Global Food Crisis and Sustainable Development

Fri, 08/01/2008

The classic food security issues of local supply, demand and disposable income are no longer the complete story. The determinants of the current global food situation are tightly intertwined and leave the Least Developed Countries (LDC) people increasingly defenseless against the unfolding calamity. The recent precipitous rise in the price of oil has raised the cost of transportation and fertilizer, resulting in higher food prices almost everywhere. Rising oil prices result in an all-out search for energy substitutes, such as biofuels. Plants for fuel will compete with food plants, prompting rising food prices around the globe. In 2007, LDC food import costs rose roughly 25%. For every 5 acres devoted to making ethanol, the world would need more than 4 new acres of cropland for food. Increased use of biofuels entices farmers to convert more native ecosystems into cropland, damaging the land in the process. The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) calculates that livestock and livestock-related activities represent 18% of all human-induced greenhouse gases. Ruminants, which are surprisingly high manufacturers of greenhouse gases due to their digestive system, account for 37% of all methane emissions. FAO estimates that livestock grazing occupies 26% of the earth’s terrestrial surface. 60% of the deforestation in the Amazon River Basin can be attributed to cattle ranching; much of the remainder is cleared to raise corn and soy for feed. Cows, once fed, burp a lot. Each day a single cow can burp as much as 130 gallons of methane, a greenhouse gas that traps more than 20 times more heat per ton than carbon dioxide. It takes 7 to 8.5 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef and 5 to 7 pounds of grain to produce a pound of pork. Agricultural acreage, once dedicated to subsistence food for humanity, is being used to feed cows, pigs and chickens, with a resulting increase in the emissions of greenhouse gases. Agricultural diversification toward high-value agricultural production is a demand-driven process in which the private sector plays a vital role. Higher incomes, urbanization and changing preferences are raising domestic consumer demand for high-value production in developing countries. The composition of food budgets is shifting from the consumption of grains and other staple crops to vegetables, fruits, meat, dairy and fish. The demand for ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat foods is also rising, particularly in urban areas. Consumers in Asia, especially in the cities, are also being exposed to nontraditional foods. Due to diet globalization, the consumption of wheat-based products, temperate-zone vegetables and other products has increased. “We are concerned that we are facing the perfect storm for the world’s hungry.” Josette Sheeran, World Food Program, Director. Wealthy developed countries can adapt to climate change and have the option of mitigating the threat by reducing carbon emissions. In the U.S., cutting down carbon emissions is thought of as a “lifestyle issue.” In terms of food, obesity is endemic in rich countries, while high levels of under-nourishment remain in the poorest countries. Poverty is the lot of nearly 3 billion people, most critically in sub-Saharan Africa. Approximately 1 billion exist on between 75 cents and $1 daily and 160 million live on less than 50 cents a day. Many poor families spend up to 75% of their income for food. Clearly, if LDC people had the wherewithal, they could buy food and the basics of a full life. But they don’t. At least 800 million people are badly undernourished. What’s more, food reserves, needed for emergencies, are dangerously low as well as terribly expensive. The high cost of grain purchases means that relief organizations receive much less food for their dollar. Warnings about the world at the crossroads apply today. Global warming, if not adapted to and mitigated, promises to erase the aspirations for economic wellbeing of billions of people already living uneasily on the margins. Crop by crop and country by country, research and development are lagging. The biggest cutbacks have come in donations to agriculture in poor countries from governments of wealthy countries and in loans from development institutions that the wealthy nations control like the World Bank. Such projects include not only research on pests and crops but also programs to help farmers adopt improved methods in the fields. If supply fails to keep pace with rising demand, then the question of “fair shares” is likely to emerge as a significant global issue. Already, the effect of a burgeoning global class switching to diets with more meat and dairy has been to reduce the affordability of staple foods for poorer consumers. “If a country chooses not to undertake the mitigation necessary to avoid dangerous climate change and if a country chooses not to invest in the adaptation to facilitate coping with climate change that is going to happen, that is a choice in favor of the systemic abuse of human rights,” said Kevin Watkins, UN Environment Program. While agricultural science and technology have made it possible to greatly increase productivity in the last 50 years, the sharing of benefits has been far from equitable. Progress has been made in many cases at a high social and environmental cost. Some agricultural experts argue that many poor farmers who have adopted the Green Revolution, which depends on access to abundant water and increasingly expensive fertilizers, are particularly vulnerable to climate change. As a result, they may want to look to traditional agricultural practices. Climate change hangs menacingly over the heads of the world’s poor, now battered by high food costs and a lack of the resources to address simple needs. Global warming already is harming the highly vulnerable people in poor nations, and if allowed to continue unabated, it will in time fall on today’s privileged people. Today’s unfolding climate and food disasters are complex and expensive. The only question is whether humankind, led by a newly enlightened scientific community and a new generation has the will and wisdom to help save a beleaguered warm and hungry planet.