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Sunday, 30 January 2011

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World on the brink of another food crisis

Remember the 2008 global food crisis? In case you have forgotten what happened three years ago, another food crisis is looming. Last year ended with food prices at their highest since 2008.

That added 100 million people to those suffering from hunger throughout the world (one billion already) and millions more will go hungry if the world cannot ensure food security. With food prices going up, many more will be left out of the food chain as well.

Price surges for food staples have been shocking, to say the least. During last year's second half alone, grain prices skyrocketed by 57 per cent, food oils and fats ran up almost as much and sugar soared 77 per cent. Vegetables have joined the fray in most countries.

Cereal prices started climbing in the second half of 2010 as drought and fires slashed production in Russia and Ukraine, two of the world's largest producers. Canada, another major wheat producer, was also hit by extremely bad weather, and an export ban imposed by Russia added to the woes.

Three years ago, there was looting in Haiti, deadly fights over bread in Egypt, and protests from Vietnam to Bolivia over food prices and distribution. This time, the focus is on Algeria, Tunisia and Jordan.

Three years ago, the crisis originated in Australia. This time, droughts in Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe are to blame.

There are many who wonder whether this is a start of another global catastrophe over food prices.

The United Nations also sounded the alarm as the Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) monthly food price index hit a record high in December last year.

In fact, scientists are now looking at a major food crisis within the next 20 years, though signs are already appearing as food prices keep soaring. One can imagine the consequences, as the planet will have nine billion people before 2050.

The just-released Global Food and Farming Futures study, based on contributions from more than 400 experts in 35 countries, said that in real terms, the price of key crops would increase by between 50 and 100 percent over the next 40 years.

It concluded that without major changes in agricultural production, including far greater use of controversial genetically modified crops, food production would not be able to keep pace with demand in the coming years. Organic agriculture will not be able to meet a 70 percent rise in demand, it notes. "GMO crops and cloned livestock should not be excluded simply on ethical or moral grounds," the report added.

The report suggests that farmers will have to grow substantially more food from roughly the same amount of land while simultaneously cutting greenhouse gases by up to 60 percent by 2050.

Even worse is the fact that a lot of food is wasted - up to a third of all food grown. In developing countries the losses are caused by poor transport, storage and refrigeration, while in richer countries the wastage most often is caused by consumers throwing away food.

Indeed, there is an acute lack of equity in the world as far as food is concerned. One billion people go hungry daily, one billion more lack the vitamins and minerals necessary for a healthy life, while one billion people in the West are obese and substantially over-consuming.

The report's warning was echoed by Jacques Diouf, Director General of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation who has called for reforming the world's agricultural system and practices.

It has pointed out that short-term policy actions, especially curbs on exports, could have harmful effects in the longer term and even aggravate the situation.

In statement put on its website, the organisation pointed out at the 2007-08 crisis in the global food market as an example of how such decisions can exacerbate the situation rather than mitigate it.

"Export restrictions, for example, applied by some surplus food-producing countries, exacerbated the global food market situation during the 2007-2008 crisis.

The FAO strongly advises against such measures, as they often provoke more uncertainty and disruption on world markets and drive prices up further, while depressing prices domestically and hence curtailing incentives to produce more food," it said.

The statement said that low income food deficit countries have been hit hard by high food prices in recent years and many of them had to pay larger food import bills. People affected by higher food prices are not food buyers such as urban residents.

Sustainable agriculture is still the key to addressing the food crisis. FAO guidelines favour community seed production and farmer groups or cooperatives to enhance access to both traditional and improved seed varieties at the community level. Countries should apply integrated pest management, based on a thorough understanding of agro-ecosystems that will allow farmers to reduce the use of pesticides.

Water usage is another critical area, because freshwater resources available for agriculture are also dwindling. Farmers should turn their attention to methods such as drip irrigation and rainwater harvesting as a solution.

These two reports are not the only ones to paint a gloomy picture of harsh times ahead.

The Agrimonde project, conducted by two leading research institutes in France, concluded that nothing short of a food revolution was needed to avoid mass famine.

Patrick Caron, an Agrimonde co-author, said: "World agriculture lies at the heart of major worldwide challenges, and this report tells us why business as usual is not an option."

But there is hope on the horizon.

Both the UK and French studies have found that a global population of more than nine billion could be fed as long as agricultural yields were boosted, waste was drastically reduced, and distribution improved.

There is little doubt that the world is entering what some food scientists and economists are calling "a danger territory".

"This may translate into a greater number of people going hungry and street demonstrations," says Richard Henry, lead economist at the Agribusiness Department of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the investment arm of the World Bank. "If we look at the basic food basket for a family, it is a situation which is not very different from (2008)".

One silver lining in our part of the world is that rice stocks are available in plenty. Most developing countries had experienced good harvests and were unaffected by the global price hike to some extent.

But that does not mean that we can be complacent. Action has to be taken to increase agricultural output and face any impending threat of a food crisis.

 

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