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The Food Crisis: “A Perfect Storm” – and How to Turn the Tide

A recently released study, the largest of its kind, examines the root causes of, and solutions for, a food crisis that will likely get much worse before it gets better — and that will never get better if we continue with business as usual

I’m hungry.

No, not because I don’t have enough food to eat, but because I’m too busy typing and too lazy to walk to the refrigerator. How I wish it were this simple for the people I keep reading about.

Unless you’ve been away on an extended camping trip, and forgot to take your solar powered radio, you’ll know that a new sense of urgency is being felt around the world as millions of people who were, before, barely scraping by, have now been pushed well below the breadline by rocketing food prices. 2008 is being billed as “The Year of Global Food Crisis“. The UN’s well-intentioned Millennium Goal ambitions — the leading aspiration being to ‘eradicate extreme poverty and hunger’ by 2015 — are now getting totally derailed.

From Mexico to Pakistan, protests have turned violent. Rioters tore through three cities in the West African nation of Burkina Faso last month, burning government buildings and looting stores. Days later in Cameroon, a taxi drivers’ strike over fuel prices mutated into a massive protest about food prices, leaving around 20 people dead. Similar protests exploded in Senegal and Mauritania late last year. And Indian protesters burned hundreds of food-ration stores in West Bengal last October, accusing the owners of selling government-subsidized food on the lucrative black market. “This is a serious security issue,” says Joachim von Braun, director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), in Washington. In recent weeks, he notes, he has been bombarded by calls from officials around the world, all asking one question: How long will the crisis last? — Time

The Causes

Although this crisis is only a recent media phenomenon, it has actually been building steadily over the last couple of decades. We in the North just don’t get to hear about it until people begin to revolt.

I say it has been building for decades because, in addition to the more recent contributors, listed further below, a central aspect of our problem is the double-edged sword of the Green Revolution and the globalised free trade model. The combination of the two has resulted in large scale monocultures that require incredible amounts of energy, chemical inputs and transportation at every stage of production and distribution, and both have resulted in transforming economies from localised self-sufficiency to corporate dependency as well as interdependency between nation states (some countries today are up to 80 and 90% dependent on imports for their food needs, and with no money to buy it, some are even resorting to eating mud). What was formally billed as the saviour of mankind — the large scale industrialisation of agriculture that began after World War II — is now beginning to be seen for what it really was: short term reductionist thinking that generates significant long term social and environmental problems. The world population has quadrupled, inequality has increased, precious soil fertility has been eroded, water tables have shrunk and become contaminated and crucial biodiversity has been systematically lost.

Applications of nitrogen and over-aeration of soils have depleted (‘burnt’) critical organic matter and destroyed macro and microscopic soil life to the point where they’re becoming increasingly stubborn and unresponsive. While the green revolution did bring initial increases in productivity, many parts of the world have since seen gradual drops in production over the last few decades, even with large increases in fertiliser applications:

In India, grain yield per unit of fertilizer applied decreased by two-thirds during the Green Revolution years. And the same has happened elsewhere.

Between 1970 and 2000, the annual growth of fertilizer use on Asian rice has been 3 to 40 times the growth of rice yields [8]. In Central Luzon, Philippines, rice yield increased 13 percent during the 1980s, but came at the price of a 21 percent increase in fertilizer use. In the Central Plains, yield went up only 6.5 percent, while fertilizer use rose 24 percent and pesticides jumped by 53 percent. In West Java, a 23 percent yield increase was accomplished by 65 and 69 percent increases in fertilizers and pesticides respectively.

However, it is the absolute drop in yields despite high inputs of fertilizer that finally punctured the Green Revolution bubble. By the 1990s, after dramatic increases in the early stages of the Green Revolution, yields began falling. In Central Luzon, Philippines, rice yields rose steadily during the 1970s, peaked in the early 1980s, and have been dropping gradually since. Similar patterns emerged for rice-wheat systems in India and Nepal.

Where yields were not actually declining, the rate of growth has been slowing rapidly or leveling off, as documented in China, North Korea, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Since 2000, yields have fallen further, to the extent that in six out of the past seven years, world grain production has fallen below consumption. — Institute of Science in Society

We have been mining natural soil fertility to the point of exhaustion — stealing from our future to feed people today. And now, unfortunately, the future has arrived.

And yet, despite the green revolution bubble bursting, we still produce more food than the world needs (although perhaps not for long). A lot of what we produce and distribute through global trade, however, perishes before it reaches the market (estimates of 25–50% make this a significant negative for globalised trade in comparison to localised consumption, with the greatest losses in storage, transport and the overly fussy demands of western consumers that refuse to purchase produce with the slightest blemish — and this is in addition to what is wasted post-purchase). This wastage, of course, means that not only is food falling through the net, but also all the fossil fuels, chemicals, water and labour that are used to produce and distribute it.

But, even when it does arrive intact, millions of people now just can’t afford to buy it. The final cause for this crisis is abject poverty and inequality.

The reasons behind the most recent food price hikes are:

  1. Increased demand for meat and dairy products by a growing middle class in developing countries like China and India (feeding animals instead of people)
  2. Competition for land as nations begin to legislate biofuel quotas for fuels (why sell your grain to the poor for a pittance if you can sell it to lucrative U.S. and European markets to feed cars instead?)
  3. Crop damage and failed harvests due to the extreme weather events associated with climate change
  4. Market Speculation – some people make an … er… killing on the stock exchange.
  5. The whole globalised, free market paradigm, that I covered in detail here
  6. And, of course, the old favourite — in some places the situation is exacerbated by political corruption

All of these factors are colliding to create ‘a perfect storm’. We are entering an age of vulnerability unlike anything the world has ever faced before.

It is fascinating to read comments on various websites and blogs in response to media reports on this issue. Callous and ignorant statements like “if they’re so hungry, how can they protest?”, or “serves them right, if they’d only stop breeding…”, and much worse, are commonplace. It seems, like food, sympathy is hard to obtain. But, “for the first time in history, say experts, the impact is spreading from the developing to the developed world” (Sunday Herald). Some of us may yet learn to empathise. Aside from the enormous moral implications of just standing by and watching a wider scale re-run of historical famines like those we witnessed in 1980’s Ethiopia, you can be sure that international tensions will rise in direct proportion to the level of hunger felt. Demand for food is expected to double over the next 25–50 years, even as water shortages, soil erosion and weather related disasters are expected to further diminish food production. While some may just lay down and die, others will fight for survival. Governments will be overthrown, and anarchy will increase.

In addition to the hard-hearted, there are some that believe the reports are mere fear mongering efforts promoted by supermarkets and other transnationals to increase profits.

The Solutions

Whatever your thoughts on this issue, however, the following should be of interest, as rather than going on about the causes, I’d instead like to share some encouraging news. In a world where it’s very tempting to get despondent about the direction we’re heading, and where our ‘leaders’ consistently disappoint, sometimes we can still get pleasantly surprised to hear voices of reason pushing aside corporate and political agendas to speak the truth on issues that matter. In this instance the ‘voices’ are those of 400 scientists and agricultural experts who have spent the last three years examining the impacts of various forms of agricultural practice seen around the world today. This is the biggest study of its kind ever conducted and has been fully peer-reviewed.

A UN-sponsored report has called for urgent changes to the way food is produced, as soaring food prices risk driving millions of people to poverty.

The Unesco study recommends better safeguards to protect resources and more sustainable farming practices, such as producing food locally.

More natural and ecological farming techniques should be used, it says.

… A group of 400 experts spent three years researching the report, which was unveiled on Tuesday at Unesco in Paris.

The authors found:

– Progress in agriculture has reaped very unequal benefits and has come at a high social and environmental cost – Food producers should try using “natural processes” like crop rotation and use of organic fertilisers – The distance between the produce and consumer should also be reduced

The BBC’s Nick Miles says that with food prices at the top of the international political agenda, this is effectively a blueprint for the future of global agriculture.

… “The status quo is no longer an option,” Guilhem Calvo, a Unesco expert, told a news conference in Paris.

“We must develop agriculture less dependent on fossil fuels, that favours the use of locally available resources.” — BBC

You can read more about the report on the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) website, or if you’re strapped for time you can check out the pretty six-page summary PDF.

Rather than, like some industries we know, just focusing on the narrow aspect of producing ‘food‘ for profit, without holistic consideration of wider issues (like the implications of having our food production dependent on waning energy supplies as well as personal, societal and environmental health), these experts have examined the broader range of issues in an attempt to find long term win-win scenarios for people, place and planet. The work is an ultra high-profile acceptance of the need to relocalise agricultural production and distribution as well as support traditional farming techniques that conserve soil and water and protect our land from the impacts of climate change whilst reducing social inequality and vulnerability.

Regular readers will know I write about the importance of sustainable agriculture often. Agriculture is the backbone of civilisation, and, importantly, the agricultural model we implement determines the shape and form of the remainder of society. In our ‘developed‘ societies, as little as one percent of our population feed the other 99%. This leaves the majority ‘free’ to fill their days with other activities — like providing goods and services that are almost universally damaging to society and the environment. It is because of the introduction of large scale monocrop farming systems that we’re seeing millions of people in China, India, Africa and elsewhere getting forced to leave their land and slum it in burgeoning cities, where, if lucky, they may find employment in polluting factories.

With dozens of countries subscribing to the results of this study, there is a distinct possibility that governments may begin to help reconnect people with the land, and provide them with the tools and knowledge they need to care for it.

At least, I dare to dream.

The Obstacles

While this UN-funded report is very good news, and a sorely-need none-to-soon reward for decades of effort by sustainable farming advocates, there is still a sour side to this tale. A quartet of Anglo-Saxon nations, that are increasingly surrendering democracy, compassion and basic common sense to industry influence, are, predictably, not happy with the results of the study. With the governments of 55 countries endorsing this report, there is a very real danger that the increased self-sufficiency and equality — that would be the inevitable result of a concerted push to support and revert to small scale sustainable systems — could seriously undermine the profit potential of Big Agribusiness:

Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States have as yet not signed on to the final report. After watering down the formulation of several key findings during the meeting in Johannesburg, the US still claimed the assessment was unbalanced. The exact same allegation came some months earlier from the agrochemical and biotech industry. However, the report’s lack of support for the further industrialization and globalization of agriculture as well as for genetically engineered plants in particular, was based on a rigorous and peer-reviewed analysis of the empirical evidence by hundreds of scientists and development experts. These experts had been selected, together with other stakeholders, by the very same governments and companies that are now calling the assessment “unbalanced.” — Civil Society Statement from Johannesburg, South Africa (PDF)

Put yourself in the position of someone like U.S. President George Bush and the UK’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who have both somehow managed to ignore rafts of studies on biofuels, for instance…. Now they stand with egg on their face and blood on their hands.

One of the organisations involved in the early stages of researching for this report — Croplife International — pulled out once they realised the report was not going to endorse genetic engineering. They’re now expressing their dismay (PDF), even as more reports on the failure of GM crops are coming forward:

Genetic modification actually cuts the productivity of crops, an authoritative new study shows, undermining repeated claims that a switch to the controversial technology is needed to solve the growing world food crisis. — Independent

Forgive me for gloating smugly, but I can’t help but feel a little elated that a dishonest industry that has helped absolutely no one, is threatening all life within the biosphere and that is clearly seeking to fully control the world’s food supply is actually starting to take a beating.

Let’s hope the governments that have endorsed this report will proceed to quickly but thoughtfully create policy frameworks that incentivise needed shifts towards sustainable methods of agriculture — those that build healthy local economies and societies, and that are a huge weapon in the battle against climate change.

And, for the Anglo-Saxon quartet — please wise up. When the industry lobbyists call, get your secretaries to tell them you’re out. There really is no time to lose.

If we do persist with business as usual, the world’s people cannot be fed over the next half-century. It will mean more environmental degradation, and the gap between the haves and have-nots will further widen. We have an opportunity now to marshal our intellectual resources to avoid that sort of future. Otherwise we face a world no one would want to inhabit. — Professor Robert Watson, Director of the IAASTD Secretariat


  1. Even though I wring my hands in despair and thump the table in indignination at the deeper context that you are describing, I am still a flumoxed… I can barely offer my family sufficient nutrition from my own backyard beyond a small fraction to supplement an otherwise supermarket-dependent lifestyle. How can I immagine answers for the most primordially basic human rights and necessities for so many on the edge of existence… Beyond guilt i can immagine in my own little world when we can unplug from the convenience of slow material destruction of the mad high-consumption life…

    But WHY is community self-sufficiency so clearly a threat to an exploitative system? I know some of the answers, but will it take a catastrophic broadacre failure of modern acriculture and economic arrangments to convince the many ‘private’ players to choose alternative futures? I hope culture can shift deeply enough to change our pathways… YES. Real examples beginning with my own life is what I can do… Anyway, words powerful as they are, do not by themselves improve soil structure/ecology nor agrodiversity nor soften terms of trade…

    BUT the words of educated impassioned and focussed individuals (like Craig) and groups have been changing things for as long as I have been alive… and obviously good information will lead to useful knowledge and grow the power for wise policy transformation…

  2. This should be of concern to everyone. I think it is imperative, however, that we begin to reframe the debate because as long as we focus on price caps and subsidies, etc., we will fail to address real reforms in worldwide agricultural practices. Industrial scale monoculture is a problematic practice in a variety of ways, whether for the production of food or fuel. There are superior feedstocks for ethanol and econol production other than grains, byproducts from the manufacture of these fuels that are superior animal feeds, and permacultural farming practices that can produce a greater variety of food and fuel while creating soils and empowering people. The oil industry already controls agribusiness, so this industry needn’t change at all to maintain control of the energy paradigm–so long as they supplant oil with the grains they already produce. Meanwhile, starvation, poverty and environmental degradation will be our ruin. This is not a question of food vs. fuel unless we continue to allow the controllers of both to make it so. Creating worldwide fertility can solve these problems, and I hope to see our efforts shift in that direction.

  3. Im shocked at the fact that so much food perishes before it even reaches the market. Through transportation and storage you can see where and why it happens to a certain extent, but when the reason of perfectly good food perishing boils down to the shallow fact of a perfectly good piece of produce having a blemish then its very sad indeed.

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