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Feeding on empty

Updated Tuesday, 10th June 2008
The shortage of food in some parts of the world is acute – Richard Skellington asks what can be done?

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Flooding in East Africa
As East Africa’s short rainy season progressed into November 2006, the downpour continued to stress rivers throughout Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. The widespread flooding began with the rains in mid-October, and continued through the end of November when unusually heavy rain fell on drought-hardened earth, said the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET).  This image, taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer  on NASA’s Terra satellite on November 17, 2006, shows just how much the Shabeelle River had swollen compared to 2005, when the region was in drought. Flooding along this section of the Shabeelle drove 50,000 from their homes in the town of Beletweyne, which was uninhabitable by November 17, said the United Nations. The floods are visible through scattered clouds, which are pale blue in this image. Water is black, plant-covered land is bright green, and sparsely vegetated land is tan-pink.

In 2008, food prices in the developed and developing world are soaring. Global inflation in food, as measured by the international food price index, increased by 40 per cent in 2007, and has soared further this year.

Levels of world cereal crops are at an all time low. As food-aid programmes run out of money, world leaders meet in frenzied anxiety about diminishing food stocks; they are beginning to acknowledge, at last, the severity of this ‘man-made’ global food crisis.

Forecasters, such as the international think-tank Chatham House, have predicted that demand for food will rise by 50 per cent by 2030. The UN have reported that to simply keep up with the growth in human population, more food will have to be produced in the world in the next 50 years than there has been produced during the previous 10,000 years. About 40 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is already degraded. In 1980 the world’s population was 4.4 billion. By 2050 it is expected to reach 9 billion.<br>

In Italy, women have marched in protest as wheat prices more than doubled. In the UK, families are feeling the pinch, especially in the price of food commodities. From Haiti to Uzbekistan, the poor are bearing the brunt of the problem. Hundreds of people have died in protests across the world. In India, rice has been rationed. In April the World Bank predicted that at least 100 million people across the globe could face starvation. EU estimates suggest that 25,000 people are dying daily from hunger as food prices reach their highest level since 1945. In June the oil price keeps rising to an unprecedented 135 dollars a barrel.

The causes of this international food crisis are very complex. A variety of factors have been identified, ranging from climate change, poor farming practices, deforestation and soil erosion to global overpopulation. Speculation on commodity futures in the world’s stock markets, following the collapse in confidence in conventional financial markets and the fall of the dollar, has exacerbated the problem. Following the credit crunch the search for profits has resulted in enormous fluctuations in market prices that do not appear to be related to shifts in supply and demand.

As the world’s oil reserves decline, the switch by governments, including our own, to force increasing acreages of farmland to convert from food production to the production of crops for bio-fuels, has distorted the system of production to the extent that an attempt, if it was, to satisfy environmental priorities has created increased food scarcity and pushed up prices.

By 2010, across Europe it will be mandatory, for example, for petrol retailers to mix 5.75 per cent of bio-fuels into fuel sold to motorists. However, it is not just in the EU that we are being asked to burn crops to fuel our cars – the USA, India, Brazil and China have similar prospective schemes. India, for example, has pledged to meet 10 per cent of its vehicle fuel needs with bio-fuels. In America, bio-fuel consumption for motor vehicles is now enough to cover all the import needs of the 82 nations classified by the UN as ‘low-income food deficit countries’. It is probably too simplistic to suggest that our transport systems can lead to starvation in the developing world, but the connection is unavoidable.

In seven of the past eight years, the world has consumed more grain than it has supplied. The growth in bio-fuel consumption has not only benefited the rich countries and denuded the poorest, but it has depleted global grain stockpiles, pushing millions more of the world’s poor deeper into poverty. The International Monetary Fund reported in April that corn-based ethanol production in the USA accounted for half the increase in the global demand for corn. Jean Zeigler, a UN expert on the right to food has called this new phenomenon a ‘crime against humanity’.

We may be on the cusp of the biggest structural change in the world food market for over a century. In the next few years, relief and aid programmes in the developing world may be undermined, while the tensions of international politics may further impinge on the life chances of humanity. Increased competition over depleted resources could lead to conflict and war.

The world’s population is growing at around 80 million people a year. In the rising powers of India, Brazil and China, a huge growth in middle-class populations has led to a revolution in demand for those consumer goods we in the West have taken for granted for so long. These countries have also seen a substantial shift in food consumption towards the dairy and meat-based diets of the western world. As the environmentalists remind us, they also have quadrupled their own use of oil to fuel their vehicles.

Unfortunately, as the world seeks a sustainable future and struggles with ways to limit the damage done by humanity to our environment, it is likely that there will be millions of losers. In 2008 the British Government predicted that by 2050 half the arable land in the world might no longer be suitable for production because of water shortages and climate change.

Today The UN’s World Food Programme is unable to cover the increased cost of food aid to the poorest nations in the world.  While we in Britain are feeling the pinch the impact on the world's poorest countries is huge. If you are one of the 2.8 billion people in the world who live on under $2 a day, you may pay for the recent surge in growing grain for petrol with your life. And it looks like getting worse.


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