The food-price inflation being felt in many parts of the world did not come without warning. Prices had been rising every year since 2000, when the world began consuming more grain than it grew. The worry now is that food scarcity is accelerating in shortened spurts. The Food and Agriculture Organisation's food index shows world grain prices last year alone rose by 42%, and dairy, by 80%. Scattered food riots in the Indian sub-continent and South America are making news again. World Bank president Robert Zoellick has lent the institution's weight to a renewed call for the Doha trade round to be concluded without more delay. The anxiety registered is apt, as agricultural production and trade are key components of the negotiations. These factors happen to be impeding final agreement between the rich bloc and the developing world, led by India and Brazil. If a partial solution to the food shortages is not to be found in this document, what are the options?
|"A backlash against the conversion of cropland for biofuel production is conceivable if world food shortages worsen and social unrest gets endemic in deprived countries."|
A comparison with the last global food crisis, in the mid-1970s, is instructive. In both cycles much the same factors were implicated. Firstly, population growth and prosperity in new-rich countries resulted in a grain supply-demand imbalance. It was exacerbated by the diversion of stocks to feed animals for the production of meat. Secondly, the high price of oil then and now (the infamous mid-1970s 'oil shock' saw the price quadruple) made fertiliser critical for improved crop yields so pricey that diminishing returns may be occurring in the current cycle. Thirdly, weather disruptions occurred in both cycles. But one new factor peculiar to the present crisis is the use of considerable amounts of maize and oil seeds to produce biofuels to run cars in America and Europe, in a nod to environmental protection. The journal Science could be making a contrarian view fashionable when it contended that clearing land to plant crops for biofuels actually led to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
This is one of those esoteric scientific causes whose outcome is uncertain. A backlash against the conversion of cropland for biofuel production is conceivable if world food shortages worsen and social unrest gets endemic in deprived countries. This is a policy issue for the United States and Europe to tackle, but it has wide implications. Short of more land being turned over to food production, an open question, one plausible solution is genetic manipulation to raise yields per hectare. This would be a cousin twice removed of the 1960s 'green revolution' featuring high-yield strains of rice and wheat. GM food production, as everybody knows, is a scientific hot potato. But has anybody a better idea to reverse recurrent trends of food scarcity? (The Straits Times/ ANN)