Hungry for Answers
It seemed to happen overnight.
The next minute, angry food riots were breaking out in dozens of countries around the world, the scenes barely credible in the 21st century.
Hungry people desperate for bread or corn or rice, the staples of simple diets. But a shortfall in supplies has doubled and tripled the prices of these basics, shoving them far out of reach of the poorest people on Earth, the one billion who live on less than $1 a day.
The crisis was a shock, but not actually a surprise. Josette Sheeran, head of the World Food Program, likened it to a "silent tsunami" that had taken years to build.
But the unprecedented extent of it - and what that tells us about the world's two solitudes, the rich and the poor - has stunned complacent North America. Here, obesity is the concern, not chronic malnutrition.
The paradox sticks in the throat.
Millions are now being spent on emergency food distribution: short-term calamities can always be fixed. But the world's broken food system won't be repaired overnight.
Global consumption has exceeded production in seven of the last eight years. A 30-year era of cheap, limitless food is over, say economists, and high prices will likely last for years, maybe decades.
Why? Because they signal a structural meltdown in the way food is grown, traded and supplied around the world.
"This is a crisis that had to happen," says Harriet Friedmann, a leading food systems specialist at the University of Toronto. "The food and agriculture system can't go on the way it is."
Is it fixable? Analysts say yes, with enough determination and consensus on what's gone wrong and how to put it right. But there are no magic bullets. The solutions will be as complex and multi-faceted as the factors that tripped this year's disaster. Some were unexpected; many had been looming for years. Among them:
Worldwide crop shortfalls coupled with dwindling surpluses. Global wheat stocks reached a 27-year low last year, with a prairie heat wave causing Canada's harvest to fall to 18.4 million tonnes from a five-year average of 22.1 million. Australia again under-produced due to a decade-long drought.
Runaway oil prices that jacked up the cost of fertilizer, transportation and, ultimately, prices in the markets of the poor world.
The diversion of millions of hectares of food crops to biofuels in Brazil, Africa and the U.S.
Washington is spending $7 billion in conversion subsidies to meet the goal of a 20 per cent reduction in oil consumption by 2017. (Ottawa is offering farmers $200 million in loans to switch over by 2010, when gasoline must contain 5 per cent biofuel.)
The International Monetary Fund says ethanol accounts for 70 per cent of corn's price inflation. With slim to nil of the much-vaunted environmental benefits, add critics. They say filling one SUV with ethanol uses as much corn as an African family eats in a year.
The doubling of demand for meat worldwide, especially in exploding economies like China and India, where the new middle classes want the West's high-protein diet. Fields of grains once bound for humans are now used for livestock.
The flurry of export bans by countries with stocks in hand at the peak of the emergency. India and Vietnam, for example, closed the door on rice sales. Other nations hoarded to protect their own people.
Recession-fearing speculators honing in on commodities markets. Large investment funds now control up to 60 per cent of the world's wheat trade.
And all of it happening against the backdrop of climate change. In the past 20 years, the number of "extreme weather events" - heat waves, floods, droughts - has doubled to 400 a year, the UN says.
The result? Decades of rising global economic growth are now under threat; years of progress in the developing world are being undone. And another 100 million people have joined the 850 million already going to bed hungry every night.
The international food supply's current structure - so workable on paper - has to be profoundly changed, warns UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Output must double over the next 20 years, he says, or the repercussions will be worldwide: "a cascade of related crises, affecting trade, economic growth, social progress, even political security."
It took nearly all of human history for Earth's population to reach 2.5 billion. That was in 1950. Today, it's 6.7 billion and rising. The planet's resources are finite, but demand for food, water and energy will grow inexorably in the coming years. So, too, will the pressure on inept or corrupt regimes.
"Governments rise and fall on their ability to feed their people," says U of T's Friedmann, "because food is the most basic human right."
The world has seen food failures before, of course, sparked by freak weather, political turmoil or, indeed, sudden spikes in oil prices. The 1973-74 oil crisis played havoc with prices and distribution and led to a global food summit in 1976. But nothing was done to ensure it wouldn't happen again. In fact, the reverse happened.
U of T's Friedmann says from then on, the industrialization of agriculture accelerated, became increasingly privatized and much more, not less, dependent on fossil fuels.
"Food started to be in constant motion, on ships, planes, trucks," she says. "The tight link to oil was created in the last 20 years and people knew that whenever it rose in price, so would food."
The world has no choice now but to start undoing long-time policies that have led to the system's crash, says Robert Watson, Britain's chief food and environment scientist and a former White House adviser.
"We must recognize that business as usual is not an option," he told a U.S. congressional committee last month. "If a large part of the world isn't to go hungry in the 21st century, we need nothing short of a new agricultural revolution."
The last great agricultural leap forward occurred in the 1960s' Green Revolution. It was an international project aimed at helping countries in the "global South" gain food security through greater self-sufficiency.
The World Bank made it a priority, financially backing domestic marketing boards, food storage and distribution services. Packages of hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides were marketed to small-scale farmers. And, indeed, between 1960 and 1970, grain yields grew by 2.6 per cent a year.
The pace wasn't sustainable. Over time, the soil was depleted, water polluted and natural growing cycles disrupted. From 1990 on, annual yields in Africa stagnated and dropped back to 1 per cent in other targeted regions.
But by then, the World Bank had changed its development policy. The new view was summed up in 1986 by a U.S. agriculture secretary: "The idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism." They were better off relying on the West's exports "available, in most cases, at much lower cost."
In order to receive IMF loans, poor countries now had to agree to end their barriers on imports, dismantle their marketing boards - and take their chance on the open market.
But the 450 million farmers of the poor world, Africa's in particular, couldn't begin to compete with the West's heavily subsidized exports.
Trade was further liberalized in the 1990s. But subsidies, especially in the U.S., remained. With food technologies concentrated in giant transnational firms like Monsanto and Dupont, highly mechanized, chemically dependent, industrial-scale farming overwhelmed any other kind of agriculture.
The neediest countries became dumping grounds for Western surpluses, often in the guise of food aid, a practice that undercuts local farmers selling the same crops. In Haiti (where food protests unseated the prime minister this spring), a sudden "import surge" of U.S. rice in 1995 devastated domestic rice farmers.
It happened repeatedly to African countries that now have to import more than 40 per cent of their food. Critics say their governments do little to help the situation by spending less than 5 per cent of their budgets on domestic farming. One result of the neglect is that a third of crops are lost after harvesting because farmers can't get them to the marketplace in time or they're pilfered en route.
Meanwhile, food producers in the rich world were letting food reserves drop. By the end of 2007, cereal reserves equalled only 54 days of emergency world consumption.
By then, priorities had changed. As an Oxfam report has noted: "If the fuel value for a crop exceeds its food value, then it will be used for fuel instead."
The tsunami was building.
The World Bank is once again calling agriculture a development goal. The head of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission insists prices in future will be set "by the fundamental forces of supply and demand, rather than abusive or manipulative practices." On July 7, G-8 leaders meet in Japan to consider (or not) trade reform.
The gears for change are being set in motion. Money will be thrown at the problem.
But as one leading U.S. analyst puts it: "Expecting solutions from the institutions that created the disaster in the first place is like calling an arsonist to put out the fire."
Economists differ on the best way to stabilize the long-term food supply. Globalization advocates argue for freer trade, allowing poor countries to increase their exports while the rich world's subsidies and tariffs finally are cut. (A hard sell in the U.S., which just passed a five-year, $307 billion farm bill once again heavy on subsidies.)
Critics counter that further liberalization, leaving the security of the food supply prey to market forces, is the wrong direction. In a changing world, it's the attitude to food growing, not just the economics of it, that needs to be transformed.
As food scientist Watson puts it: "We need a more rational use of scarce land and water resources, an equitable trade regime, as well as action on climate change ... new tools, increased investments in agricultural knowledge. We also need to care about rural livelihoods."
The future security of the food supply will hinge on myriad interventions, from the practical to the utopian. Among those under discussion:
A second Green Revolution in developing regions, with improved seeds and farming practices, that's genuinely sustainable, environmentally and economically.
Increased foreign aid specifically tied to agriculture. The present level has dropped from 20 per cent in 1986 to 4 per cent today.
Expedited research on the benefits and risks of using controversial, genetically modified crops in the global South, not just northern countries.
Though advocated by many as a solution in the Third World, a moratorium on biofuels to measure loss of farmland and the impact on the system.
"There are all sorts of experimental ideas coming through the cracks that take agriculture sustainably forward," says Friedmann. "This stuff is trying to happen."
Farmers' traditional knowledge - of how to rotate crops, interplant, control pests - should be harnessed and blended with new technologies. Those who don't know should be taught how to retrieve seeds from crops and not be forced to buy from the biotech giants: "Monsanto can't sell seeds if people don't buy them," she says.
Today, the agricultural emphasis "is on biofuels, feedstock and humans - in that order. But the system doesn't have to remain that way. We can change it; we have to."
Spurred by this year's calamity, the world's farmers were spurred to plant more seeds this spring. Weather permitting (a precarious assumption), larger harvests are expected.
The question is: Will a false sense of security be reaped along with them?
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