The problem with cheap food

Raj Patel

Raj Patel: The Arabian Spring began with a winter of frustration.

Tess Vigeland: Commentator Raj Patel.

Patel: In North Africa, the urban poor couldn't afford the rising prices of staples like bread and milk. Starting in Algeria, they took to the streets. And, at least in Tunisia, it worked. One of last things that former President Ben Ali did was to slash the price of bread, milk and sugar.

It didn't save Ben Ali's presidency. But cheap food has been the way that governments around the world have kept the lid on urban discontent for more than 2,000 years. We do it in the U.S. too. Cheap food has been a policy choice for decades, bought with a great chain of subsidy for big agriculture and big food.

That's why we spend far less on food at the checkout than pretty much any other industrial country -- the Japanese, for example, spend more than twice as much of their household income to eat than we do.

Of course, there are worries that our dollar burgers aren't as good for you as European or Asian cheap eats. Recently First Lady Michelle Obama did her bit to address that by backing Walmart's drive to sell cheap organic produce to the poor.

The trouble with this is that cheap food addresses the symptom of hunger rather than its cause. It doesn't matter how cheap cheap food is -- if people are unemployed or don't have the money to buy it, they still go hungry. That's why a record 50 million Americans are food insecure today.

The way to fight hunger in America isn't to give money to big ag and big food. Nor does the answer lie in trimming environmental or labor standards to keep prices low. It's to create jobs with living wages so that instead of being cheap, food becomes affordable to everyone.

America is no stranger to the food protest. Food rebellions predate the American revolution -- and food riots led by women resulted in women's right to vote less than a century ago right here in the United States. In an era of rising prices and persistent unemployment, we can expect not only more food rebellions around the world, but perhaps for them to happen much closer to home.

Vigeland: Raj Patel is the author of the "Value of Nothing." Got a comment? Send 'em in -- click on the contact link. You can also tweet us and post on our Facebook page.

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