World Food Crisis: Debating the Origin

Rising population levels and declining land area was always going to be a problem for upcoming times and the trials and tribulations for the vast majority of the economically unempowered population were set to intensify with every passing decade but the kind of manifestation that we are witnessing today is something unparalleled and more so not foreseen by even the most pessimistic outlooks. Hence, the present food crisis comes as a rude shock to many and more so it is a problem confronting not only vast portions of the developing world, even people in the developed world are beginning to feel the pinch.


The various reasons that can be attributed to explain the enormity of the crisis are as follows:


1. The Biofuel Mania:


Cuban president Fidel Castro calls the idea of converting grains to fuel as internationalisation of genocide



The focus on bio fuels have pushed food prices by around 20% according to a recent UN estimate as it had put the world in a difficult choice between food for existence and food for fuel. The artificially high prices and the dipping inventory levels that we see all across the globe ranging from USA to Mexico to Haiti is an indication of the global predicament that we face.


The very fact that food riots have taken place in several countries across the globe like Haiti, Indonesia, Mexico and Senegal is shocking for human sensibilities in general. USA, Europe require 500 million tonnes of corn and cereals for the bio fuel idea to remain viable ,the question is where will this food come from in an increasingly food deficient world setup.


The situation is grim in countries like Myanmar and Cambodia where the military junta has taken the concept to heart and entered into arrangements with biofuel conglomerates and went on to clear extensive forest tracts to replace them with either palm trees as palm oil fetches higher market price , what is actually staggering is the ecological impact that such a step would have. It is estimated that at the current rate of clearing that is happening, the entire Amazon rain forest might vanish by the year 2022 and even for a 5% blending programme the arable land has to go up by 15% which can happen only at the staggering cost of our tropical rain forests that would have to be cleared in order to see that such an idea approaches fruitition.


One crop, jatropha, has become particularly popular with governments in some countries: in Burma, the military rulers have ordered that farm land the size of Belgium should be planted with jatropha while in Kenya a new Bio-Diesel Association has just been set up to convert more land towards the production of jatropha. This has already resulted in a vast multitude of problems in the form of several animals losing their habitat and thereby driven to extinction like the orang outan in Indonesia…


In May the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, told a French newspaper: ‘The ambitious goals for biofuel production set by the United States and the European Union are irresponsible. I am calling for a freeze on all investment in this sector’ and that itself speaks volumes on the real impact of the crisis.


Further at the recent Rome convention on rising food prices the DG of FAO has criticised the role played by developed countries in inflating world food prices, he also attacked the negative impact of the huge subsidies provided to farmers in the west that totalled up to 272 billion dollars. Repeated appeals at the WTO forum to reduce this OTDS have fallen on deaf ears.


To add insult to injury at the Rome conference it has been agreed that bio fuel are not as big a threat as they are being made out to be and all that has resulted in place of concrete action against this growing threat is rhetoric.


According to an action aid international report the biofuel madness has pushed around 260 million people to hunger. The G8’s push for greater biofuel use has been a significant factor in driving 760 million people into food insecurity and putting them at risk of hunger in the past two years. The huge thirst for bio fuels is mainly a consequence of the targets and subsidies the rich world has put in place to build energy security. Biofuel subsidies to US and EU farmers are worth between $16bn (£8bn) and $18bn a year – four times as much as all agricultural aid to the developing world. Also the food crisis has come at a time of record harvests. In 2007, world cereal production hit a new high and is forecast to increase again in 2008.


In Swaziland 40% of the population is facing acute food shortage as the population is reeling under the effects of several hectares transferred to ethanol production especially in Lavamusia which is the worst hit; School feeding projects in Kenya, Cambodia have been scaled down and aid to Tajikistan has been halved.


So one can safely come to the conclusion that the single biggest threat to international food security is indiscriminate application of the bio fuel concept like a procrustean approach.

We today are at crossroads having to choose between our feeding bowls and our vehicles!!!


2. Globalisation: The quantum of subsidies that the developed countries offer is huge and ranges from 17 billion$ OTDS in case of USA and these countries happen to be at the fore front of demanding removal of tarriff walls so that their products can enter the developing world markets easily, all this would have been accepted at face value had the term Inequality been nonexistent in the world but that sadly is not the case.


The point to be understood is that in the absence of the meagre subsidies that the countries of the developing world offer the farmers in these countries will get obliterated very quickly. What we today see in countries like Ethiopia, Philippines, Sudan and Senegal is a direct result of meddling done by international agencies like the WTO or the IMF. These countries today face the worst kind of food crisis that is manifesting itself into a huge humanitarian problem transcending international boundaries.


18000 children die daily due to inadequate nutrition and overall 3 billion people have been found to be food insecure according to the UN. In large parts of Africa a lot of children are served only one meal a day.


3. Agricultural malpractices and land degradation:


FAO estimates that 592,000 square kilometres of land has deteriorated — the 1991 assessment placed the figure at 450,000 sqkm. As a direct consequence the net sown area has gone down by 1 million hectare in the country, the impact on the country’s long term food security can very well be imagined. The worst-hit are the dry lands in Rajasthan and Gujarat where erosion, spread of salinity and alkalinity, and dumping of industrial and mining wastes have affected more than 90 per cent of the land. For the first time since the green revolution the country had to go in for such a huge quantum of wheat exports and that does not augur well for us.


Punjab that is touted widely as the grain bowl of India as with only 1.5% of the nation’s land it produces 20% of India’s wheat and 12% of its rice is reeling under the aftermath of industrialisation of agriculture that boosts yields in short term but leads to long term destruction of land.


1. Punjab’s agricultural miracles are on the verge of collapse
2. Canals that channel water for water thirsty crops like rice are going dry.
3. Nitrites from fertilizers have polluted the ground water.
4. Agriculture experts have urged the farmers to go for diversification of crops while the government is appealing for the contrary.


4. Climate change: and finally the biggest buzz word on the planet today and that is the impact analysis that rising temperatures and melting polar ice caps is having on countries across the globe. While it is widely believed that C3 plants like rice will profit on account of higher temperatures and easily available abundant carbon the results in the open could very well be variable and disastrous as well, nothing can however be said with absolute sureity.


This in a nut shell has been an attempt at quantifying the reasons behind the global food crisis….


Innumerable challenges abound and they need to be addressed with out delay.


Sainath Sunil

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