Global Food Crisis: The Tickling Bomb
Malthus must be smiling in his grave
Email Article  Print Article Bhuwan Thapaliya (Bhuwan)    
The poor world, it is said, is being torn apart by a food crisis. Parts are. Those who aren't yet affected are speculative because they aren't safe either as food prices have been rising all over the world.

According to "Rising Food Prices: Policy Options and World Bank Response," increases in global wheat prices reached 181 percent over the 36 months leading up to February 2008, and overall global food prices increased by 83 percent.

Today, Malthus must be smiling in his grave. After all, it was Thomas Malthus who predicted more than 200 years ago that population growth would outstrip food production in the course of time.

He predicted that the growing demand for grain, in particular, could soon overwhelm the capacity of the entire world's grain-producing countries.

World food output has been losing its shine lately. And the followers of Malthus are roaring yet again. And why shouldn't they be since according to UN reports, for the last couple of years the world has been consuming more food than it has been producing.

"One thing is certain: for the past three years, the world has consumed more food than it produces. Grain stocks are at their lowest in 30 years. The situation is unsustainable," according to the report published by the UN News Center.

Why is there a food crisis and why are global food prices rising?

It is a question much of the world may soon be asking, and its answers are various: high energy costs, the weak dollar, government subsidies to farmers every year in rich nations, increased production of biofuels, bad weather in Australia, inferior distribution processes, food politics, soaring fertilizer costs and rising consumption in Asia, especially in India and China.

Whatever the reasons, the situation is dismal and if not tamed in time the world food crisis could deepen further as there are already reports of serious protests and riots around the world in nations such as Haiti, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Bolivia, Philippines, Egypt, Cameroon, etc, over the surging cost of many basic foods and agricultural staples, such as rice, wheat and corn.

Analysts argue that rising food prices will lead to worldwide economic unrest, threaten the political stability of various nations prone to food insecurity and diffuse the global war against poverty and hunger.

"Food inflation could push at least [100 million] people into poverty, wiping out all the gains the poorest billion have made during almost a decade of economic growth," Bob Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, was quoted as saying by The Economist.

Most analysts are saying that the global food crisis is more dangerous than terrorism -- it is a ticking time bomb. This is true to a certain extent for the social disintegration and chaos the food crisis commotion would bring in general.

"Sir John Holmes, undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and the UN's emergency relief coordinator, told a conference in Dubai that escalating prices would trigger protests and riots in vulnerable nations," according to a report published by The Guardian.

"The security implications [of the food crisis] should also not be underestimated as food riots are already being reported across the globe," Holmes was quoted as saying by The Guardian.

The situation is getting dismal with each lapse of time. On April 20, 2008, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged immediate and long-term steps to fight escalating food crisis while speaking in Accra, Ghana, at the opening of the 12th UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), UN's News Center reported.

"The recent drastic rise in food prices means the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) now needs more than $750 million to meet its commitment to feed the world's 73 million hungry people this year. In late February, WFP announced that it required an additional $500 million, on top of its original appeal for this year of $2.9 billion, to carry out its efforts, but surging food prices have led WFP to revise that figure upwards to $756 million," according to the UN News Center.

High food prices are threatening recent gains in overcoming poverty and malnutrition, and are likely to persist over the medium term, says a World Bank Group policy note.

"Poor people are suffering daily from the impact of high food prices, especially in urban areas and in low income countries," said World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick, according to media reports.

"Many more people will suffer and starve unless the United States, Europe, Japan and other rich countries provide funds," he was quoted as saying on the World Bank's Web site.

But the irony is this; even rich nations such as Japan and the US are finding it difficult to curb their domestic hunger as food prices have risen in these nations too and there are no signs of prices easing off in the near future -- at least for another two to three years.

The Food and Agriculture Organization presents a starker reality. People still face at least 10 years of more expensive food, according to FAO projections. The transition to new food equilibrium will take ample time and money as the food crisis has been sprouting in various nations all over the world simultaneously.

Nonetheless, when prices rise, it knocks down the poor immediately, and the world's poorest nations are at the greater hunger risk. Imagine yourself in Haiti, where the people have no choice but to cut down their consumption. It's a heart-breaking scene, but this could be the reality of the 21st century if necessary actions are not taken in time by the concerned global authorities.

Meanwhile, Asian countries such as Cambodia, China, Vietnam, India and Pakistan have curbed rice exports to ensure supplies for their own residents according to media reports. But it is yet to be seen whether this governmental intervention would work in reality or not because today we are seeing a new side of hunger -- urban hunger.

We are seeing food on the food market and in the shelves of the supermarket but people being unable to afford to buy it.

"The poor are not just facing higher food prices but also higher energy costs, which is a worrying combination," Danny Leipziger, World Bank Group vice president for poverty reduction and economic management (PREM) was quoted as saying by the media.

However, there are those who see this food crisis from a different perspective. For instance, according to Adam Donaldson Powell, renowned author and visual artist from Norway, the food crisis is directly related to money and the global governmental malfunction:

The governments are putting the focus on pollution because of airplanes but the truth is that airplane pollution is nothing compared to automobile and factory pollution, but the governments care more about money and power than the environment and the health of the people. And then there is the corn fuel, which means that more farmers will produce corn for fuel instead of for food because they get more money from producing fuel. Just like the farmers in Afghanistan who are growing poppies instead of food -- everything is about money, money, money.
Adam's statement provides reason to downplay Malthusian worries about food and hunger. Governments all over the world share the lion's share of blame.

According to The Economist,

In the belief that farmers are not responsive to prices, governments in rich and poor countries have meddled in agriculture with disastrous results. Among the rich, farmers have been paid handsomely for growing food (and now, some times, for not growing it). The result has been glut. Among the poor, governments have reduced profits from farming, hoping to hurry industrialization. The result has been shortage.

What is needed to correct this is not breakthrough in farm technology, but a breakthrough in government policy. Western countries need to open their markets to the poor. Poor countries need to permit higher returns on agriculture. That would raise rural incomes- even for the landless- and spur economic development more broadly.
To sum up, in reality shortage and hunger are not primarily about food only. They are about poverty, and poverty issues should be addressed by policy changes. The last time a global food crisis happened was in the 1970s, and fortunately, the world came back from it with a bang. There are every chances of the history repeating itself.

To begin with, "The Food and Agriculture Organization forecasts that the wheat harvest in the European Union will rise by 13%. America's winter wheat plantings are up by 4%, India is forecasting a record cereal harvest and South African planting is up 8% this year, " according to The Economist.

Fortunately, the law of diminishing returns has not lurked in yet but analysts are saying that it is too much to hope for in a world of plenty plummeted by the widespread hunger. But the weather could spoil the party and various other unforeseen factors could diminish the cereal harvest the world over.

Nonetheless, there is little dispute that food demand will grow more rapidly and in principle, it might be possible to reduce food demand directly by restraining population growth. Fortunately, the rate of population growth has begun to slow after increasing dramatically in the past 50 years.

On a positive note, all this suggests that the world may have a little more time to find extra food.

Fortunately, crops come up every year and there is a scope for expanding food supply as there is little evidence that the shortage is the result of world food supplies hitting against a natural limit.

Still, there are farmers who are licking their lips looking at the soaring food high prices all over the world. And analysts reckon that the farmers will respond to the higher prices by growing more and this will lead to the new food price equilibrium.

If all goes well, then food will become if not cheap at least affordable again. But at the moment, agriculture and the agriculture policy is in a mess and considering so, one thing is sure -- the era of cheap food is over.

Finally, why should we believe today's Malthusian forecasts when the earlier ones have already been proved wrong? But it is worth pondering: where does the world get more food from?

2008/04/27 오전 12:41
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