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After “War on Terror” and “War for Oil” comes “War for Food”?

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food riots in Argentina

In the past months, I have been posting regularly about the global food crisis:
- Oil, Biofuel, World Hunger and Crimes Against Humanity.
- The Global Food Crisis: A Perfect Storm
- The Food Crisis: A Global Overview

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while know I work for a humanitarian agency, so automatically my view of news articles is biased: scanning news bulletins I am rather sensitive to possible lurking crisis, be it armed conflicts, natural disasters or plain economic issues that could cause humanitarian problems. Plus of course, this is our job, this is what we do for a living: trying to spot, mitigate and react to humanitarian crisis in the making or unfolding.

On top of this, working for a food aid agency, the issue of raising food prices, the dilemma of biofuel production versus food production, changing weather patterns decreasing the food production are automatically issues which catch my eyes faster.

So I have been asking myself the question: “Is the global food crisis really that big an issue, or is it blown out of proportion by the media, amplified by my built-in sensitivity to food aid issues?”.

Over the past weeks, I have been scanning the media rigorously. A few months ago, I set up a Pageflakes newsfeed tool which takes RSS feeds from about 100 news sources: Western and non-Western media, citizen journalism and social bookmarking sites. My Pageflakes tool gives me, in three screens, at a glance, an overview of ten news posts per news site, resulting in about 1,000 article headlines which are automatically updated as new headlines are released.
Scanning those articles, I can state objectively: the “food crisis” issue has been popping up more regularly, and it is not part of my imagination.

Refugees sifting through the sand looking for spills after a food distributionThe worrying factor is also a trend I have seen: Starting from “early warning” signs from humanitarian agencies, more and more reports come up about food riots in different countries, to -and that is what is really worrying me- articles that predict the potential global food supply shortages or inaccessibility of food (due to the sharply inflated prices), might lead governments to act in a drastic way.
Government steps being taken are to close their borders for food exports, containing food prices by extensive subsidies, or cancelling these due to the long term unsustainability, and bilateral agreements between countries to ‘ensure a secure food supply’… Worrying. Reminds me of the same measures countries take to secure the supply of oil resources.

Now the apotheose of it all, and what causes me nightmares is the more frequent recurring link being made between food shortages (and all the related issues like global warming decreasing food production, biofuel consuming food, etc..), security and armed conflicts. And it not merely in titles like “Food Fights“, but also in contents. Some examples:

  • “[…] farmers [in Sudan] continue to expand. Their expansion is arguably the real root cause of the current conflict [in Darfur]” (Article: Climate change is not an excuse for genocide.)
  • “The long-term consequences of neglecting environmental deterioration, water shortages, and increased competition over scarce resources will lead to greater conflict and instability. Reducing the risk of food-related conflict will require a comprehensive plan that targets the environment and ensures an equitable distribution of resources.” (Article: Rising food prices threaten global security. )
  • “Rising food prices could spark worldwide unrest and threaten political stability, the UN’s top humanitarian official warned yesterday after two days of rioting in Egypt over the doubling of prices of basic foods in a year and protests in other parts of the world.” (Article: Food price rises threaten global security)
  • “Resource based conflicts are not new: they are literally as old as the hills. But in climate change we have a new and potentially disastrous dynamic.” (Article: Climate change and security)
  • “If one country after the other adopts a ‘starve-your-neighbor’ policy, then eventually you trade smaller shares of total world production of agricultural products, and that in turn makes the prices more volatile” (Article: Tensions rise as world faces short rations)
  • “The headlines of the past month suggest that skyrocketing food prices are threatening the stability of a growing number of governments around the world.” (Article: How Hunger Could Topple Regimes)
  • “Governments are racing to strike secretive barter and bilateral agreements with food-exporting countries to secure scarce supplies as the price of agricultural commodities jump to record highs.” (Article: Nations make secret deals over grain)
  • “What is emerging in the crisis over food prices is a tumultuous manifestation of a breakdown of the global capitalist order.” (Article: Amid mounting food crisis, governments fear revolution of the hungry)

And then you might think I am going completely nutter to quote Nostradamus: “Famine and fighting will set in. Countries will fight with each other over surplus food: India and China will march to seize the corn and wheat fields of Russia and eastern Europe.”

So tell me: am I a doomsday preacher or are we really heading for a period of armed conflicts, not as part of the “War on Terror”, or the “War for Oil”, but a “War for Food”?

Update April 23 2008:
- “The World Bank now believes that some 33 countries are in danger of being destabilised by food price inflation” (Article)
- “Climate change could cause global conflicts as large as the two world wars but lasting for centuries unless the problem is controlled, a leading defence think tank has warned.” (Article)

Pictures courtesy Daniel Garcia (AFP-Getty Images) and WFP

Written by Peter

April 12th, 2008 at 2:50 am

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Back to Soylent Green? Food for Thought…

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While on holiday, I can not but read the news headlines. And get worried:

March 28:
Al Jazeera – Asian rice crisis starts to bite (Full)

March 30:
Reuters – Tensions rise as world faces short rations (Full)

March 31:
The Wall Street Journal – Rice Hoarding Pressures Supplies (Full)
The Guardian – Farmers fall prey to rice rustlers as price of staple crop rockets (Full)
International Herald Tribune – World food prices soar as Asia consumes more (Full)

April 1:
The Wall Street Journal – Fewer Acres of Corn Likely To Keep Prices High (Full)
Los Angeles Times – A ‘perfect storm’ of hunger (Full)
Financial Times – Rush to restrict trade in basic foods (Full)
Financial Times – Struggle to keep food supplies at home (Full)
Reuters – Costly food? Investors only partly to blame (Full)
The Daily Star (Egypt) – Egyptian government moves to tackle rising costs of key staples (Full)
BBC News – (Food)Riots prompt Ivory Coast tax cuts (Full)

April 2 2022:
The World Today – Soylent Green feeds half of the world….

As a 13 year old, I got sleepless nights after watching “Soylent Green” a movie set in the year 2022, depicting a dark future:
The water and soil have been poisoned and airborne pollution has produced a year-round heatwave from the greenhouse effect. Most housing is dilapidated and overcrowded, and impoverished homeless people fill the streets. Food as we know it today –including fruit, vegetables, and meat– is a rare and expensive commodity. Half of the world’s population survives on processed rations produced by the massive Soylent Corporation, which just started marketing its newest product: Soylent Green. Soylent Green is a small green wafer advertised as produced from “high-energy plankton”.

In the movie, the main character, Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) is a New York City police detective who investigates the murder of a Soylent Green executive. Through an intriguing plot, Thorn discovers the Soylent Green is not made from plankton, but from human corpses. Cannibalism seemed to be the only way the world’s (over-)population apparently could still feed itself….

How far are we today from the different world problems highlighted in Soylent Green? Overpopulation, global warming, increasing food shortages… How far are we for Soylent Green biscuits to be the only solution for the world to feed itself?

Check out this post, describing the different factors of the global food crisis (facts-not fiction, today-not 2022!)

Picture courtesy Wikipedia

Written by Peter

April 1st, 2008 at 1:39 pm

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The Global Food Crisis: A Perfect Storm

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price of foodThe Perfect Storm.

The world is heading towards a global food crisis. A number of factors contribute to what could be described as ‘A Perfect Storm':

The price of fuel increased dramatically in the past years, thus the cost of food production and transport increased dramatically, pushing the price of food higher than ever before.

Last year, for the first time in many years, the world’s food production went into a deficit, pushing up the price of the commodities, based on a supply and demand dynamic, even higher. The US, one of the world’s largest food grower, says the grain silos are as empty as in the 70-ies when the then-USSR bought most of the reserves.

Fast growing economies like China pulls people away from rural areas, causing massive urban expansion. A double spin: a smaller agricultural work force and a loss of farm land. China lost an average of 1.23 million hectares of farmland annually in the past years and is now looking for foreign farms because the nation can’t feed its 1.3 billion people.

Child in HondurasTo make matters worse: following the market economy, if there is an expected shortage of supply, and an vastly increased demand, the commodity is speculated upon in the international financial markets with one goal: profit. The futures market is a traditional tool for farmers to sell their harvests ahead of time. In a futures contract, quantities, prices and delivery dates are fixed, sometimes even before crops have been planted. They can buy futures contracts for wheat, for example, at a low price, betting that the price will go up. If the price of the grain rises by the agreed delivery date, they profit. Some experts now believe these investors have taken over the market, buying futures at unprecedented levels and driving up short-term prices. Since last August, this mechanism has led to a doubling in the price of rice. (More)

High prices, high demand, and a shortage in supply, has driven several government to limit or ban exports in staple food, either to protect its own population, or to ride on a speculation wave. That has led to a sharp reduction of rice available for trade in the global market. For example, in 2007, India and Vietnam, two of the world’s biggest rice exporters, reduced their rice shipments. Since then, Cambodia, Egypt, and Brazil have all halted rice exports. Many observers worry that Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter, might jump on the bandwagon. This in its turn will increase the shortage on the international market, and have the prices potentially spiral out of control (More)

In several countries the positive average wealth trend is leading consumers to eat more meat products. Meat products need more vegetable food products to get the same nutritional level as vegetable products. Thus, a shift from human vegetable products to meat, leads to a higher demand of meat production, resulting in an increased demand for vegetable products, staple food for poorer countries.

child in SomaliaThe Most Vulnerable Pay the Highest Price…

The increased food prices hit the most vulnerable countries the hardest: where people used to survive on the ‘edge': Their income is no longer sufficient to feed themselves. International wheat prices in January 2008 were 83 percent higher than a year earlier. Protests turned riots in Bangladesh, Morocco, Mozambique, Venezuela and Burkina Faso last week, will be the first in a long row, showing people simply can not cope with the price increases.

Aid agencies, traditionally able to feed the most vulnerable, are scrambling too: as the fuel prices increased, so did the cost to transport food aid. Add to that the increased price of the food commodities, for the same aid-dollar, less food is being delivered. This will have donors ask questions about the effectiveness of their aid-dollar invested in food aid. There are signs donors are easing away from food aid. Real pessimists state that due to the high inflation (guess what, caused by high fuel prices and sharp price hikes on basic commodities such as food), will decrease the global aid – and not just food aid – significantly this year.

The Outlook is Not Good Either!

Because of the increased fuel prices, and the recent worldwide rally about global warming, the price of biofuel has gone up, having many farmers move away from food production, to a more lucrative biofuel production. The U.S. is now using more corn for the production of ethanol than the entire food crop in Canada.
This takes away a lot of resources (land, assets, production and distribution capacity) from the food production, not only in the West, but even in food deficit countries in Africa and Asia. Less food being produced once again pushes the prices even higher.

On top of record-breaking rice prices and corn, a warning is circulating amongst financial investors that this is just the beginning: a wheat fungus, known as Ug99, first discovered in Uganda in 1999, is spreading across the African continent and beyond. The fungus has the potential to wipe out a large part of the global wheat crop, prices of food commodities on the futures market spiked, causing panic buying. This in itself chases prices even higher. (Full)

Women fetching water in EritreaThe global warming has shifted weather patterns, causing more natural disasters: tropical cyclones causing vast flooding hit Central America, Africa and Asia harder than ever before. Winters are harsher and longer in Central and South Asia. Dry spells bring longer periods of droughts cause crops to dry up, and cattle to die.

True, the Kyoto Protocol tries to put an end to the global warming caused by the Greenhouse Effect. But there is a nasty tail to the story: those countries which emit too much carbon, can purchase “carbon credits” to offset their “carbon emission deficit”. A country can ‘create’ carbon credits, amongst others, by planting forests. Some say “Carbon Credits” will become a precious trading commodity (example), pushing countries to plant forests. In principle this is a good thing. The fear however is that, as the price of Carbon Credits will increase, more and more fertile agriculture land will be used to plant forests, once again decreasing the food production, further driving the price and world hunger up…

Aral: an ex-seaRoughly one tenth of the earth’s land surface is used to produce crops. Two tenths is grassland of varying degrees of productivity. Another two tenths is forest. The remaining half of the land is either desert, mountains, or covered with ice. The area in desert is expanding, largely at the expense of grassland and cropland. Deserts are advancing in Africa both north and south of the Sahara and throughout the Middle East, the Central Asian republics, and western and northern China. As an example: Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is losing 351,000 hectares of rangeland and cropland to desertification each year. (More)

And last but not least:

The world’s population is expected reach 9 billion by 2050, a growth, of almost 50% compared to today, concentrating mostly in the less developed countries.

More demand for food, less production, higher prices. A vicious circle, felt the hardest in developing countries. How can this cycle be broken?

Update Jan 26 (one day after posting this): Worldwide wheat prices rose by 25% in one day to an all-time record high

Pictures courtesy WFP (Evelyn Hockstein, R.Chalasani, Lou Dematteis) and National Geographic. Graph courtesy The Economist

Written by Peter

February 24th, 2008 at 3:49 pm

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Oil, Biofuel, World Hunger and Crimes Against Humanity.

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The world has 800 million people suffering from hunger. About 100-150 million of those receive regular food aid. Up to now, we could say “the world is producing enough food to feed everyone, so it is just a matter of re-dividing the food!”. This might no longer be true.

Click for full resolutionIn less than 10 years, the price for a barrel of crude oil went from less than US$20 to almost US$100. Soaring fossil fuel prices, and the push for non-fossil fuel -either out of environmental concerns, or to create less dependency on foreign oil- had many governments stimulate farmers to switch from food crops to biofuel crops. As if they really had to stimulate farmers: the growing demand made biofuel a real profitable cash crop.
So, more farmers growing biofuel, means less farmers growing food crops. More land in use for biofuel, less land for food crops.
The dilemma shows even more drastically in developing countries. As an example, the government of Swaziland announced this week that it would be allocating thousands of hectares to a private company to cultivate cassava for biofuel. Swaziland is a country where about 40 percent of the country’s one million people are facing acute food and water shortages. By placing the cassava project in drought-affected Lavumisa, in southeastern Shiselweni, where agriculture has been limping along for years, government is attracting criticism that it favours exports over food security at home. (read the full post).

While we are not at a stage where we declare a full fledged worldwide food shortage, we might not be far off. According to a report, co-written by the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD), even without demand for the “green” fuel, recent falls in output – due to drought and low stocks – will keep food prices high. The study predicts prices will rise by between 20% and 50% by 2016. (Full post). Good enough to have the Executive Director from the UN World Food Programme state: “(… food) price increases bring some benefits for farmers, but for the world’s most vulnerable, food is simply being priced our of their reach. And for WFP, it means that we
can procure far less food for the same amount of funding than just a few months ago.

The possible rampage caused by biofuels had Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on The Right to Food, state: “It is a crime against humanity to convert agriculturally productive soil into soil which produces foodstuffs that will be burned into [as] biofuel.” He called for a five-year moratorium on biofuel production because the conversion of maize, wheat and sugar into fuels was driving up the prices of food, land and water. (Full post)

For more reading, have a look at: “An Agricultural Crime Against Humanity
For updated humanitarian news, check out The Other World News
Crop picture courtesy SuperStock UK

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Written by Peter

November 6th, 2007 at 10:22 am

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