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By Andy Mannle | Wednesday, 16 April 2008
“We are now looking at a food situation unlike any we’ve seen before,” Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute announced this morning at a press conference on the fallout from skyrocketing food prices around the world.
“We’re seeing spreading social unrest and instability in scores of countries around the world. The list of failing states is getting longer year by year, and is likely to increase dramatically as governments face potentially unmanageable shortages.”
In seven of the last eight years world grain consumption exceeded production, and carry-over stocks have dropped to a 55 day supply, the lowest ever.
With more people in the world today, and the world’s markets more closely integrated than ever, says Brown, “We are one poor harvest away from chaos.”
Food Crises Unfolding Across the Globe
“What we’re beginning to see in this record increase in grain and food prices - which is a worldwide phenomenon - are signs that the social order is breaking down in some places,” says Brown.
In Thailand - a fairly stable country – there’s been an outbreak of rice rustling, with people raiding ripe fields at midnight in five separate provinces. Farmers have taken to guarding remote fields with shotguns.
In Darfur, the World Food Programme responsible for getting food to 2 million refugees, has had 56 grain trucks hi-jacked trying to cross Libya in the last three months. Twenty-four of the drivers are still unnaccounted for, and the food being delivered to the camps has been cut in half. This could result in widespread starvation if a solution isn’t found soon.
In Bangladesh in the last few days 10,000 textile workers have been striking and rioting because the price of rice has doubled, but their wages have not increased at all. “They’re caught in an impossible situation,” says Brown.
World Bank President Robert Zoellick recently reported Haiti’s Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis was deposed over food prices there that have led to more than a week of rioting, and caused multiple deaths including a fatal attack on a UN peacekeeper. “So now we have seen the first government to fall as a result of the food situation,” says Brown.
Traditionally, food shortages have been event-driven: “A poor harvest in Soviet Union in 1972 for example, a monsoon failure in India, or crop withering heat wave in the western United States,” says Brown. “This situation is a systemic one. One where we have to alter basic trends, in some case reverse basic trends. And that’s going to be difficult. That’s what makes this situation so different from what we’ve seen in the past.”
The current crisis in global grain production is different in three ways:
1. Driven by Systemic Trends not Single Events – In the past price rises have been driven by poor harvests. In that case, the challenge is to make it to the next harvest, a one-year challenge. But this is trend driven. And these trends are well-established, gaining momentum, and all of them are having a cumulative effect on world food balance.
2. Not a Temporary Situation – “This is going to last for some time.” Nobody knows how long exactly, because that depends on what governments are able to do, “and how effectively we can mobilize to deal with the causes of the problem.”
3. Affects More People than Any in the Past – “For two reasons: one, there are more people in the world; two, it is affecting the entire world.” Everybody is integrated into the world food economy, so price rises in one place or one crop can affect prices of other crops in other countries. That makes this a global crisis with hundreds of millions of people at risk.
Emerging Politics of Scarcity
Poor people are affected much more by this, says Brown. In developed countries food costs account for 10 – 20% of people’s income, while in poorer countries people routinely spend over half their money on food. “When prices double, hundreds of millions of people are going to be caught in an impossible situation.”
“Another thing we see when the price of food rises, is that a politics of scarcity emerges.” Wheat exporting countries like Russia, Argentina, and the Ukraine have begun restricting wheat exports to keep food prices down domestically. Cambodia, Vietnam, and Egypt have all restricted rice exports, which makes the world market even tighter than it would otherwise be. When Egypt announced it was banning the export of rice, the price in Asia went up 30% in matter of days, says Brown.
“This is not a just a food shortage, but a situation that is chronic in nature, we’re just on the edge of it. It’s going to get far worse in the months and years ahead….That could create a degree of instability we have not yet seen in peacetime. That’s the nature of this challenge. And I don’t think the world, and certainly Washington has yet quite realized the dimension, the seriousness of the problem we’re facing.”
Brown notes several trends that are driving our increased demands for food:
1. Increased Population: With over 70 million people added to the population each year, and almost that number projected for each of the next 40 years: “You don’t have to be an agronomist to understand that if you keep adding 70 million people to a finite resource space, ie the earth itself, you’re going to run into trouble. And a lot of countries are in trouble now on the food population front.”
2. Billions Moving Up the Food Chain: “There are some 4 billion people who want to move up food chain, consuming more grain-intensive meat, milk eggs, dairy.
3. US Ethanol Production: “The third trend is one that has literally exploded in the last few years - the US use of grain to produce ethanol.” Brown notes that in the last two years growth in grain consumption jumped from 20 million tons a year to 50 million tons a year. In other words, “The growth in world demand for grain from US ethanol distilleries exceeds the growth in world demand for grain from all other sources. It is a huge new factor in the world market, and that’s one reason why farmers are struggling so much.”
During food shortages of the past we’ve tended to expand food production, but in the current situation that means “more over pumping, or plowing more marginal land,” says Brown, neither of which is a solution. Several trends limit our ability to increase food production:
1. Losing Crop Land: “Whether it’s housing developments moving up California’s Central Valley, or thousands of new factories being built in Yangtze River basin in China, it’s taking a lot of prime crop land,” which is an important new trend affecting world food production, Brown notes. And options for new crop land mean clearing tropical rainforests in the Amazon and Congo Basins, or in Indonesia, which has devastating environmental repercussions. “So crop land is becoming a key issue; while population continues to grow, crop land area does not.”
2. Falling Water Tables: “Demand for grain is outrunning the world’s water supply, which is why half the world’s people live in countries where the water table is falling.” While this issue hasn’t been discussed much in the recent articles on falling grain supplies, “water is one of the keys to food security,” says Brown.
In Yemen, where 22 million people live, the grain harvest has declined 60% over last 25 years as its aquifer is depleted. In China, the northern water tables, where much of their wheat is produced, are falling everywhere, and their wheat harvest has dropped 15% in the last 10 years largely because of the loss of irrigation water. In India, the World Bank noted that 175 million people are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. As these aquifers are depleted, we’re likely to see a decline in grain harvest. Saudi Arabia announced in January that they are phasing out all irrigated grain production by 2016 because their major aquifer – already a half mile deep – is being depleted. They will reduce their harvest by one-eighth each year, and after that they’ll be importing all of their grain.
3. Technology Won't Save Us: “The backlog of unused agricultural technology is dwindling,” says Brown. While farmers were able to raise productivity over 2% a year for nearly forty years, in the last 15 years that has dropped to 1.2% a year. Likewise, experiments with genetically modified crops have made more species more resistant, but they haven’t substantially increased yields.
What Can We Do?
The government has announced that it will provide $200 million dollars for emergency food assistance. While that will buy enough rice to feed 1 million people for a year, “This is literally a drop in the bucket,” says Brown. Instead, he offers several urgent steps we must take to improve the situation.