Food Prices and Terrible Choices

Economists have too many hands. On the one hand, they may declare something good. On the other hand, they may say, “well, not so much.” Some of them may have even a third or fourth hand. My ex-boss, an economist himself, once remarked that he wished he could chop off some of these hands.

In the last couple of weeks, I plunged right into an ocean of economist hands as I sat down to do a minor research into this troubling phenomenon of skyrocketing food prices.

The first “hand” pointed out that the demand for food (and commodities in general) has surged due to the increase in the population and changing consumption patterns in the emerging giants of Asia. The well-known demand and supply paradigm explains the price surge, it would seem. Is it as simple as that?

On the other hand, more and more food crops are being diverted into bio-fuel production. Is the bio-fuel demand the root cause? Bio-fuels are attractive because of the astronomical crude oil prices, which drive up the prices of everything. Is the recent OPEC windfall driving the price hikes? What about the food subsidies in wealthy nations that skew the market in their favour?

Yet another economics hand puts the blame squarely on the supply side. It points an unwavering finger at the poor weather in food producing countries, and the panic measures imposed on the supply chain, such as export bans and smaller scale hoarding, that drive up the prices.

I’m no economist, and I would like just one hand, one opinion, that I can count on. In my untrained view, I suspect that the speculation in commodities market may be driving the prices up. I felt vindicated in my suspicions when I read a recent US senate testimony where a well-known hedge fund manager, Michael Masters, shed light on the financial labyrinth of futures transactions and legal loopholes through which enormous profits were generated in commodity speculation.

The real reasons behind the food crisis are likely to be a combination of all these factors. But the crisis itself is a silent tsunami sweeping the world, as the UN World Food Program puts it.

Increase in the food prices, though unpleasant, is not such a big deal for a large number of Singaporeans. With our first world income, most of us spend about 20% of our salary on food. If it becomes 30% as a result of a 50% increase in the prices, we certainly won’t like it, but we won’t suffer that much. We may have to cut down on the taxi rides, or fine-dining, but it is not the end of our world.

If we are in the top 10% of the households, we may not even notice the increase. The impact of the high food prices on our lifestyle will be minimal — say, a four-star holiday instead of a five-star one.

It is a different story near the bottom. If we earn less than $1000 a month, and we are forced to spend $750 instead of $500 on food, it may mean a choice between an MRT ride and legging it. At that level, the increase in food prices does hurt us as our grim choices become limited.

But there are people in this world who face a much harsher reality as the prices shoot up with no end in sight. Their choices are often as terrible as Sophie’s choice. Which child goes to sleep hungry tonight? Medicine for the sick one or food for the rest?

We are all powerless against the juggernaut of market forces creating the food crisis. Although we cannot realistically change the course of this silent tsunami, let’s at least try not to exacerbate the situation through waste. Buy only what you will use, and use only what you need to. Even if we cannot help those who will invariably go hungry, let’s not insult them by throwing away what they will die yearning for. Hunger is a terrible thing. If you don’t believe me, try fasting for a day. Well, try it even if you do — for it may help someone somewhere.


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