What has grown most in the pandemic? Billionaire bank balances – and food bank queues

·3 min read

Is food made out of gold now? Because it’s starting to seem that way. Every time I go to my (extremely not fancy) local New York supermarket I am shocked at how expensive groceries have become. Prices seem to jump every month – in fact, food prices are up 3.5% compared with last spring, according to the US Department of Agriculture. While that might not sound extreme, it adds up. And it’s going to keep going. “People will have to get used to paying more for food,” a food distribution expert told Bloomberg recently. “It’s only going to get worse.”

The US, of course, isn’t the only place where filling your belly is starting to cost an arm and a leg. Food prices are rocketing globally, driving millions into hunger. In Nigeria, food inflation rose to 22.95% in March. In Indonesia, tofu is now 30% more expensive than it was last year. In Lebanon, where nearly half the population lives in poverty, food is about five times as expensive as it was in 2019. In Russia, food prices rose 7.7% over the last year. In the UK, the pandemic has increased food insecurity; as many as 10% of people now use food banks.

There are numerous reasons why food prices are rising around the world, ranging from the climate crisis and a spike in commodity prices to supply chain issues caused by the pandemic. But, please, let’s not pretend a drastic increase in food prices and world hunger is a fiendishly complex problem no one can solve. To quote Mahatma Gandhi: “There’s enough on this planet for everyone’s needs but not everyone’s greed.” In New York, there are at least three empty houses for each homeless person. In the US, food waste is estimated to be between 30 and 40% of the food supply; while last year, nearly one in four households experienced food insecurity. I live in the richest country in the world and yet every week I see people in my neighbourhood queueing up at food banks. Every week, those lines get longer. Which is weird because, last time I checked, the US was a capitalist country. And from everything I’ve heard, socialism brings breadlines and capitalism brings efficiency and prosperity! Apparently, someone forgot to tell hungry Americans this.

Of course, the wonderful thing about capitalism is that one man’s disaster is another man’s economic opportunity. In the past, rising food prices have been blamed on banks speculating in agricultural commodities. Which is very profitable. In 2012, Goldman Sachs made about $400m (£251m) from food speculation; around the same time, tens of millions of people were pushed into poverty because of food prices. I don’t know how much banks are making from the current food crisis, but I do know that, thanks to the coronavirus crisis, the 1% are richer than ever. Billionaires collectively gained $1.1tn in 2020; they are now nearly 40% richer than they were before the pandemic. While large swathes of the world don’t know how they are going to put food on the table, billionaires don’t seem to know what to do with all their cash. Jeff Bezos is reported to be buying a $500m superyacht; the boat is so big that it needs its own “support yacht”.

Do you think billionaires like Bezos ever stop and worry about the fact that gross inequality is inevitably going to lead to social unrest? Do you think they worry that, as food prices continue to rocket, people are going to get so hungry they’re going to think about eating the rich? Yes, of course they worry about this. Why else do you think the world’s richest men are so obsessed with going to space? The world has enough resources to nourish us all but for some people, there’s no such thing as enough.

  • Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist

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