Global food supplies are being threatened

What has been called “the great die off” is looming on the horizon. Canada’s National Farmers Union (NFU) says rising population, water shortages, climate change and increasing costs of petroleum-based fertilizers indicate a major shortfall in global grain supplies in the very near future.

Thirty years ago, there was more of everything, but today more people depend on farmers to provide their food than ever before, according to Stuart Wells, NFU president.

Canada’s IPS News reports in five of the last six years, global population consumed more grains than farmers could produce. Reserve stocks were tapped. Now, with the world’s farmers unable to increase production, policymakers are forced to confront the “massive challenges to the ability of humanity to continue to feed its growing numbers,” Wells said.

Little land is left on Earth that can be used as new food-producing areas, said Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, a non-governmental group based in Washington, D.C. Brown added that what land is available is of generally poor quality or likely to become dust bowls if heavily farmed.

A further complicating factor influences all this. In his book, Plan B, 2.0, Brown writes: “Historically the world’s farmers produced food, feed and fiber. Today, they are starting to produce fuel as well. Since nearly everything we eat can be converted into automotive fuel, the high price of oil is becoming the support price for farm products. It is also determining the price of food.

“On any given day, there are now two groups of buyers in world commodity markets: one representing food processors and another representing biofuel producers. The line between the food and fuel economies has suddenly blurred as service stations compete with supermarkets for the same commodities,” Brown wrote.

This time, unlike the Green Revolution of the 1960s, when better strains of rice, wheat, maize and other cereal grains sharply boosted global food production, there’s no technological magic waiting to save us. “Biotechnology has made little difference so far,” Brown told IPS.

He said even if biotech advances are made in the next decade, they will raise crop yields slightly more than 5 percent globally. “There’s not nearly enough discussion about how people will be fed 20 years from now,” Brown said.

For more than 850 million people, including 300 million children, hunger is a stark reality. That number can only soar when anywhere from 1 billion to perhaps 3 billion more people are added to the global population.

Darrin Qualman, NFU’s research director, said the global food system is in need of quick repair. “Many Canadian and U.S. farmers are going out of business because crop prices are at their lowest in nearly 100 years,” Qualman said. “Farmers are told overproduction is to blame for the low prices they’ve been forced to accept in recent years.”

Yet, most North American agribusiness corporations saw record profits in 2004. Qualman said, with only five major companies dominating the global grain market, a massive power imbalance exists.

“The food production system is designed to generate profits, not produce food or nutrition for people,” Qualman said.

Enormous amounts of food are stored in central Canada, he said, but thousands living there, including some farmers, are forced to rely on food banks. “It’s a system that’s perfectly happy to leave hundreds of millions of people unfed,” he said.

Experts say the core of the hunger problem is inequity and poverty. Poverty is becoming more widespread, with hunger and malnutrition a chronic problem for the poor in both the south and the north, Brown said. Climate change is likely to worsen that situation.

Christian Aid, a British-based charity, estimates 184 million people in Africa alone could die of famine, floods, drought and conflicts stemming from climate change before the end of this century.

In other parts of the world, millions more will succumb, and gains in slowing poverty could be reversed in coming decades, the British report, “Climate of Poverty: Facts, Fears and Hopes,” says.

Andrew Pendleton, an analyst at Christian Aid, said: “This is a grave crisis for global society, and we need global solutions.” In one section of the report, the group sees poorer areas using renewable energy to produce a new, clean and prosperous era.

In 10 African countries, money for better seeds, fertilizer, a share in a dependable, protected water source, and netting to protect against malarial mosquitoes, allow villagers in Millennium Villages to grow adequate amounts of food and even have a surplus to sell.

Brown advocates a strong assault on poverty, stabilizing population and sharp reductions in greenhouse gases and emissions that cause climate change. He believes these measures need to be undertaken at once.

Qualman advocates local production of local food supplies. “The 100-mile diet, where people obtain their food from within a 100-mile radius of their homes, makes good sense for most of the world,” he said.

He said the whole system of food production must change, or hunger and malnutrition will only get worse. “North America’s industrial-style agricultural system is a really bad idea and maybe the worst on the planet,” Qualman said.

From the May 31-June 6, 2006, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!