In 2000,”Africa, was the recipient of one-quarter of this aid, some US$18.7 billion”. Moreover, Egypt’s reliance is exemplified by the fact that it “grows only about 60% of its 14 million tonnes of wheat consumed annually” (IRIN, 2010 cited by Berazneva and Lee, 2013, p.35), the shortfall originating from a variety of countries such as “US, Russia, France, Kazakhstan”. The pertinent need to be self-sufficient in response to rising import costs from developing countries was highlighted by the “President of Malawi and acting President of the African Union, Bingu WA Mutharika”. The effects of these shortages were widespread, “dispossession, slum expansion, immiseration and underconsumption”. Agricultural workers were paid poorly, without mobility in “slavish conditions of employment… without visible enslavement” (Arghai, 2003 cited by McMichael, 2009 p.283), whilst “middle class farmers benefited the most”. Urban wage rates were “unlikely to adjust to increases in food price, at least in the short run”. However, those who are wealthier do not suffer from starvation, as “it is a crisis, not of production but access and stability”, and they are not greatly affected by rising costs of basic goods. This lack of instability is entwined with a tangible lack of democracy, minimal government accountability and “cash-strapped African governments”, unable to buffer such high costs. However, to McMichael, “people in Egypt don’t care about democracy and the transfer of power”, when they were effectively starving. The political corruption actively stoked strikes and riots, leaving no other democratic way to share discontent, with only 22 countries “considered to be electoral democracies in 2007”. Therefore, taking Berazneva’s results that the likelihood to riot is dependent on “level of income… increased social welfare and their access to food… decreased likelihood of political conflict”, this is corroborated by Smith who sought “to identify a statistical relationship between food prices and political and social unrest”. 

Despite the restriction of free association in many nations, there were demonstrations “organised by trade unions in Burkina Faso, to sit-ins organized by consumer associations in Senegal” (Berazneva and Lee, 2013,p.31), campaigning against the extreme hunger and poverty to protest against the “anocracies”, who are typically “unstable, ineffective and vulnerable to the onset of political instability”. This theory is substantiated by the 2011 World Development Report which “mapped the same food protests against government effectiveness data to demonstrate that the occurrence of violence was much higher in countries with less effective governance”. Individual government responses varied, but those with greater accountability saw limited riots, thereby containing the impact of the 2007-2008 food crisis. This is illustrated by the “government of Niger who set up a cabinet-level ministry to coordinate action on prices”. This presents a clear reason why some countries in Africa suffered more in 2007-2008 than others, despite being in the same position agriculturally. Although, the rural poor are said to suffer more than urban poor, there is evidence that “the odds of riots are estimated to be 13 times greater if a country has an urban agglomeration with population over 1 million “ (Berazneva and Lee, 2013, p,35) “This reliance could be due to their dependence” on the formal provision of basic needs and services such as health, infrastructure, education and shelter” (Berazneva and Lee, 2013, p.35) and ease of mobilisation to protest, compared to rural areas. Urban uprisings including the 2007 ones in Cairo and Mahalla al-Kobra, regarding “shortages of the subsidised bread baladi” (Berazneva and Lee, 2013, p.35) and it is estimated that “if Egypt did not have an urban center (sic) of more than 1 million people, it’s predicted probability of riots would fall from 99% to 38%”. Following this principle, “Niger’s low level of urbanisation (16% according to WFI)” is a likely cause for a lack of riots, in fact if it had a “large urban center, the likelihood of riots would increase by 53-56%”. This statistically supports this hypothesis. 

Natural causes

One of the uncontrollable natural causes of the 2007-08 Global food crisis, was the rising demand due to population growth, especially in “less developed regions, whose population is projected to rise from 5.4 billion in 2007 to 7.9 billion in 2050”, with 43% in growing urban centres, with extensive unemployment as well as risk of political violence. Moreover, although the population is growing organically in less developed countries, there is also “net migration from developing to developed countries, which is expected to average 2.3 billion persons annually”. This is in tandem with the rising consumer culture and “middle income” countries. This demand gap, meant in 2007-08 that, Africa was first to be affected. Another natural issue causing further ramifications for this issue, was an instrumental variable of environmental change, manifesting further shortages and pressure on the price of wheat. For example, Niger in 2005, experienced a drought which further “demonstrated the vulnerability of African nations to food insecurity”. The lack of rain-fed agriculture lead into the poverty cycle produced by climate change, as on average “95% of the food is grown under rain-fed agriculture”, thus representing a key industry. African governments cannot afford to pay for water transfer schemes to maintain agricultural output, like California does from Colorado. Moreover, weatherwise there was an “El Niño warm event which peaked in December of 2006 and began to dissipate during January of 2007”. Warmer than average waters in the Pacific Ocean, meant East Africa experienced drier conditions, limiting how much food could be grown. The increased frequency of these challenging meteorological events has been intensified by Climate Change. This is coupled with the aforementioned shift to the cities, under population growth. Greater urban areas increase the amount of sunlight absorbed by concrete or tarmac, known as the Albedo. This then leads to urban heat, contributing to the process of climate change and food production.

Conclusion

Fundamentally, the global food crisis affected Africa due to an extreme elitist disconnect both “within and between nations, distorting the potential to feed the world equitably” (Lang, 2010, p.87). This catastrophe predominantly affected the agricultural poor and caused social and political unrest among the urban workers as they were more “susceptible to other shocks that may make them more vulnerable to food insecurity”, due to the correlation of fossil fuel dependence and the subsequent substitution of grains for biofuel. These put excessive pressure on the agricultural sphere to find new solutions and limiting available imports for Africa. The “sanctioned corporate advantage” of financialisation and liberalisation, meant Western pressure put Africa at a serious economic disadvantage, unable to compete technologically, placing strain on food prices to compete with the Global North for imports. In essence Western financiers made a profit at the expense of developing countries livelihoods and their accessibility to food and there was no end to the consequent price volatility or the deepening of the cultural and economic rift between the Global North and South. This meant the culmination of natural causes such as population pressures, food riots and social unrest, causing a “perfect storm”, especially when combined with the “inability of national governments and the international community to adequately deal with it” (Beraneza and Lee, 2010, p.28). A lack of internal governance, no social appeasement and political unrest, put Africa in an even weaker position to compete on the world stage. To conclude, this essay has taken all natural and man made factors into consideration, due to the “knock-on effect”, as often one-cause and effect would not happen without the other. For example, the consequences of climate change and deficiency of water is a reason for stagnating production in the world’s poorest countries. As well as the “extent to which oil and food markets have become highly interdependent”. All culminating in the biggest agricultural crisis occurring due to decisions made in the developed world at the expense of developing countries. 

16 August 2021

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