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Food for thought

The world enjoyed a record bumper harvest of 2.1 billion tonnes last year. This year, there is a food crisis! How have we landed ourselves in this mess?

Last week Ashank declared that he was going to fast all day as the world was experiencing a food crisis.

I was puzzled. “You mean you eat so much during the day that you’ve landed the world in a food crisis,” I asked.

Ashank shot me a venomous look, and drew himself up with dignity. “It’s a gesture of solidarity with the suffering people of the world,” he said quietly. “You must have noticed that food prices everywhere have shot up. Vegetables, fruits, cereals, pulses, oil… the prices of all have skyrocketed.”

I was stumped. Eating was Ashank’s favourite pastime; I wondered whether he was trying to buy my sympathy in order to wrangle an invitation to my house for dinner. I walked over to the nearest computer to check. To my horror I found that he was right!

The facts and figures stared out at me from the screen:

  • Food prices have risen by 75% since 2000.
  • The price of wheat has increased by 200%; prices of soybean, rice and pulses have also shot up. This has automatically pushed up the price of meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products.
  • The World Bank refers to malnutrition as the world’s “forgotten problem”.
  • A hundred million people could be pushed deeper into poverty due to high food prices.
  • The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has declared that there is a crisis in 36 countries that require help.  

I felt terrible. And there was more to come. I also learnt that people are protesting all over the world. Riots have rocked Mexico, West Bengal, Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mozambique, Morocco, Uzbekistan and Guinea. In Yemen, children took to the streets, while, in London, pig farmers protested in Downing Street.

I read that the world enjoyed a record bumper harvest of 2.1 billion tonnes last year. This year, there is a food crisis! Why, I wondered. How have we landed ourselves in this mess?

I found a few reasons: some just pure bad luck, others due to stupidity and greed.

Natural problems

Let’s look at the bad luck first. The world has witnessed a number of natural disasters, from pest attacks in Southeast Asia, an ongoing 10-year drought in Australia, and a 45-day cold spell in China. All have hit us hard. The price of crude oil too has spiralled, pushing up petrol and diesel prices. These situations have complicated the food problem, as may be expected.

Inequitable distribution

But we also have ourselves to blame. Though we grow enough food, it is unequally distributed. For instance, as far back as 1986:

  • North Americans were consuming 2,218 pounds per capita per year -- more than any other nation in the world! The average North American consumed more than 3,600 calories per person per day, which greatly exceeds the minimum daily requirement of around 2,700 calories.
  • Food consumption in the former USSR and Eastern Europe, in 1986, averaged 1,903 pounds per capita; the daily caloric intake was 3,415 calories.
  • Contrast this with the developing countries that, as a group, consumed less than half the amount consumed in developed nations -- only 1,031 pounds per capita! Of course, consumption patterns vary widely within the group.

Bad planning

Although we produce enough food, only about 50% of it feeds humans. The irony is that despite mountains of grain piling up, it does not reach people’s stomachs. While we also consume meat and other products, animals require foodgrain. Grain is therefore being diverted for livestock production. And so we have the strange phenomenon of half the world being deprived of food that’s being invested in animals to feed the other half!

Rice exports

Prices everywhere are shooting up. Egypt, which is one of the major rice producers of the world, has stopped exporting rice for the past six months. Vietnam, the world’s second largest rice exporter after Thailand cut exports by 25%. India and Cambodia have also stopped rice exports. Half the world’s rice stocks have therefore been affected.

Shifting patterns

Then there’s another, newer problem. In North America and Europe, farmers have switched from growing grain to growing biofuel. This is the new fashionable crop that’s expected to meet the energy requirements of many countries in the future. Hence, a lot of agricultural land that used to support soybean and wheat is now harvesting corn for biofuel. You can imagine what that does to food production!

The earth is groaning as humans take over the land and its natural resources. With increasing urbanisation, land under cultivation has declined, with more and more countries adopting intensive farming practices. Today, over one-third of the land is being used to grow crops or graze cattle, and still it is not enough.

Dip in agriculture

Meanwhile, in our own country, we have a number of strange and unique problems. What’s worrying is that while India is supposed to be one of the “boom” economies, real growth in agriculture has been so slow that our per capita production of wheat and rice remains the same as it was 40 years ago!


So here we have a real food crisis on our hands. What are we doing about it? First of all, we need to find out more, collect data to review and assess the problem, and see how we can come up with some good answers. How can humans maintain the balance between food production and negative environmental consequences such as deforestation, water pollution and soil erosion?

The solution is actually quite simple. Food must be distributed more fairly. For that, we need to find new and better ways of farming, storage, and transportation. And also work out how we can get food faster to more people around the world.

-- Revathi Siva Kumar

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008

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