Sci Dev Net Editorial: Food security demands diversity
The challenge calls for divergent solutions — small-scale, tech-based initiatives as much as long-term research.
– Food security relies on inter-related factors that go beyond just ‘producing more’
– Better seed, better storage, less waste, and diversified crops are all needed
– Providing enough good food for all will need a multi-pronged approach
Science’s role in growing diverse, nutritious food
– There will be ten billion mouths to feed by 2050, so food production must rise
– Science can offer tools and strategies but policies must change, too
– In particular, ways to get science in the hands of farmers are vital
Climate change threatens world food supply, panel warns
(New York Times via Globe & Mail) The [leaked] draft report warns that sweeping effects of climate change are already being seen across the planet, and are likely to intensify as human emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise.
Echoing past findings, the draft report points out that land ice is melting worldwide, leading to a rise of the sea that is putting coastal communities at increased risk of flooding. It describes a natural world in turmoil as plants and animals attempt to migrate to escape rising temperatures, and warns that many could go extinct. Saving a significant fraction of the world’s biological diversity may require far more aggressive human management of natural systems, the report declares.
Dutch envoy Verburg elected as head of World Food Security group
Gerda Verburg, elected to of the Committee on World Food Security, wants to see the group tighten its focus so it can better deliver on its goals. Verburg also expects CWFS to improve its outreach capacity, acting as a platform for discussion and ideas, and become more collaborative with Rome-based agencies. Devex.com (free registration) (10/15),Thomson Reuters Foundation (10/14), The Guardian (London) (10/14), IRINNews.org (10/14)
Food crisis fears prompt UN wake-up call to world leaders
United Nations urges governments to do more to support small farmers to curb hunger, poverty and climate change
Action needed to stem future food crises, UNCTAD warns
(The Guardian) Climate change requires immediate movement on sustainable agricultural practices to avoid disruptions in food security, especially in poorer countries, says a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report. Greater emphasis is needed on combating poverty and on giving the poor access to food that’s wholesome and affordable, the report argues.
The 2013 Trade and Environment Review, calls on governments to “wake up before it is too late” and shift rapidly towards farming models that promote a greater variety of crops, reduced fertiliser use and stronger links between small farms and local consumers.
Persistent rural poverty, global hunger, population growth and environmental concerns must be treated as a collective crisis, argues the report, which criticises the international response to the 2008 food-price crisis for focusing on technical “quick-fixes”. (19 September)
We Are Now One Year Away From Global Riots, Complex Systems Theorists Say
What’s the number one reason we riot? The plausible, justifiable motivations of trampled-upon humanfolk to fight back are many—poverty, oppression, disenfranchisement, etc—but the big one is more primal than any of the above. It’s hunger, plain and simple. If there’s a single factor that reliably sparks social unrest, it’s food becoming too scarce or too expensive. So argues a group of complex systems theorists in Cambridge, and it makes sense.
In a 2011 paper, researchers at the Complex Systems Institute unveiled a model that accurately explained why the waves of unrest that swept the world in 2008 and 2011 crashed when they did. The number one determinant was soaring food prices. Their model identified a precise threshold for global food prices that, if breached, would lead to worldwide unrest. (November 2012)
The Plight of the Honeybee
Mass deaths in bee colonies may mean disaster for farmers–and your favorite foods You can thank the Apis mellifera, better known as the Western honeybee, for 1 in every 3 mouthfuls you’ll eat today. Honeybees — which pollinate crops like apples, blueberries and cucumbers — are the “glue that holds our agricultural system together,” as the journalist Hannah Nordhaus put it in her 2011 book The Beekeeper’s Lament. But that glue is failing. Bee hives are dying off or disappearing thanks to a still-unsolved malady called colony collapse disorder (CCD), so much so that commercial beekeepers are being pushed out of the business. So what’s killing the honeybees? Pesticides — including a new class called neonicotinoids — seem to be harming bees even at what should be safe levels. Biological threats like the Varroa mite are killing off colonies directly and spreading deadly diseases. As our farms become monocultures of commodity crops like wheat and corn — plants that provide little pollen for foraging bees — honeybees are literally starving to death. If we don’t do something, there may not be enough honeybees to meet the pollination demands for valuable crops. But more than that, in a world where up to 100,000 species go extinct each year, the vanishing honeybee could be the herald of a permanently diminished planet. (19 August)
George Monbiot: DDT 2.0 Most people [The Guardian] who read this newspaper will be aware by now of the evidence fingering neonicotinoids as a major cause of the decline of bees and other pollinators. These pesticides can be applied to the seeds of crops, and they remain in the plant as it grows, killing the insects which eat it. The quantities required to destroy insect life are astonishingly small: by volume these poisons are 10,000 times as powerful as DDT. When honeybees are exposed to just 5 nanogrammes of neonicotinoids, half of them will die. As bees, hoverflies, butterflies, moths, beetles and other pollinators feed from the flowers of treated crops, they are, it seems, able to absorb enough of the pesticide to compromise their survival. But only a tiny proportion of the neonicotinoids that farmers use enter the pollen or nectar of the flower. Studies conducted so far suggest that only between 1.6 and 20% of the pesticide used for dressing seeds is actually absorbed by the crop: a far lower rate even than when toxins are sprayed onto leaves. Some of the residue blows off as dust, which is likely to wreak havoc among the populations of many species of insects in hedgerows and surrounding habitats. But the great majority – Goulson says “typically more than 90%” – of the pesticide applied to the seeds enters the soil.
Honeybee crisis: What’s killing the bees?
(CBS) The plight of the honeybees is growing more serious each year. The U.S. lost 31 percent of its colonies last winter and as the bees die off, the threat to $15 billion-worth of U.S. agriculture is becoming a major concern.
Social media helping Kenyan farmers to better grow crops
Young farmers in Kenya are using social media to gain information about local weather and climate change and how they affect crops. As a result, they are better equipped to make decisions on planning and planting, writes Caleb Kemboi. Thomson Reuters Foundation (7/16)
‘The real threat to our future is peak water’
As population rises, overpumping means some nations have reached peak water, which threatens food supply, says Lester Brown
(The Guardian) We drink on average four litres of water per day, in one form or another, but the food we eat each day requires 2,000 litres of water to produce, or 500 times as much. Getting enough water to drink is relatively easy, but finding enough to produce the ever-growing quantities of grain the world consumes is another matter.
Biofuels Get a Dubious Boost
(IPS) – In an unexpected move, European parliamentarians have approved a new biofuel regulation that will take emissions from indirect land use change into account. The new text allows the biofuel sector to expand, sending a clear signal to world food markets and jeopardising food security for the world’s poorest.
The European Parliament’s Environment Committee (ENVI) voted Thursday in favour of a proposal that limits the use of biofuels to 5.5 percent. This percentage is a compromise between the European Greens who asked for a cap of three percent and the centre-right European People’s Party that wanted a cap of 6.5 percent.
The cap was introduced by the European Commission a year ago after criticism that the policy boosted food prices, causing hunger in developing nations.
Chinese Imports Of Oilseeds, Dairy, Coarse Grains To Jump; Agribusiness Growth Impact On Resources, Environment Poses Uncertainty
(International Business Times) An annual outlook published on Thursday by the Food and Agricultural Organization and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, said China, with its growing population, higher incomes and rising consumption, will significantly influence world markets over the next 10 years.
“The challenge is clear: feeding China in the context of its rapid economic growth and limited resource constraints is a daunting task,” the Financial Times quoted the report as saying. “China’s consumption growth will slightly outpace its production growth.”
The forecast comes at a time when China’s agribusiness growth is fueling a trend of mergers in the global food industry. China’s Shuanghui last week acquired leading American pork producer Smithfield Foods for $7 billion, the largest Chinese acquisition of a U.S. company till date.
China is already the world’s largest pork producer and consumer and has been mostly self-sufficient in pork supply. However, maintaining its current self-sufficiency levels over the next 10 years will be a challenge, the report said.
The Financial Times report also noted that commodities trading houses such as Archer Daniels Midland and Marubeni have spent $10 billion over the past year buying grain traders in Australia and the U.S., keeping the Chinese food market in mind.
Mexico – Ground Zero in the Fight for the Future of Maize
(IPS) Civil society organisations are raising their guard against the possibility that the government of conservative President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) may approve commercial cultivation of transgenic maize, a move widely condemned by environmentalists and other activists, academics, and small and medium producers due to the risks it poses.
In September, the U.S. corporations Monsanto, Pioneer and Dow Agrosciences presented six applications for commercial plantations of transgenic maize on more than two million hectares in the northwestern state of Sinaloa and the northeastern state of Tamaulipas.
Moreover, in January these companies and Syngenta presented 11 applications for pilot and experimental plots to grow transgenic corn on 622 hectares in the northern states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, Sinaloa and Baja California. And Monsanto has applied for an additional plantation in an unspecified area in the north of the country.
Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed: Why food riots are likely to become the new normal
The link between intensifying inequality, debt, climate change, fossil fuel dependency and the global food crisis is undeniable
(The Guardian) We now know that the fundamental triggers for the Arab spring were unprecedented food price rises. The first sign things were unravelling hit in 2008, when a global rice shortage coincided with dramatic increases in staple food prices, triggering food riots across the middle east, north Africa and south Asia. A month before the fall of the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported record high food prices for dairy, meat, sugar and cereals.
Since 2008, global food prices have been consistently higher than in preceding decades, despite wild fluctuations. This year, even with prices stabilising, the food price index remains at 210 – which some experts believe is the threshold beyond which civil unrest becomes probable.
The key issue, of course, is climate change. Droughts exacerbated by global warming in key food-basket regions have already led to a 10-20% drop in rice yields over the past decade. Last year, four-fifths of the US experienced a heatwave, there were prolonged droughts in Russia and Africa, a lighter monsoon in India and floods in Pakistan – extreme weather events that were likely linked to climate change afflicting the world’s major food basket regions. …
Industrial farming methods are breaching the biophysical limits of the soil. World agricultural land productivity between 1990 and 2007 was 1.2% a year, nearly half compared with 1950-90 levels of 2.1%.
Avaaz: Monsanto vs. Mother Earth
It’s unbelievable, but Monsanto and Co. are at it again. These profit-hungry biotech companies have found a way to exclusively ‘own’ something that freely belongs to us all — our food! They’re trying to patent away our everyday vegetables and fruits like cucumber, broccoli and melons, forcing growers to pay them and risk being sued if they don’t.
But we can stop them from buying up Mother Earth. Companies like Monsanto have found loopholes in European law to get away with this, so we just need to close them shut before they set a dangerous global precedent. And to do that, we need key countries like Germany, France and the Netherlands — where opposition is already growing — to call for a vote to stop Monsanto’s plans.
Food-security strategies must involve women, De Schutter says
The empowerment of women can be enabled by adjusting food-security and anti-poverty programs, writes Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food. “Food security and anti-poverty strategies must be transformative and make the redistribution of roles between women and men a priority. This is the only way to make sure that the social investment intended to sustain the poor does not also sustain the gender divisions that characterise poverty and keep it locked in place,” De Schutter argues. The Guardian (London) (3/12)
De Schutter: Food rights, gender equality need increased FAO support
Advancement of food-rights policies will do much to help ease food-security issues, and support from the Food and Agriculture Organization is essential, writes Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on right to food. Gender equality also will assist in empowering women to pursue farming and other jobs. “[B]e aware that a productive investment is the one made in women — that is the secret weapon, or the shortcut, to reducing hunger and malnutrition,” he writes. The Guardian (London)/Poverty Matters blog (3/4), The Guardian (London)/Poverty Matters blog (3/5)
Empires of food. why societies rise and fall
(RCI) Throughout history, as a society as farmers are able to produce food surpluses, it has enabled other to leave the agrarian lifestyle and move into urban centres, to develop other pursuits and skills. As this trend goes on the the cities grow, and eventually require more food to feed themselves. The powerful cities and cultures then start to expand into new areas seeking more farmland and resources to sustain them.
New land under cultivation, along with extended periods of clement weather provides much more food and at low cost, which enables the civilization to grow and expand.
Eventually however, a number of factors combine, such as a weakening of soil through excessive use, an extended period of poor weather, or disease that wipes out a monoculture crop.
This results in a food crisis. Food availability is reduced, prices rise, and a great class disparity arises. This can lead to a large percentage of the population being undernourished, along with migration from the cities, internal strife and a weakening of power and control and eventual fall of the empire.
(RCI) a recent Canadian book says that there may well be a main reason underlying both the rise of great civilizations and their fall.
That reason is the supply, availability, and costs of food
No-till Farming Holds the Key to Food Security
(IPS) – No-till farming is a response to climate change that fits well with the needs of the Caribbean: it increases the ability to capture water, while withstanding both drought and excessive rains, says expert Theodor Friedrich, representative of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Cuba. … farming without removing the soil, no-till farming, which responds to the need to improve the economic conditions of farmers, saving on fuel costs or the number of oxen.
It also (mitigates the impacts of) climate change, because (keeping the soil in place) increases the ability to capture water and withstand drought, with less problems for crops. (No-till farming also allows) soil to absorb excess water in the case of hurricanes, for example.
This is called conservation agriculture. It is based on three fundamentals: one is to not work the land, the second is to manage a permanent cover with mulch or plant debris, and the third is to diversify crops, in rotation, in frequency and in crop associations.
The key is not to work on the land mechanically, because what is needed is a tool to open a hole or a groove to put the seed in the ground and cover it – nothing more. Land worked like this can easily absorb well over 100 millimeters of rain per hour. There is no reason for flooding in times of hurricanes, because the water passes to underground areas and stays much longer in the earth
The Caribbean islands are in dire need of new techniques that can ensure food security amid the threats of climate change.
Toxic Water: Across Much of China, Huge Harvests Irrigated with Industrial and Agricultural Runoff
(circle of blue) … the nation’s rivers, lakes, and falling water tables are enduring deficits of clean water that often force farmers to grow food using water that is tainted with heavy metals, organic pollutants, and nitrogen. Much of China’s water is so contaminated that it should not even be touched, yet tremendous amounts of the grains, vegetables, and fruits that are served in homes and restaurants, as well as textiles that are sold in markets, are irrigated with untreated industrial wastewater.
Yields of important food crops stall
Production of several key crops is increasing in some parts of the world, but a study reports that in up to 39% of growing areas of corn, rice, wheat and soybeans, “yields either never improve, stagnate or collapse.” “This finding is particularly troubling because it suggests that we have preferentially focused our crop improvement efforts on feeding animals and cars, as we have largely ignored investments in wheat and rice, crops that feed people and are the basis of food security in much of the world,” said Jonathan Foley, co-author of the study. The Washington Post/WorldViews blog (12/24)
Harvests and farmland — Unyielding
(Economist blog|Feast and Famine) SOME of the world’s most significant problems never intrude upon headlines. They make themselves felt indirectly, if at all. One example comes from agriculture. Food riots and hunger make news; so, occasionally, do land grabs in developing countries or arguments over genetically modified foods. But the trend that underlies and helps explain these matters is rarely talked about. This is the decline, sometimes reversal, in the growth in yields of some of the world’s staple crops. All the more reason to welcome a new study by the University of Minnesota and McGill University in Montreal, which looks in some detail at where, and how far, this decline is occurring.
Extreme weather may lead to extreme food prices
Research suggests that prices for food staples such as rice, corn and wheat could more than double in the next 20 years because of climate change. That could send millions more people into poverty and increase the ranks of malnourished children. “Extreme weather means extreme prices,” said Tracy Carty of the charity Oxfam. The Guardian (London) (12/5), AlertNet (11/27)
Wheat genome’s key parts unlocked in new study
(BBC) Scientists have unlocked key parts of the complex genetic code of wheat, one of the world’s most important crops, which could help improve food security.
New food-assistance agreement to take effect in 2013
With ratification by the EU this week, a new Food Assistance Convention will take effect in 2013, shifting the emphasis from traditional food deliveries to assistance that allows vulnerable populations to buy food within the country as much as possible, thereby supporting local markets. Some aid groups have criticized the new accord because it does not set specific goals for contributions. AlertNet (11/15)
EU reconsiders biofuels policy amid concerns of hunger crisis
The European Commission on Monday proposed capping quotas for production of food-based biofuels amid concerns that policies were resulting in the removal of needed crops from the global supply chain and could contribute to hunger among the world’s poorest. The proposal would limit the targets for biofuel usage in Europe-wide transport to 5% through 2020. The limit is supported by Oxfam, which released a report saying the EU goal of 10% of transport energy from renewable sources by 2020 is too high. AlertNet/Reuters (9/17), The Guardian (London) (9/17)
UN agencies appeal for food-crisis intervention
United Nations food agencies warned today that swift action is needed to avert a catastrophic food crisis that could affect tens of millions of the world’s poor. Nestlé is lobbying the U.S. and EU to reduce their biofuel quotas, while three UN agencies — the World Food Programme, Food and Agriculture Organization and International Fund for Agricultural Development — urged governments of developing countries to increase assistance to small-scale farmers, women and children. AlertNet/Reuters (9/4), The New York Times (tiered subscription model)/The Associated Press (9/4), The Guardian (London) (9/4), Al-Jazeera (9/3)
Water shortages could encourage vegetarianism
The food shortages forecast by scientists over the next 40 years could mean that much of the world’s population will be compelled to become vegetarian, particularly in developing countries that rely heavily on food imports. “There will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected 9 billion population in 2050 if we follow current trends and changes towards diets common in western nations,” concludes a report by the Stockholm International Water Institute. The Guardian (London) (8/26)
We’ll make a killing out of food crisis, Glencore trading boss Chris Mahoney boasts
Drought is good for business, says world’s largest commodities trading company
(The Independent) The United Nations, aid agencies and the British Government have lined up to attack the world’s largest commodities trading company, Glencore, after it described the current global food crisis and soaring world prices as a “good” business opportunity.
With the US experiencing a rerun of the drought “Dust Bowl” days of the 1930s and Russia suffering a similar food crisis that could see Vladimir Putin’s government banning grain exports, the senior economist of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, Concepcion Calpe, told The Independent: “Private companies like Glencore are playing a game that will make them enormous profits.”
Ms Calpe said leading international politicians and banks expecting Glencore to back away from trading in potential starvation and hunger in developing nations for “ethical reasons” would be disappointed.
Drought Only One Factor Behind High Food Prices
(Spiegel) The severe drought in the US has been blamed the rising prices of agricultural commodities. But that is only part of the story: Biofuels, financial speculation and changing dietary habits are also playing a role. The global food supply faces pressure from all sides.
Some prices have soured by almost 50 percent within just 10 weeks, and grain warehouses are beginning to empty out. Other important supplier countries also anticipate poor harvests. Because of a prolonged dry period in Russia, wheat exports are expected to be only half of what they were last year. Brazil, on the other hand, has had too much rain, which is bad news for sugar-cane farmers. “The latest crop predictions suggest that we should fear the worst,” the United Nations World Food Programme warned last week. It is the third such warning in recent years, following similar crises in 2008 and 2011. Catastrophe, it would seem, is becoming the norm.
The Global Food Security Index 2012: An assessment of food affordability, availability and quality is an Economist Intelligence Unit publication, commissioned by DuPont.
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Africans sow seeds of a green revolution
Kofi Annan is leading the push to transform agricultural production after this year’s famine heightened the urgency of the battle for food security
(FT) Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general who has made African agriculture, particularly the role of smallholders, the leitmotif of his career since he left the helm of the world body, recognises the challenges. Smallholders have to be coaxed into abandoning ancestral traditions and embracing hybrid seeds and new fertilisers; governments have to be cajoled into relaxing their control over seeds, which they see as national patrimony, and opening up their distribution to the private sector.
Moreover, climate change has intensified the need to speed up the distribution of seeds that are resistant to shifts in temperature and new diseases, while instances of international companies buying up tracts of land have added to Mr Annan’s concern that Africa needs to have greater food security.
Nigeria turns to cassava to alleviate food woes
Nigerian farmers have been slow to get behind a government effort to bolster food self-sufficiency by promoting the cultivation of cassava and reducing imports of rice and wheat. The policy will ban the import of cassava beginning next year and offer tax rebates for millers who use at least 40% of cassava flour in bread-making. The Guardian (London)/Poverty Matters blog (12/19)
Report cites corruption in agriculture
Corruption within the agriculture sector is costing people the vital economic benefits associated with land resources and governments must act to increase governance and accountability, the United Nations World Food Programme and Transparency International say in a report. Improved governance would help protect land rights and promote food security, according to the report. AlertNet/Reuters (12/13)
Changing soil practices to improve yields
Farmers and scientists are looking at new ways to enhance soil quality to address degradation from poor land-management practices of past decades and improve food-production capabilities. Microdosing fertilizer and converting wastewater into organic fertilizers are among the adjusted methods being used in developing countries. The Christian Science Monitor (11/30)
We must make up ground in the fight against desertification
A global partnership is needed to tackle the desertification that degrades more than 12m hectares of arable land every year, affecting some of the poorest and most food-insecure people
(The Guardian) The 193 nations party to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) will gather in Changwon in Korea on Tuesday and Wednesday this week to discuss what can be done to address challenges related to land degradation and drought.
Despite successive warnings and tree-planting campaigns in Sahel and other degraded arid lands, desertification is still progressing fast. More than 12m hectares of productive land are lost every year, the equivalent of losing the total arable area of France every 18 months.
Girls are key to food security in poor countries, report says
Adolescent girls and women are fundamental to unlocking the full potential of agricultural development and feeding the world, according to Chicago think tank
(The Guardian) The role of women and adolescent girls is spelt out in a report released on Friday by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Girls Grow: A Vital Force in Rural Economies (pdf). Its key point is that adolescent girls and women are the key to unlocking the full potential of agricultural development in poor countries and ensuring food security.
Oxfam gets behind demands for regulation of food speculation
(World Development Movement) We are please to see the big NGOs increasingly getting behind our food speculation campaign. A few months ago, Christian Aid published a report linking rising food prices with speculation. Now Oxfam has joined in with a new briefing on financial speculation in agricultural markets. Not a game: speculation vs food security (PDF), comes out strongly in favour of regulation and calls for the same rules that we have been calling for since we launched the campaign last July.
Food-Price Declines Won’t Help Feed Hungry as Dollar Strengthens
(Bloomberg) Higher food costs have sent “tens of millions of people” into poverty since late 2010, and the world’s hungry people may soon exceed 1 billion again, Oxfam International said Aug. 3. The number of malnourished people in the world fell last year to 925 million from 1.02 billion in 2009, according to the FAO.
World food output will have to rise 70 percent by 2050 as the global population climbs to 9.2 billion from an estimated 6.9 billion in 2010, the FAO estimates. Prices of staple foods including corn will more than double in two decades without action, Oxfam said in May.
European Parliament conference : Action needed on global food security
Financial speculators responsible for rising global food prices, claims report
Influence of financial players on agricultural commodity markets blamed for global food price inflation and hunger
The activity of financial speculators is overwhelming agricultural commodities markets, fuelling global food price inflation and hunger, according to new analysis from the anti-poverty group the World Development Movement (WDM).
Its report, Broken Markets, published on Tuesday, finds that financial speculators with no interest in the physical goods traded now dominate agricultural commodity markets.
Global food crisis: the speculators playing with our daily bread
As food prices reach record highs, how much is the speculation in agricultural commodites to blame?
(The Guardian) With food prices reaching record highs again this year, what goes on inside a 650ft Chicago skyscraper topped by a statue of the goddess Ceres is coming under intense scrutiny.
It is here that the world’s oldest futures and options exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT), was established in 1848 to serve the great grain belt that had opened up in the American midwest. And it is here that the international price of agricultural commodities is set to this day.
Sir Gordon Conway: Global food crisis: Towards a ‘doubly green’ world
To feed the world we need agricultural systems that are not only productive, but also sustainable and equitable
Lester R. Brown: The New Geopolitics of Food
From the Middle East to Madagascar, high prices are spawning land grabs and ousting dictators. Welcome to the 21st-century food wars.
(Foreign Policy May/June) Welcome to the new food economics of 2011: Prices are climbing, but the impact is not at all being felt equally. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their income in the supermarket, the soaring food prices we’ve seen so far this year are an annoyance, not a calamity. But for the planet’s poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who are barely hanging on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely. This can contribute — and it has — to revolutions and upheaval.
Lester Brown: ‘We Must Define Security To Match The Threats Of The 21st Century’
(Radio Free Europe) For a long time, as I looked back at early civilizations that had declined and collapsed and realized that food shortages more often than not were responsible, I had rejected the idea that food could be the weak link in our modern, global civilization. But the more I think about it, the more convinced I am not only that it could be the weak link, but that it is the weak link. And I think what we’re now seeing in our rising food prices throughout the world and the growing competition for access to food and land and water resources, we’re beginning to see a new sort of geopolitics of food scarcity emerging.
Rampant Speculation Inflated Food Price Bubble
(IPS) – Billions of dollars are being made by investors in a speculative “food bubble” that’s created record food prices, starving millions and destabilising countries, experts now conclude.
Wall Street investment firms and banks, along with their kin in London and Europe, were responsible for the technology dot-com bubble, the stock market bubble, and the recent U.S. and UK housing bubbles. They extracted enormous profits and their bonuses before the inevitable collapse of each.
Now they’ve turned to basic commodities. The result? At a time when there has been no significant change in the global food supply or in food demand, the average cost of buying food shot up 32 percent from June to December 2010, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Speculation, Price Swings Threaten Security of Food Supply, Ministers Says
(Bloomberg) Speculation and price swings in agricultural markets may threaten food security, 48 farm ministers meeting in Berlin said a month after a United Nations gauge of global costs reached a record.
There is a risk of more food riots unless the surge in prices is contained, including through trading regulations, French Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire told reporters during the meeting Jan. 22. France chairs the Group of 20 this year, a group created in 1999 to stabilize global financial markets. … World food prices in total rose 25 percent last year and countries probably spent at least $1 trillion on imports, with the poorest nations paying as much as 20 percent more than in 2009, according to the United Nations.
Johann Hari: How Goldman gambled on starvation
(The Independent) At the end of 2006, food prices across the world started to rise, suddenly and stratospherically. Within a year, the price of wheat had shot up by 80 per cent, maize by 90 per cent, rice by 320 per cent. In a global jolt of hunger, 200 million people – mostly children – couldn’t afford to get food any more, and sank into malnutrition or starvation. There were riots in more than 30 countries, and at least one government was violently overthrown. Then, in spring 2008, prices just as mysteriously fell back to their previous level. …
Speculators set up a casino where the chips were the stomachs of millions. What does it say about our system that we can so casually inflict so much pain?
Here’s how it happened. In 2006, financial speculators like Goldmans pulled out of the collapsing US real estate market. They reckoned food prices would stay steady or rise while the rest of the economy tanked, so they switched their funds there. Suddenly, the world’s frightened investors stampeded on to this ground.
So while the supply and demand of food stayed pretty much the same, the supply and demand for derivatives based on food massively rose – which meant the all-rolled-into-one price shot up, and the starvation began. The bubble only burst in March 2008 when the situation got so bad in the US that the speculators had to slash their spending to cover their losses back home.
(BBC) ‘Radical rethink’ needed on food
Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?
Lester R. Brown, Founder of the Worldwatch Institute (1974) and the Earth Policy Institute (2001), which he heads today. He has authored or co- authored 50 books; his most recent is Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.
(Scientific American) The biggest threat to global stability is the potential for food crises in poor countries to cause government collapse
Our global civilization depends on a functioning network of politically healthy nation-states to control the spread of infectious disease, to manage the international monetary system, to control international terrorism and to reach scores of other common goals. If the system for controlling infectious diseases—such as polio, SARS or avian flu—breaks down, humanity will be in trouble. Once states fail, no one assumes responsibility for their debt to outside lenders. If enough states disintegrate, their fall will threaten the stability of global civilization itself.
Jockeying for Food
As the world’s food security unravels, a dangerous politics of food scarcity is coming into play: individual countries acting in their narrowly defined self-interest are actually worsening the plight of the many. The trend began in 2007, when leading wheat-exporting countries such as Russia and Argentina limited or banned their exports, in hopes of increasing locally available food supplies and thereby bringing down food prices domestically. Vietnam, the world’s second-biggest rice exporter after Thailand, banned its exports for several months for the same reason. In response to those restrictions, grain importers are trying to nail down long-term bilateral trade agreements that would lock up future grain supplies. The Philippines, no longer able to count on getting rice from the world market, recently negotiated a three-year deal with Vietnam for a guaranteed 1.5 million tons of rice each year. Food-import anxiety is even spawning entirely new efforts by food-importing countries to buy or lease farmland in other countries.
In spite of such stopgap measures, soaring food prices and spreading hunger in many other countries are beginning to break down the social order. In several provinces of Thailand the predations of “rice rustlers” have forced villagers to guard their rice fields at night with loaded shotguns. In Pakistan an armed soldier escorts each grain truck. During the first half of 2008, 83 trucks carrying grain in Sudan were hijacked before reaching the Darfur relief camps.
* Food scarcity and the resulting higher food prices are pushing poor countries into chaos.
* Such “failed states” can export disease, terrorism, illicit drugs, weapons and refugees.
* Water shortages, soil losses and rising temperatures from global warming are placing severe limits on food production.
* Without massive and rapid intervention to address these three environmental factors, the author argues, a series of government collapses could threaten the world order.
The Food issue — Farmer in Chief
(NYT Magazine) … with a suddenness that has taken us all by surprise, the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close. What this means is that you, like so many other leaders through history, will find yourself confronting the fact — so easy to overlook these past few years — that the health of a nation’s food system is a critical issue of national security.
Complicating matters is the fact that the price and abundance of food are not the only problems we face; … [and] there are reasons to think that the old approach won’t work this time around; for one thing, it depends on cheap energy that we can no longer count on. For another, expanding production of industrial agriculture today would require you to sacrifice important values on which you did campaign. Which brings me to the deeper reason you will need not simply to address food prices but to make the reform of the entire food system one of the highest priorities of your administration: unless you do, you will not be able to make significant progress on the health care crisis, energy independence or climate change. Unlike food, these are issues you did campaign on — but as you try to address them you will quickly discover that the way we currently grow, process and eat food in America goes to the heart of all three problems and will have to change if we hope to solve them.
After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent. And while the experts disagree about the exact amount, the way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do — as much as 37 percent, according to one study. Whenever farmers clear land for crops and till the soil, large quantities of carbon are released into the air. But the 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. This state of affairs appears all the more absurd when you recall that every calorie we eat is ultimately the product of photosynthesis — a process based on making food energy from sunshine. There is hope and possibility in that simple fact.
In addition to the problems of climate change and America’s oil addiction, you have spoken at length on the campaign trail of the health care crisis. Spending on health care has risen from 5 percent of national income in 1960 to 16 percent today, putting a significant drag on the economy. The goal of ensuring the health of all Americans depends on getting those costs under control. There are several reasons health care has gotten so expensive, but one of the biggest, and perhaps most tractable, is the cost to the system of preventable chronic diseases. Four of the top 10 killers in America today are chronic diseases linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. It is no coincidence that in the years national spending on health care went from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, spending on food has fallen by a comparable amount — from 18 percent of household income to less than 10 percent. While the surfeit of cheap calories that the U.S. food system has produced since the late 1970s may have taken food prices off the political agenda, this has come at a steep cost to public health. You cannot expect to reform the health care system, much less expand coverage, without confronting the public-health catastrophe that is the modern American diet.
The impact of the American food system on the rest of the world will have implications for your foreign and trade policies as well. In the past several months more than 30 nations have experienced food riots, and so far one government has fallen. Should high grain prices persist and shortages develop, you can expect to see the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food. Nations that opened their markets to the global flood of cheap grain (under pressure from previous administrations as well as the World Bank and the I.M.F.) lost so many farmers that they now find their ability to feed their own populations hinges on decisions made in Washington (like your predecessor’s precipitous embrace of biofuels) and on Wall Street. They will now rush to rebuild their own agricultural sectors and then seek to protect them by erecting trade barriers. Expect to hear the phrases “food sovereignty” and “food security” on the lips of every foreign leader you meet. Not only the Doha round, but the whole cause of free trade in agriculture is probably dead, the casualty of a cheap food policy that a scant two years ago seemed like a boon for everyone. It is one of the larger paradoxes of our time that the very same food policies that have contributed to overnutrition in the first world are now contributing to undernutrition in the third. But it turns out that too much food can be nearly as big a problem as too little — a lesson we should keep in mind as we set about designing a new approach to food policy. Read article