Sunday, May 4, 2008

World Food Crisis - a dangerous opportunity?

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 to death.

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 ¡V 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 yields.

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 mid-century.

* 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 decades.

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 Senegal.

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 2008.

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 DC.

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:

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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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