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No notches left

/ 08:16 PM October 12, 2012

“Food is the new oil and land the new gold,” says Earth Policy Institute’s Lester Brown. The altered weather, dry wells and food needs of larger populations interlock in a struggle for arable land and water. Meet the “new geopolitics of food scarcity.”

“As food supplies tighten, we are moving into a new era where it is every country for itself,” Brown notes in “Full Planet, Empty Plates,” his new book. “We face a future of rising food prices driven by rising temperatures.”

The abrupt doubling in grain prices, between 2007 and 2008, left more people hungry than at any time in history. It ignited riots in Egypt and Haiti, and stoked the Arab Spring protests. In September, the Food and Agriculture Organization tracked a 17-percent price surge.


Carryover stocks are a key food security indicator. Granaries stored a comfortable 107 days of consumption—until 2001, when it slumped by a third. Since then, that safety net had only 74 days of stocks. “An unprecedented period of world food security ended.”

The rich rearranged their menus. The poor, who spend 50-70 percent of income on food, yanked belts a notch tighter. But there may be no notches left.

Almost 24 percent of families in India now go through foodless days, a “Save the Children” survey found. For Nigerians it is 27 percent, and 14 percent for Peruvians. In September, Social Weather Stations reported that about 4.3 million Filipino families experienced hunger.

Hunger often has a child’s face. Millions of children are physically and mentally stunted. Here, 21 out of every 100 infants have low weight at birth. Wasting and stunting (32 percent) result when kids are nursed by wizened, malnourished mothers. “Poor nutrition contributes to more than a third of under-five deaths,” says Unicef’s State of the World’s Children 2012.

The diets of three billion people are changing as incomes rise in emerging economies. Appetites for steak and chicken fricassee are sated by grain-consuming livestock and poultry. China now tucks away twice as much meat as the United States. Grain is used to fuel cars. Almost 32 percent of the US corn harvest last year went to ethanol distilleries.

Only farmers can raise needed food. They’re squeezed between the diverging pulls of demand and supply. Despite lower fertility, the population continues to surge from the momentum of earlier high growth. “Each year the world adds nearly 80 million people,” Brown writes. “Tonight, there’ll be 219,000 people at table who were not there last night, many with empty plates.”

There were 93.3 million Filipinos in 2010, the official head count says. There are five of us today where there was one in 1940. The population can rise to 111.7 million by 2020, the National Statistical Coordination Board projects.

Supply hasn’t caught up. The erosion of vital topsoil has worsened. “Some 30 percent of the world’s cropland is losing productive topsoil far faster than nature can replace it,” Brown notes. In the Philippines, over 52 percent of farmland, in 22 provinces, is eroded. Ambuklao Dam’s life span of 60 years was halved to 32 when eroded soil piled up as silt.


Vital aquifers are being depleted. “Irrigation wells are going dry in 18 countries that contain half the world’s people.” Saudi Arabia harvested last year its last wheat crop as it pumped fossil (no-replenishment) aquifers dry. Now, 30 million Saudis—the equivalent of Canada—swap oil for grain. Cebu City’s aquifers are wrecked irreversibly as it pumps twice what is recharged.

Grain-surplus countries “hit a glass ceiling,” Brown notes. Countries with rice-surplus yields, like Japan and South Korea, “are stagnating just beyond five tons per hectare.” Wheat-rich France, Germany and the United Kingdom have slammed into the same glass ceiling.

Global warming is the third new challenge, writes Brown. For every rise of one degree Celsius in temperature, above optimum during the growing season, grain yields shrink by 10 percent. If the world continues with business as usual, the earth’s temperature, during this century, can easily rise by 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit). Crop cycles will be radically altered.

As food prices bolted, exporting countries like Vietnam, Russia and Argentina barred exports to tamp down home prices. Importing countries, like Yemen and the Philippines, shopped for long-term supply agreements. They had no luck. “In a seller’s market, exporters were reluctant to make long-term commitments.”

Saudi Arabia, China, and South Korea have taken the unusual step of buying or leasing land long term in other countries on which to grow food for themselves. These land acquisitions have since grown rapidly in number. Most are in Africa.

Among the principal destinations for land hunters are Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan. These are countries where millions are sustained with food donations from the UN World Food Program.

A 2011 World Bank analysis of these “land grabs” reported that at least 140 million acres were involved—an area that exceeds cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States. This onslaught of land acquisitions has become a land rush.

Many of us grew up when, after a devastating typhoon or severe dry spell, things would revert to normal, however slowly. The government patched farm production and shopped abroad among suppliers competing to sell grain.

But that was yesterday. Today, our grandchildren no longer have “any normal to return to.”


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TAGS: earth policy institute, food scarcity, hunger, Juan L. Mercado, Poverty
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