A fast-unfolding food shortage is engulfing the entire world, driving food prices to record highs. (Check out the full report or podcast.) Over the past 50 years grain prices have occasionally spiked due to weather-related events -- such as the 1972 Soviet crop failure that led to a doubling of world wheat, rice, and corn prices. The situation today is entirely different, however. The current doubling of grain prices is trend-driven, the cumulative effect of some trends that are accelerating growth in demand and other trends that are slowing the growth in supply.The world has not experienced anything quite like this before. In the face of rising food prices and spreading hunger, the social order is beginning to break down in some countries. In several provinces in Thailand, for instance, rustlers steal rice by harvesting fields during the night. In response, Thai villagers with distant fields have taken to guarding ripe rice fields with loaded shotguns.
In Sudan, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), the organization responsible for supplying grain to two million people in Darfur refugee camps, is facing a difficult mission to say the least. During the first three months of this year, 56 grain-laden trucks were hijacked. Thus far, only 20 of the trucks have been recovered and some 24 drivers are still unaccounted for. This threat to U.N.-supplied food to the Darfur camps has reduced the flow of food into the region by half, raising the specter of starvation if supply lines cannot be secured.
Food riots are now becoming commonplace in Egypt, Yemen, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, and Senegal. (Examples of food price unrest.)
Even prosperous Japan is not immune from food shortages.
Around the world, a politics of food scarcity is emerging. Most fundamentally, it involves the restriction of grain exports by countries that want to check the rise in their domestic food prices. Russia, the Ukraine, and Argentina are among the governments that are currently restricting wheat exports. Countries restricting rice exports include Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Egypt. These export restrictions simply drive prices higher in the world market.
The chronically tight food supply the world is now facing is driven by the cumulative effect of several well-established trends that are affecting both global demand and supply. On the demand side, the trends include the continuing addition of 70 million people per year to the earth’s population, the desire of some four billion people to move up the food chain and consume more grain-intensive livestock products, and the recent sharp acceleration in the U.S. use of grain to produce ethanol for cars. Since 2005, this last source of demand has raised the annual growth in world grain consumption from roughly 20 million tons to 50 million tons.
Meanwhile, on the supply side, there is little new land to be brought under the plow unless it comes from clearing tropical rainforests in the Amazon and Congo basins and in Indonesia, or from clearing land in the Brazilian cerrado, a savanna-like region south of the Amazon rainforest. Unfortunately, this has heavy environmental costs: the release of sequestered carbon, the loss of plant and animal species, and increased rainfall runoff and soil erosion. And in scores of countries prime cropland is being lost to both industrial and residential construction and to the paving of land for roads, highways, and parking lots for fast-growing automobile fleets.
New sources of irrigation water are even more scarce than new land to plow. Meanwhile, the backlog of agricultural technology that can be used to raise cropland productivity is dwindling. And the rising price of oil is boosting the costs of both food production and transport while at the same time making it more profitable to convert grain into fuel for cars.
Beyond this, climate change presents new risks. Crop-withering heat waves, increasingly destructive storms, and the melting of the Asian mountain glaciers that sustain the dry-season flow of that region’s major rivers are combining to make harvest expansion more difficult. In the past the negative effect of unusual weather events was always temporary; within a year or two things would return to normal. But with climate in flux, there is no norm to return to.
The collective effect of these trends makes it more and more difficult for farmers to keep pace with the growth in demand. With grain stocks at an all-time low, the world is only one poor harvest away from total chaos in world grain markets.
Business-as-usual is no longer a viable option. Food security will deteriorate further unless leading countries can collectively mobilize to stabilize population, restrict the use of grain to produce automotive fuel, stabilize climate, stabilize water tables and aquifers, protect cropland, and conserve soils. Stabilizing population is not simply a matter of providing reproductive health care and family planning services. It requires a worldwide effort to eradicate poverty. Eliminating water shortages depends on a global attempt to raise water productivity similar to the effort launched a half-century ago to raise land productivity, an initiative that has nearly tripled the world grain yield per hectare. None of these goals can be achieved quickly, but progress toward all is essential to restoring a semblance of food security.
This troubling situation is unlike any the world has faced before. The challenge is not simply to deal with a temporary rise in grain prices, as in the past, but rather to quickly alter those trends whose cumulative effects collectively threaten the food security that is a hallmark of civilization. If food security cannot be restored quickly, social unrest and political instability will spread and the number of failing states will likely increase dramatically, threatening the very stability of civilization itself.
(Full report or podcast of press teleconference.) More on the food crisis ::UK Chief Scientist: Food Crisis Will Bite Before Climate Change ::Food Prices Dominate News: Now it's Pizza Time ::Food Prices, Food Eaters Run Riot ::Global Warming Melting Glaciers, Shrinking Harvests in China and India
Lester Brown is founder and director of the Earth Policy Institute and a regular contributor to TreeHugger. Learn more about alternative energy and solutions for a sustainable future in his previous columns or read a review of and download Plan B 3.0.
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