View Full Version : Food Shortages: How Will We Feed The World?

04-23-2008, 08:28 AM
Food shortages: how will we feed the world?
A global food shortage threatens the lives of millions. Charles Clover reports on the possible solutions to the crisis


Last Updated: 12:01am BST 22/04/2008Page 1 of 3

The era of cheap food is over. In Britain, a standard white loaf costs more than £1, grocery bills are driving up inflation and land prices are going through the roof. But steep rises in the price of staples such as wheat and rice are having an even bigger impact on poor countries.

In Cameroon, 24 people have been killed in food riots since February, while in Haiti, protesters chanting, "We're hungry" forced the prime minister to resign this month.

In the past month, there have been food riots in Egypt, Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Madagascar.

The World Bank now believes that some 33 countries are in danger of being destabilised by food price inflation, while Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary-general, said that higher food prices risked wiping out progress towards reducing poverty and could harm global growth and security.

Why has this happened so quickly? Can science and technology get us out of the hole we appear to be in.

Bob Watson, the chief scientist at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, puts the rise in the price of commodity crops such as wheat down to a number of factors: higher demand for grain to feed livestock in China, where increasing affluence means more people want to eat meat; drought in Australia for three years, meaning it has had to import wheat; market jitters brought on by the sight of several countries stopping exporting grain; speculators seeing a chance to make money; and, of course, the sudden extra demand for food crops such as maize for use in biofuels, in both Europe and the United States.

A few years ago, he points out, no one could have predicted that we would be aiming to produce five to 10 per cent of our petrol and diesel from crops.

Since January 2007, the price of wheat has risen by as much as two and a half times, while the rice price has almost trebled.

This, says the International Rice Research Institute, is partly because rice-growing land in countries such as the Philippines is being lost to industrialisation and urbanisation, while the growing appetite for meat and dairy products among Asia's burgeoning middle class is leading farmers to abandon rice growing. Flooding in Indonesia and Bangladesh and cold weather in Vietnam and China have also hit production.

Food price inflation inevitably hits the poor hardest. Food represents about 10 to 20 per cent of consumer spending in the rich world, but as much as 60 to 80 per cent in developing countries, many of which are net food importers, according to Henri Josserand, of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Bob Zoellick, president of the World Bank, calculates that food inflation could push 100?million people back into poverty, wiping out the gains of a decade of economic growth.

The World Food Programme has warned that we could be living in a world of food supply imbalances until 2010 at least.

In the short term, farmers in the developed world are likely to be attracted by high prices and try to grow more staple crops. In Europe, Brussels has abolished set-aside, the practice of paying farmers to leave land fallow, and the signs are that Europe's farmers will grow 13 per cent more cereals this year.

In the developing world, things are less certain, because the poorest in Africa and India have been selling their tools, their animals and the sheets of tin over their heads just to buy food.

For the poorest, recovery is more difficult and aid will be needed. The balance will eventually be restored - nearly half of the world's potential agricultural land is unused.

The development of better crop varieties, pesticides and fertilisers has kept the world's food supply growing faster than its population, even though the latter figure is set to hit nine billion by 2050.

However, the rate of progress has slowed. According to Dr Watson, who chaired the four-year International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), enormous improvements have been made in productivity, particularly in Asia, but food production in sub-Saharan Africa has decreased. More than 800million people still go hungry at night and, even in India, where the Green Revolution made some of its biggest strides, some 50 per cent of children in rural areas are malnourished.

To the exasperation of the big agroscience companies, and countries such as the United States, Australia and Canada, the 2,500-page IAASTD report, backed by the World Bank and UN, did not push for big technical fixes.

It came down on the side of "multi-functional" agriculture, which incorporates goals such as poverty reduction, water conservation and climate change adaptation alongside conventional efforts to increase production.

It said that the biggest gains will come not from new "miracle crops", but from making existing science and technology available to the small-scale farmers responsible for tilling a third of the world's land surface.

Only by helping them to feed themselves - partly by improving distribution and markets - will the challenges of sustainability, better health and poverty reduction be met.

Partly in the cold. Biotechnology, in the sense of rapid development of plant varieties, will play a central role in feeding the world this century, says Dr Watson.

But whether transgenic crops and animals - those that have had genes inserted into them - have increased productivity at all is open for debate. Technologies such as high-yielding crops, agrochemicals and mechanisation have mostly helped the better-off.

With the right controls, he says, biotechnology could contribute to greater food production - but he adds that some forms of organic agriculture have a part to play in feeding the poor.

This has led to criticism from the US and other countries, who take a simpler view of GM crops. Sixty countries have endorsed the report. Britain, typically, has yet to decide.

Watson's lot say using food crops for fuel is environmentally, socially and economically unacceptable. Some would argue that using maize for fuel achieves a 50 per cent reduction in carbon emissions once the fossil fuels used to make them are taken into account.

Others argue that there could be an increase in the greenhouse gases produced, because of the displacement of soya crops from the US into Brazil, where they are grown on land cleared from the forest and where livestock is then displaced on to forest land, which has led to a new peak in its destruction.

Some first-generation biofuels, such as sugar cane, look pretty good, according to Watson. Brazil has some 500 commercial varieties and, arguably, sugar cane does not displace livestock into the rainforest.

Everyone is agreed that the role for science and technology is to bring forward second-generation biofuels - using enzymes to break down cellulose in woody crops such as switchgrass and miscanthus, and farm wastes such as straw.

There are other plans to use plain domestic rubbish. Then there are third-generation biofuels such as algae and bacteria. Watson is pessimistic, believing that it will take five to 15 years for the first second-generation biofuels to become available in sufficient quantities.

In the meantime, Europe and America's targets for including more biofuels in what is sold on the forecourt will place greater pressure on food crops.

The good news, believe experts such as Richard Murphy, a reader in plant science at Imperial College London, is that fuels made from wastes and woody crops grown on marginal land should eventually beat fuels made from food crops on price.

Cellulose breakdown, he points out, happens on the forest floor every day, thanks to the work of fungi and termites. If we could crack it on a large scale, it would make fuel from waste and woody crops as "cheap as chips" - and the continent capable of growing the largest quantities of woody crops is Africa.

So the solutions to the present crisis may, in the end, help fight poverty and save the planet at the same time.