(reviewed and briefed by Don Gasper)
For decades now, climate scientists have been telling us that global warming would affect all of us. They warned of more extreme weather events. Droughts would spread. There would be more intense heat waves, more wildfires. And the combination of drought and heat could shrink harvests. Today the Earth’s climate is in a state of constant flux.
World agriculture is now facing challenges unlike any before. Producing enough grain to make it to the next harvest has tested farmers ever since agriculture began, but now the challenge is deepening as new trends-falling water tables and grain yields, and rising temperatures-make it difficult to expand production fast enough. As a result, world grain carryover stocks have dropped from an average of 107 days of consumption a decade ago to an estimated 65 days this year, and the world population last year grew by 8 million.
World food prices have more than doubled over the last decade. Those who live in the United States, where only 9 percent of income goes for food, are largely insulated from these price shifts.
But how do those who live on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder cope? They are already spending 50-70 percent of their income on food. Many were down to one meal a day before the price rises. Now millions of families in countries like India, Nigeria, and Peru routinely schedule one or more days each week when they will not eat at all.
This will lead to political instability and possibly a breakdown of political systems. Some governments may fall. High food prices help fuel the unrest in the spring of 2011. The world is now living from one year to the next, hoping always to produce enough to cover the growth in demand. Farmers everywhere are making an all-out effort to keep pace with the accelerated growth in demand, but they are having difficulty doing so.
Feeding the world’s hungry is now a complex undertaking. It involves the ministries of energy, water resources, and health and family planning, among others. Because of the looming specter of climate change that is threatening to disrupt agriculture, we may find that energy policies will have an even greater effect on future food security than agricultural policies do. In short, avoiding a breakdown in the food system requires the mobilization of our entire society. On the demand side of the food equation, there are four pressing needs- to stabilize world population, eradicate poverty, reduce excessive meat consumption, and reverse bio-fuels policies that encourage the use of grain to produce fuel for cars. We need to press forward on all four fronts at the same time.
On the supply side of the food equation, we face several challenges, including stabilizing climate, raising water productivity, and conserving soil. Stabilizing climate is not easy. It will take a huge cut in carbon emissions, some 80 % within a decade, to give us a chance of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. This means a wholesale restructuring of the world energy economy. This is evidenced most clearly in some of the more affluent grain-importing countries-led by Saudi Arabia, China, India, and South Korea- buying or leasing land long term in other countries on which to grow food for themselves. Most of these land acquisitions are in African countries where millions of people are barely being sustained.
As of mid-2012, hundreds of land acquisition deals had been negotiated or were under negotiation, some of them exceeding a million acres. A World Bank analysis of these “land grabs” reported that at least 140 million acres were involved-an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States. This onslaught of land acquisitions has become a land rush as governments, agribusiness firms, and private investors seek control of land wherever they can find it.
At the same time that water shortages and crop-shrinking heat waves are making it more difficult for farmers to keep pace with demand; and as grain and soybean prices were soaring in 2007-08, grain-exporting counties restrict exports to keep their own food prices down, and importing counties panicked. In response, many began buying or leasing large tracts of land in other countries to grow food for themselves. The potential for conflict is high. Many of the land deals have been made in secret, and much of the time the land involved was already being farmed by villagers when it was sold or leased.
The world is in serious trouble, but there is little evidence that political leaders have yet grasped the magnitude of what is happening. The gains in reducing hunger in recent decades have been reversed. Feeding the world’s hungry now depends on new population, energy, and water policies. Unless we move quickly to adopt new policies, the goal of eradicating hunger will fail.
We must ourselves be aware of our common food crisis and share it’s since of urgency. In this respect there is a new book “Full Planet, Empty Plates,” by Lester Brown. It is available from his “Earth Policy Institute,” 1350 Connecticut Ave. N.W. Suite 403. Washington D.C. 20036 as well as on Amazon