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Behind the Headlines: More Than Just a Bacon Shortage

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In a unique take on daily news hits, Free The Children founders Craig and Marc Kielburger go behind the headlines to explore how the stories you read are connected to the causes you care about. You'll never read the news in the same way again.

The headline that got our attention: "Just how bad is this bacon shortage?" (otherwise known as the food crisis)

Rumours of an impending bacon shortage have been greatly exaggerated. Mass panic ensued this week when shrinking herds foreshadowed a pork shortage in 2013, according to Britain's National Pig Association (yes, this is a thing that actually exists). Herds are dwindling, the association said, due to a spike in corn and soy-based feed prices after drought depleted crops.

In preparation for the coming "Aporkalypse," Major League Eating (another thing that actually exists) suspended all bacon-eating contests. Seriously.

Then, just days after the pork hit the fan, the New England Complex Science Institute released a study that mathematically links spikes in world food prices with global riots. The catalyst for the Arab Spring is widely believed to be food prices, but this study injects renewed validity to the theory using the United Nation's FAO Food Price Index (a compilation of international food prices) to predict social unrest, NPR reported. This same Cambridge-based research is predicting another surge of riots.

So the alleged pork "fiasco" was not for want of real news: there is a serious conversation to be had. Not just about the perfect storm brewing in the rise of corn, wheat and fuel prices that's poised to increase food costs for the consumer. But also, what's really behind all of this, and where we're headed.

It doesn't take an economist or a commodity trader to determine that this spike in prices is unsettling. Millions of people live in the part of the world where food cost increases might lead to rioting. And in our parts, in preparation for the pork shortage, we have forfeited hot dog eating contests. Sure, the sacrifice seems trivial now.

But in all seriousness, we should pay more attention to food prices and food security in North America.
As a result of this summer's drought, corn-based animal feed is now a luxury food item. And it might not be long before the consequences trickle down the supply chain to the consumer. This might not seem like a big deal, but unaffordable corn is a relatable symptom of a widespread and often abstract problem: global warming. This problem is so pervasive that it's become cultural white noise. But despite damaging effects, it's rarely linked to concerns for local food security.

Bear with us, because we know you've heard this one before. Higher temperatures have led to volatile and extreme weather conditions, including the catastrophic recent drought. The drought then depleted crops, which drove up the price of food staples (for humans and pigs, among other mammals) in affected countries, and in their import countries.

Like many, we suspect global warming is behind this. A recent survey found that only two per cent of Canadians don't believe in climate change. So we hear it, we get it, and so isn't it time to do something about it?

Not just because of global disaster, or even global food riots, but because of local hunger. Those North Americans already struggling to make ends meet are in for an even bigger struggle.

Drought isn't something that happens only to small-scale farmers in rural Kenya. It happens in the corn Mecca of the Midwestern United States -- the world's largest agricultural exporter. That's the thing about global warming, it's global. Eventually, it's going to be in your own backyard. So let's consider how the rising price of food is going to affect Canadians.

True, most can absorb a slight increase in their grocery bill. But others, those for whom a large portion of household income is spent on food, won't be able to afford fresh produce or wheat staples if consumer prices spike.

We're thinking of the 850,000 Canadians who rely on food banks every month--or even the 47 per cent of Canadians living paycheque to paycheque.

Part of being food secure is having access (access includes affordability) to healthy food. Corn, the pork fed with corn, wheat, soy beans -- basically the things set to hike up in price. And though Canada's economy is growing, lower-level incomes are stagnating.

Bottom line for those of us lucky enough to shop for our veggies in sprawling strip malls: how many bacon shortages do we need to almost live through before we change habits that hurt global warming?

Save the bacon
Of course we should conserve water and electricity and bike to work. But donating to your local food bank is also an important (and more immediate) solution for the effects of global warming on local hunger. Instead of emptying your cupboards of the family's least favourite soup flavours, call ahead to your local food bank and find out which supplies are running low. There's usually a dearth of healthy foods, baby formula and whole wheat staples like rice and pasta on food bank shelves.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. It's youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com or follow
Craig on Twitter at @craigkielburger