If the world is to be fed …
Food supplies and sustainabilityTim Aldred
- 29 January 2011
In 40 years’ time the earth will no longer be able to sustain its projected population. The only chance to feed the billion who then face starvation would be for the billion overeaters in the developed world to cut back significantly on their consumption
Governments are getting worried about food. Food-price hikes were a key trigger for ousting the former Tunisian President – reportedly prompting other Middle Eastern countries to halt planned price rises.
When in 2008 food prices rocketed around the world, it forced the United Nations World Food Programme to issue its largest-ever appeal, and brought food security, after decades of neglect, on to the top table at the G8 Summit in Japan that year.
Our continued failure to prevent hunger for more than a billion people worldwide is one of our most fundamental moral challenges. By contrast, a billion people are harming their own health – and, along the way, the planet – through overeating. To quote Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate: “Hunger still reaps enormous numbers of victims among those who, like Lazarus, are not permitted to take their place at the rich man’s table.”
The United Kingdom Government’s Foresight report, “The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability”, published this week, was one product of the 2008 wake-up call. Two years in the making, this is no lightweight piece: the executive summary alone runs to 40 pages; there are around 100 supporting documents, prepared by eight pages worth of A-list contributors. It will inform government policy for years to come.
The UK report scans the horizon up to 40 years ahead. It predicts a global population levelling out at around 9 billion, an increasingly erratic climate and pressure on natural resources making it harder to grow crops. Action is needed now if we are to be ready. “The global food system is consuming the world’s natural resources at an unsustainable rate; failing the very poorest, with almost one billion of the least advantaged and most vulnerable people still suffering from hunger and malnutrition,” say the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, and the International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, in a hard-hitting preface.
The language, if academic, is startling: we read of “a major threat that requires a strategic reappraisal of how the world is fed”. Without action, the world will be unable to feed its citizens, and that dealing with it requires serious structural change.
Some current trends do not look particularly altruistic. For example, cash-rich but land-poor countries such as South Korea and the United Arab Emirates are leasing vast tracts of prime agricultural land in countries such as Sudan, in part for investment, and in part to ensure that in a future global food shortage, they’d still have access to essential commodities. If the spectre of poor countries exporting large quantities of food to rich ones in the middle of a future world food crisis makes you go queasy, then you’re not alone.
The challenges raised in this latest report are tough. Take for example: “Demand for the most resource-intensive types of food must be contained.” In other words, collectively we must curb our appetite for meat, especially for animals fed on grain, and protect fragile fish stocks. We also have to stop over-exploiting natural resources such as groundwater.
When Kent asparagus is out of season (and sometimes when it isn’t) the UK imports large amounts from Peru. It is a key export industry for Peru, but is steadily sucking the groundwater dry in the semi-desert Ica region. The Catholic development charity Progressio’s recent research report on this issue, “Drop by Drop”, published in October 2010, showed that if abstraction rates aren’t addressed, a third of a million people will be without water within decades – and without viable agricultural land, or a viable export industry. It is a chilling example of what Benedict XVI meant when he said in a speech in 2007: “We have to respect the inner laws of Creation, of this earth; we have to learn these laws and obey them if we want to survive.”
But Progressio’s research team found that solutions were not straightforward: local people in Peru called for big reductions in the rate of withdrawal of water by asparagus growers, but also urged us not to call for a boycott of supermarkets selling their produce in the UK, recognising the damage that such a knee-jerk response would do to the livelihoods of the farm workers. Instead, action should focus on increasing the say that the local population has over decisions made on water resources.
Food is becoming harder to grow. In recent decades the weather in many parts of the world has changed and become far more erratic. A Peruvian alpaca farmer, Humberto Lizana, told Progressio supporters in a webchat last month that, with average temperatures rising, crops in Peru now need to be grown higher up the mountains than before, but that this leaves them more vulnerable to sudden, devastating Andean frosts.
Lizana said: “Climate change is bringing us freezing days and a high incidence of sun. And these big temperature changes do not allow agriculture on a small scale to flourish. The people who suffer most are those with a precarious personal economy, like the alpaca farmers or the cereal or potato farmers.”
When the poor suffer, big business often benefits – a key concern for many campaigners. The world’s largest agricultural commodity trader, Cargill, saw quarterly profits at the end of 2010 treble to US$1.5 billion (£950 million) due to rising food prices and “supply disruptions” (for example, crop failures). Volatility on food-commodities markets can throw thousands into poverty – but can also be very good for shareholders.
During my years working on relief programmes I often saw grain available – at a price – in the same towns in which people were down to one meal a day. Traders earned a good living out of the high prices that were forcing children into emergency food centres.
The significance of speculative trading on food markets in relation to “real” food prices is disputed. Do traders artificially inflate prices, or are they simply reflecting underlying demand and supply issues? Either way, as the Foresight report argues, reducing the volatility in food markets, and improving the governance of the system is essential. But how?
On international markets, strategic reserves of key cereals have fallen steadily over recent decades. This means that when the market takes a hit – for example from a crop failure – there is little to deter panic buying. Reserves are clearly useful. The creation of strategic grain reserves in Ethiopia following the 1980s famines, while not always working perfectly, has helped to lessen the impact of poor harvests on vulnerable sections of the population.
And an important response to food shortages in countries such as Eritrea and Niger has been to support village- or household-level granaries. Better food storage helps families to ride out a lean season without resorting to inflated prices in the local markets.
A controversial area of the Foresight report is its approach to the use of technology in food, especially the altering of crops with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), nanotechnology and animal cloning, where it argues for keeping “policy choices open”. The environmental concerns here are well rehearsed, but Progressio’s recent work on small-scale producers comes at the issue from a different angle.
If you are a subsistence farmer you have the option of growing traditional crop varieties, which you can self-seed from last year’s crop. You can also use manure and compost as fertiliser – essentially for free. Yields can be good, and the crops are well adapted to the local climate. Alternatively, you can go for commercial varieties of crops – these may offer benefits such as higher yield and better pest resistance. However, they may not stand up as well to extremes of climate. Crucially, they can be expensive. Great in a good year, but a gamble for the years when the weather, or the markets, turn against you.
My main worry – and indeed that of Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace – is whether the possible benefits of hi-tech seeds justify small producers taking on such additional risks. Speaking to L’Osservatore Romano earlier this month, Cardinal Turkson suggested that GMOs could lead to a form of “slavery”. Far more important, he suggested, is the task of enabling farmers to use land that hasn’t been degraded by multinational logging or mining companies.
“As a result, you wouldn’t need any genetic engineering,” said the cardinal. “In this way, the farmer wouldn’t have to buy GMOs from abroad. I ask myself, why force an African farmer to buy seeds produced in other lands and with other means? The doubt arises that behind this is the play of maintaining economic dependence at all cost.”
If the same amount of cash that is given over at present to promoting hi-tech crops was invested in supporting small-scale farmers and producers (who make up around one in three of the people living on the planet) with better land, expert advice from agricultural specialists and assistance in accessing markets, we’d go a long way to tackling future world food needs. We should note, then, that measures such as these were also centre stage in the Foresight report conclusions.
I welcome the fact that the Government has invested in such a far-reaching study of our global food system. It has also been prepared to open up the big political questions that need to be asked if we are to ensure that everyone on the planet can feed themselves. But follow-up on the recommendations, however compelling the case, will be politically challenging, especially those which call for structural change. Governments will need the encouragement of their citizens to make changes to the way our global food system is governed. The benefits of action – and any pain caused by inaction – are most likely beyond the horizon of the next general election. This issue is receiving attention within the Church at a local and international level – for example the National Justice and Peace Network sees food issues as a high priority.
In his book-length interview with the journalist Peter Seewald, Benedict XVI, I suspect, spoke for many when he said that political action on the environment “is rendered largely impossible by the lack of willingness to do without”. Feeding the world may be an urgent global priority, but unless many of us are prepared to consume less the most altruistic of governments will still struggle to take the steps required.