Is the world heading for food crisis?

By Henrylito D. Tacio


Malthusian fears that population growth will outstrip food supplies have been widely discounted as food production has kept well ahead of growing human numbers in the last half century.  While population doubled, food supply tripled, and life expectancy increased from 46 in the 1950s to around 65 today.


“Food is cheaper and diets are better than 40 years ago, but malnutrition and food insecurity threaten millions,” wrote the authors of the 2,500-page International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).  “Rising populations and incomes will intensify food demand.”


Already, Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, admitted that prices of all staple food had risen 80 per cent in three years, and that 33 countries are now in danger of political destabilization and internal conflict because of the price rises.


“Business as usual will hurt the poor,” Robert Watson, IAASTD director.  “It will not work.  We have to applaud global increases in food production but not everyone has benefited.  We have not succeeded globally.”


The reason lies in the combined impact of many factors including climate change, forest denudation, land degradation, water shortage, declining oil supplies, species extinction, destruction of coastal ecosystems and the growing demands for a meat-rich diet from newly developed parts of the world.


At the root of all these problems has been the ruthless exploitation of the earth’s resources, fuelled by growing affluence in some parts of the world and desperate poverty in others – allied to burgeoning human numbers.  Between 1980 and 2000, global population rose from 4.4 billion to 6.1 billion, while food production increased 50 per cent.  By 2050, the population is expected to reach 9 billion.


To keep up with the growth in human population, more food will have to be produced over the next 50 years than has been during the past 10,000 years combined, said the participants of the recent UN-backed forum in Iceland on sustainable development. It is, of course, possible that new technologies, smart environmental management and sensitive social policies will combine to good effect to usher in a new ‘double green’ revolution. But as grain reserves have fallen to their lowest level for many years, this cannot be guaranteed.


“Continuing with current trends would mean the earth’s haves and have-nots splitting further apart,” deplored Watson, who is the chief scientist at the United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.   “It would leave us facing a world nobody would want to inhabit. We have to make food more affordable and nutritious without degrading the land.”


Each year, the world loses the equivalent of five to seven million hectares of topsoil – the primary resource in farming — through erosion each year. This is equivalent to the land area of Belgium and the Netherlands combined. A recent study by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concluded that approximately 30 per cent of the world’s arable crop land has been abandoned because of severe soil erosion in the last 40 years.


It takes 200 to 1,000 years to form 2.5 centimeters of rich topsoil.  But on the average, farmlands are losing 2.5 centimeters of topsoil every 16 years, or 17 times faster than it can be replaced. “Soil erosion is any nation’s enemy – far worse than any outside enemy coming into a country and conquering it because it is an enemy you cannot see vividly,” said Harold R. Watson, Ramon Magsaysay award-winning soil scientist. “It’s a slow creeping enemy that soon possesses the land.”


Irrigation has been a key factor in enabling us to increase food production. However, the demand for irrigation water is leading to its over-exploitation in many parts of the world.  In the Middle East, India and China farmers are taking ground water faster than nature can replenish it, and disputes over water are becoming increasingly common.


Agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of all water used globally, and as much as 90 per cent in many developing countries. To keep pace with the growing demand for food, it is estimated that 14 per cent more freshwater will need to be withdrawn for agricultural purposes in the next 30 years. 


Take the case of rice, the staple cereal of nearly half the world’s total population. Current rice production systems consume a high amount of water. It takes about 3,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of rice. Irrigated non-agriculture areas, which provide 75 per cent of total Asian rice production, consume 50 per cent of all freshwater diversions.


“This profligate usage of water in irrigated rice production is unsustainable, given the increasing demand for freshwater due to growth in rice demand and growing competition from other sectors,” observed Tumurdavaa Bayarsaihan, a senior agricultural economist at the Manila-based Asian Development Bank.


Trees have become another victim of forest clearance for cash cropping, biofuels, oil and human settlement.  Tropical rainforest is host to some 2,500 species of fruits fit for human consumption. Only a few – banana, grapefruit, and pineapple – have been commercialized.


These and other forests are fast disappearing at alarming rate. The Food and Agriculture Organization’s State of the World’s Forests 2007 reported that from 1990 to 2005, the world lost 3 per cent of its total forest area, an average decrease of some 0.2 per cent per year. Net forest loss is 7.3 million hectares per year or 20,000 hectares per day, equivalent to an area twice the size of Paris.


Fish are the “last wild meal” in the human diet.  And yet they are also fast disappearing from the food table.  In the Philippines, for instance, estimates show that if the present rapid population growth and declining trend in fish production continue, only 10 kilograms of fish will be available per Filipino per year by 2010, as opposed to 28.5 kilograms per year in 2003.


“Without any change in fish consumption and no active human population management program,” warned a World Bank report, “domestic demand for fish will reach 3.2 billion kilograms by 2020, given the projected population growth rate (about two percent) of the Philippines.”


The threat of a food crisis is exacerbated by fears over energy security, with many countries now opting to plant biofuels crops in place of traditional crops.  In Mexico, where most people eat corn, the price of tortillas is up by 60 per cent. The soaring use of corn as the feedstock for fuel ethanol, according to a Bloomberg analysis, “is creating unintended consequences throughout the global food chain.”


“The diversion of crops to fuel can raise food prices and reduce our ability to alleviate hunger. The negative social effects risk being exacerbated in cases where small-scale farmers are marginalized or displaced form their land,” the IAASTD report said.


Not fully taken into consideration yet is the impact on food supplies of climate change. Experts have agreed that abnormal changes in air temperature and rainfall and the increasing frequency and intensity of drought and floods have long-term implications for the viability and productivity of world agro-ecosystems.


“Agriculture is the sector most affected by changes in climate patterns and will be increasingly vulnerable in the future,” said the United Nations food agency in a press statement.  “Especially at risk are developing countries, which are highly dependent on agriculture and have fewer resources and options to combat damage from climate change.”


Farming is most dependent on stable climate. “The most serious threats will not be occasional severe drought or heat wave but subtle temperature shifts during key periods in the crop’s life cycle, as these are most disruptive to plants bred for optimal climatic conditions,” wrote Danielle Nierenberg and Brian Halweil in a Worldwatch report.


Is there a solution in sight?   Guilhem Calvo, an adviser with the ecological and earth sciences division of United Nations Education and Cultural Organization, told a news conference in Paris: “We must develop agriculture that is less dependent on fossil fuels, favors the use of locally available resources and explores the use of natural processes.”


There is also much talk today of organic farming. This describes systems of food production where farmers work with nature, rather than chafe against it. Instead of blitzing micro-organisms with pesticides, they use integrated pest management, and encourage beneficial insects at the expense of pest species. Rather than relying on artificial fertilizers to maintain fertility, farmers rotate their crops; use animal manures and plant crops, which can be used as green manure.


Dr. Liz Stockdale, of the Institute of Arable Crop Research in England, speaking at the Festival of Science in Sheffield, said that farms could be economically viable on a much larger scale, even in developing countries with large populations.


In less developed countries, countries where the conventional agricultural systems aren’t that intensive to start with, we can see that conventional systems and organic systems actually can match yields very closely,” she said.


And lower yields of organic farms in any country could be greatly increased as scientists learn more about controlling insects and disease without chemicals, and find the right crops to suit a particular region’s pests and climate.


Ivette Perfecto, professor in the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment said the idea that people would go hungry if farming went organic is “ridiculous.”  


“Corporate interest in agriculture and the way agriculture research has been conducted in land grant institutions, with a lot of influence by the chemical companies and pesticide companies as well as fertilizer companies—all have been playing an important role in convincing the public that you need to have these inputs to produce food,” she pointed out.  ###


One response to “Is the world heading for food crisis?

  1. Pingback: Todays Current Events in the Environment » Alert - environmental pollution

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