World Food Crisis
a dangerous opportunity?
By Anthony Marr
The Chinese define "crisis" as "dangerous
opportunity"; so obviously, it works for the Chinese. But it does not work
for the shrews as the following example attests. Would it work for the
species self-named Homo sapiens - "Man the Wise" - to which the Chinese
belong, which is supposed be to be a little more shrewd than the shrews?
A shrew is among the smallest of mammalian
predators, and ounce-for-ounce one of the most ferocious, requiring several
times its own body-weight in meat per day to survive that day. Other than
air and water and rest and sex (and drugs and rock-and-roll for at least one
species), which are basic universal needs, the primary target of pursuit of
a shrews existence is food. Put three shrews into a terrarium with two day's
worth of food and what will you find at the end of the third day? Some dried
blood, some shrew feces, and the front half of a shrew.
You see, after two days, the food would be
exhausted. On the third day, two of the shrews killed the third and ate it,
followed by one of the remaining two killing the other and eating it,
followed by the remaining shrew eating itself tail first, until it dies.
This means, among other things, that starving animals would turn to
cannibalism, and that an animal would rather be eaten alive than be starved
This applies to humans as much as to the
shrews. Air-crash survivors and those trapped in the wilderness have by
individual actions turned to cannibalism to survive, and the tribes of
Easter Island made cannibalism a social institution after they had cut down
their last tree.
It would take immense pressure to make a
vegetarian eat meat, and even more so to turn even meat-eaters into
cannibals. But a global famine can certainly and easily do that.
World food shortage is something that even
the die-hard global-warming-deniers have to acknowledge and explain, and
there is no way that they can explain the current world food shortage
without addressing global climate change as a cause.
As for the generally anthropocentric
public, they may shrug their shoulders to mass extinction of other species
half a world away, but most cannot ignore the starvation of humans in even
the farthest corners of the world. And for those who still don't care, they
will care soon enough when the price of a loaf of bread in a neighborhood
store doubles, as does the price of gasoline in a neighborhood gas station.
World food shortage has been predicted for
years. In 2005, the Guardian published an article titled "One in six
countries facing food shortage" due to "severe droughts that could become
semi-permanent under climate change". Already, droughts had devastated crops
across Africa, Central America and south-east Asia, which had become part of
an "emerging pattern".
The two most worrisome regions were
sub-Saharan Africa and the Amazon basin. The emerging pattern was that not
just one African nation, but all sub-Saharan African nations, without a
single exception, will suffer declines in rainfall of at least 50%, some as
much as 75%.
"The worst affected countries include
Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Eritrea and Zambia, a group of countries where
at least 15 million people will go hungry without aid. The situation in
Niger, Djibouti and Sudan is reported to be deteriorating rapidly. Many
countries have had their worst harvests in more than 10 years and are
experiencing their third or fourth severe drought in a few years". While
northern Africa might enjoy some moistening and greening, central and
especially southern Africa would see the formation and spreading of deserts
- "across huge tracks of Botswana, Angola, Zimbabwe and western Zambia".
Before 2005, the Amazon rainforest had
been predicted to be hit by a long-term drying trend, whereas the Arctic and
sub-Arctic were predicted to lose sea ice at an accelerated rate. Since
then, all three predictions íV for African, Amazon and Arctic - have come
true, all exceeding the worst-case scenarios by substantial margins. Where
anything related to global warming is concerned, "faster than scientists
expected" has become a hot media phrase.
Severe droughts have also badly affected
crops in Cuba, Cambodia, Australia, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Morocco,
Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, Ecuador and Lesotho. In Europe, one of
the worst droughts on record has hit Spain and Portugal and halved some crop
All in all, at least 34 countries were
experiencing droughts and food shortages, and up to 30 million people would
need assistance because of the droughts and other natural disasters as
observed in 2005.
In spite of the above warning two and a
half years prior, the UN issued a statement in December 2007 that in an
"unforeseen and unprecedented" shift, the world food supply was dwindling
rapidly and food prices were soaring to historic levels. The UN food price
index had risen by more than 40% this year, compared with 9% the year before
"a rate that was already unacceptable". New figures showed that the total
cost of foodstuffs imported by the neediest countries rose 25 percent in
2006, from $77 million to $107 million, meaning malnutrition if not
starvation for the poorest of the poor.
At the same time, reserves of cereals were
"severely depleted". World wheat stores declined 11 percent in 2007, to the
lowest level since 1980. That corresponds to 12 weeks of the world's total
consumption - much less than the average of 18 weeks consumption in storage
during the period 2000-2005. There were only 8 weeks of corn left, down from
11 weeks in the earlier period. Prices of wheat and oilseeds were at record
highs. Wheat prices had risen by $130 per ton, or 52%, since a year ago.
U.S. wheat futures broke $10 a bushel for the first time Monday, "the
agricultural equivalent of $100 a barrel oil".
That there is a world food crisis is
beyond a shadow of a doubt. The UN identified a confluence of recent supply
and demand factors as the cause of the situation, and predicted that those
factors were "here to stay".
On the supply side, these include:
* the droughts induced by global warming
in agriculturally crucial regions, where crop yields were significantly
decreased. Global warming will result in shorter growing seasons and smaller
crop yields across most of the developing world, affecting the lives of
billions of people. Wheat production in India could drop by 50% within 40
years, putting as many as 200 million people at risk. Growing seasons in
many parts of Africa will decrease by 20%, with some of the world's poorest
farming communities in east and central Africa including Rwanda, Burundi,
Ethiopia and Eritrea among the worst affected.
* the near-exponential increase in the
global human population. We are adding 73 million mouths a year. The global
population will grow from 6.5 billion to 9.5 billion before peaking near
* the rising percentage of meat-eaters in
newly affluent developing countries. In 1985, China's average per capita
consumption of meat was 20kg per year; by 2007, it had risen to 50kg. This
not only diverts vast quantities of soy to become cattle feed, it also
sustains industries (meat production) from which methane is emitted in vast
quantities, which adds hugely to the global warming feedback-loop. Finally,
expanding soy and sugar-cane plantations also reduce the total size of the
Amazon rainforest, thus reducing its carbon-sinking capacity, while driving
thousand of species to extinction
* diverting major portions of "food crop"
for cattle-feed and for ethanol production. As the world's oil prices
skyrocket, so do ethanol prices, and so does the price of the "food" crop
from which the ethanol is derived, regardless of whether the crop is used
for food, feed or fuel. The UN FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization)
reported that there had been "an unprecedented hike in world prices of, not
just a selected few, but nearly all, major food and feed commodities"
* food exporting countries capping their
exports in favor of stockpiling the commodity internally. Food-supplying
countries, from Ukraine to China to Argentina , have been limiting or
reducing exports in an attempt to protect domestic consumers, leading to
angry protests from farmers, and making food sometimes downright unavailable
to those importing-countries that need it. The import ratios for grains of
the most import-dependent countries are: Eritrea (88%), Sierra Leone (85%),
Niger (81%), Liberia (75%), Botswana (72%), Haiti (67%), and Bangladesh
(65%). In these places, if they don't get what they need when they need it,
people die. Roughly 100 million people are tipping over the survival line.
* high oil prices have doubled shipping
costs since 2006, putting enormous stress on poor nations that need to
import food as well as the humanitarian agencies that provide it. The global
food bill has risen by 57% in the last year. Soaring freight rates make it
worse. The cost of food "on the table" has jumped by 74% in poor countries
that rely on imports. These are places where 50%-60% of the people's income
goes to food. If they can't afford to pay, they starve, even if there is
food on the shelf.
The World Food Program considers the
present food crisis "the perfect storm" of global hunger, where the poor are
being "priced out of the food market", and one that will rage on for
A state of famine anywhere in the world is
hard evidence that global demand has exceeded global supply, or at least
there is a blockage in the global food-delivery system for some reason. It
means that we are at or have exceeded the limits of our allowance. The
safety margins, such as food reserves, have shrunken dangerously. Any local
calamity, such as a crop failure in a high production area (e.g. Australia
and the Ukraine ) due to climate change or insect infestation or crop
disease, can trigger a major and resounding global disaster. The
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra
stated that this was a "very risky situation".
Recent scientific papers concluded that
farmers could adjust to 1oC (1.8oF) to 3oC (5.4oFdegrees) of warming by
switching to more resilient species, changing planting times, or storing
water for irrigation. But for any global temperature increase of more than 3
degrees Celsius, "all bets are off," said Columbia University's Earth
Institute. "There is a strong potential for negative surprises."
As of the end of 2007, the previously
listed 34 countries that were considered by the UN FAO to be headed for
"drought and food shortages" have been increased to "almost 40 countries",
including 20 African countries as well as Iraq, Afghanistan, Nepal and
Pakistan, that "are facing critical food shortages as world food prices soar
to record levels".
The world's food supplies are rapidly
dwindling, and the UN FAO's global food price index reached its highest
level in 2007, rising by more than four times fasters (40%) compared with
its rise in 2006 (9%).
In its monthly analysis of global food
prices, the UN FAO said there had been an unprecedented "hike in world
prices of, not just a selected few, but of nearly all, major food and feed
commodities". Rarely had the world felt such "a widespread and commonly
shared concern about food price inflation." In Australia, prices for bread
and eggs have increased by 17% since 2005, vegetables by 33%, dairy products
by 11%, fruit by 43%, and honey by 100%.
Meanwhile, food riots caused by shortages
and rising prices occurred in Mexico, Morocco, Uzbekistan, Yemen and
Came February 2008, the world's stockpile
of wheat had shrunk even further. From the previous 12-week-grace, the world
is now only ten weeks away from running out of wheat should major global
crop failures occur. And we haven't even talked about rice yet.
The price of rice doubled within the first
three months of 2008. Rice is not used for ethanol production. It is a
physical problem of dwindling supply. Rice cultivation is water-intensive,
and many farmers in desiccating and desiccated areas are switching to more
drought resistant crops. Australia is a big factor. Six long years of
drought has reduced the Australian rice production by 98%, partly due to the
abandonment of rice by Australian farmers as a viable food crop.
Shrinking stockpiles have led the world's
largest exporters to restrict exports severely, spurred panicked hoarding in
Hong Kong and the Philippines, and set off violent protests in countries
including Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Ivory Coast,
Mauritania, the Philippines, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and even Italy.
It took something so severe to finally
lead the National Farmers' Federation in Australia, to say, "Climate change
is potentially the biggest risk to Australian agriculture," while American
farmers, highly subject to denier-persuasion, are still debating whether
global warming is real, tantamount to some passengers in the sinking Titanic
debating on whether the existence of icebergs was a hoax.
The agricultural crisis has now become
also a matter of politics, morals and ethics. It takes 232kg of corn to fill
a 50-litre car tank with ethanol. That is enough to feed a child for a year.
Isn't it a crime against humanity to take food out of the mouths of hungry
children to feed some gas-guzzling SUVs with ethanol? Is it a crime against
nature to wipe out thousands of square miles of Amazon rainforest and
thousands of endemic species, just so that we could pump ethanol into the
V8s of muscle cars? Isn't it downright stupid for the Canadian government to
push for a new high of 10% ethanol in Canadian gasoline by 2010?
America - the world's food superpower -
will divert 18% of its grain output for ethanol this year, chiefly to break
dependency on oil imports. It has a 45% biofuel target for corn by 2015.
Argentina, Canada, and Eastern Europe are falling over themselves to join
the ethanol race. The EU has targeted a 5.75% biofuel share by 2010, though
that may change. Is alcohol not only an intoxicant for Americans and
Canadians, but an intoxicant for America and Canada?
And meanwhile, there are more and more
violent food riots in more and more places. The UN predicted "massacres"
unless the biofuel policy is halted. New bloody riots have erupted now in
Egypt, Cameroon, Haiti and Burkina Faso. Haiti's government fell in the
weekend following rice and bean riots, when five died.
Is there any more land for more crops?
Other than making more efficient use of the already used land in Russia,
Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, Brazil has the world's biggest "reserves" of
"potential arable land" with 483 million hectares (it currently cultivates
67 million hectares), and Colombia has 62 million hectares - both
potentially offering biannual harvests. We all know what this means.
"The idea that you cut down rainforest to
actually grow biofuels seems profoundly stupid," said Professor John
Beddington, Britain 's chief scientific adviser.
In early 2007, Jean Ziegler, the UN's
Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, denounced biofuels as "a crime
against humanity" and called for a five-year moratorium on their production.
The impact of biofuels on world food
production will be reviewed at a UN conference on food security later in
Food export controls have now been imposed
by Russia, China, India, Vietnam, Argentina, and Serbia. The world is
disturbingly close to a chain reaction that could shatter its assumptions
about food security. The Philippines last month had to enlist its embassies
to hunt for grain supplies after China withheld shipments. Washington
stepped in, pledging "absolutely" to cover Philippine grain needs. A new
Cold War is taking shape, around energy and food.
The United States can afford to appear
generous now, but not for long. Sooner or later, judging by recent global
trends much sooner than later, the food crisis will hit even the rich
nations, as they are now being hit by high oil prices. But knowing the
politicians here, they won't pay this the slightest attention until people
beginning dying of malnutrition and starvation in the streets of Washington
And meanwhile, many in the corridors of
power will continue to mumble and scowl, "Global Warming is just a hoax."
Let Big Oil exhale its last poisonous
breath. Let their political puppets do the last scene of their macabre dance
of planetary rape. Let's move forward and leave them behind in our wake. The
planet Earth is now beset with what HOPE calls the Six Planetary Diseases :
Planetary Cancer (population explosions of humans and cattle), Planetary
Fever (global warming), Planetary AIDS (damage of protective ozone shield),
Planetary Blood Poisoning (toxic pollution), Planetary Wasting Disease (loss
of biomass and biodiversity) and Planetary Suicidal Tendency (probability of
global nuclear holocaust). We need to heal our planet Earth, or we all die.
Scientists estimate a bare bone
planet-healing budget of $120 billion per year to just get the process
started. But, ridiculousness upon absurdity, in this crucial hour of
planetary need, such an Earth-healing Global Green Fund DOES NOT EVEN EXIST.
So meanwhile, I ask all who are in the
know, who truly love our children and all creatures and truly care, to sign
the following UN Global Green Fund petition, and make a strong comment worth
a thousand signatures. Please go to:
Finally, please distribute it far and
wide. We need the whole world to work together on this one. Thank you!
Anthony Marr, founder and president
Heal Our Planet Earth (HOPE)
Global Emergency Operation (GEO)
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