Sunday, July 13, 2008

You, Me and the Food Price Crisis

Yesterday I paid $1.75 for one tomato.  I was scrabbling around for a quick lunch to serve my mom, who is visiting from Atlanta.  Cheese and tomato sandwiches are always a good bet, so as I completed some morning errands I popped into a local organic supermarket . I try to make most of my household purchases organic and free-range, so I am used to having to pay a bit more for food.  But I was surprised: almost two dollars for one tomato.  Now don't worry, I am not about to whine about the price, because I try hard to be aware of the privilege I have in being able to pick and choose the types of food in my pantry.  In fact, I raise this point because my fleeting moment of surprise is somewhat ridiculous when people all over the world--including the United States--are struggling with food prices that are rising at double digit rates, and that is if they can find the food to purchase.

Analysts have listed a "perfect storm" of reasons for the crisis.  A recent NY Times editorial dubbed the prime consequence "Man-Made Hunger" created by irresponsible government farm subsidies and opportunistic energy policies.  There have been some factors outside the power of governments, such as drought, but another crisis-creating factor cited often is exponential consumer consumption in places like China and India.  Rethinking consumption, as I describe in Chapter 10 of my book, is something I believe that consumers in United States have a special obligation to do, for the benefit of both producers and consumers around the world.  I have been pondering how conscious consumers like you and I can best react to the growing economic global crisis.  

Certainly we can advocate for fairer government policies and we can tackle world-wide environmental issues like climate change that increase the likelihood of drought.  But what can we do on a personal level?  Many of us have been redoubling our efforts to live greener lives.   My home of Washington, DC even has a rock radio station that offers its listeners tips to protect the planet.   Although I am, of course, very gratified that more and more individuals and communities are thinking about ways they can recycle office paper, water bottles  and the like, I fear we are forgetting that "recycling" is the third R in a mantra to REDUCE, REUSE and then RECYCLE.  The first step is to reduce the number of things that we buy.  Reduction lowers the amount of waste that is created by excess, decreases the use of energy, and simplifies our complicated lives.  When we do need to bring a new item into our lives, we can take the chance to reuse something that is still useful, whether we buy it at a consignment or thrift store or obtain it free-of-charge from a community service such as the freecycle network.

As we consider growing poverty and hunger around the world, as we feel our own pocketbooks shrink in the face of $4.00 a gallon gasoline, I believe that now is the time to consider how many things we are buying.  Our daily lives can impact the daily lives of others even as we work through our own challenges.  In tough economic times it is easy to get fearful about our futures, to drown out the worries of others, but I believe the principles of Fair Trade--such as promoting sustainability and long-term partnerships--can help us navigate confusing and challenging times. If you have ideas for how, please post a comment.

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