Healthy Dose: 2013 Global Food Outlook is Poor, Says UN
October 15, 2012
Severe weather and low grain reserves could lead to a global hunger crisis next year, says the UN. The Guardian reports:
Failing harvests in the US, Ukraine and other countries this year have eroded reserves to their lowest level since 1974. The US, which has experienced record heatwaves and droughts in 2012, now holds in reserve a historically low 6.5% of the maize that it expects to consume in the next year, says the UN.
“We’ve not been producing as much as we are consuming. That is why stocks are being run down. Supplies are now very tight across the world and reserves are at a very low level, leaving no room for unexpected events next year,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). With food consumption exceeding the amount grown for six of the past 11 years, countries have run down reserves from an average of 107 days of consumption 10 years ago to under 74 days recently.
Prices of main food crops such as wheat and maize are now close to those that sparked riots in 25 countries in 2008. FAO figures released this week suggest that 870 million people are malnourished and the food crisis is growing in the Middle East and Africa. Wheat production this year is expected to be 5.2% below 2011, with yields of most other crops, except rice, also falling, says the UN.
The figures come as one of the world’s leading environmentalists issued a warning that the global food supply system could collapse at any point, leaving hundreds of millions more people hungry, sparking widespread riots and bringing down governments. In a shocking new assessment of the prospects of meeting food needs, Lester Brown, president of the Earth policy research centre in Washington, says that the climate is no longer reliable and the demands for food are growing so fast that a breakdown is inevitable, unless urgent action is taken.
“Food shortages undermined earlier civilisations. We are on the same path. Each country is now fending for itself. The world is living one year to the next,” he writes in a new book.
According to Brown, we are seeing the start of a food supply breakdown with a dash by speculators to “grab” millions of square miles of cheap farmland, the doubling of international food prices in a decade, and the dramatic rundown of countries’ food reserves.
This year, for the sixth time in 11 years, the world will consume more food than it produces, largely because of extreme weather in the US and other major food-exporting countries. Oxfam last week said that the price of key staples, including wheat and rice, may double in the next 20 years, threatening disastrous consequences for poor people who spend a large proportion of their income on food.
In 2012, according to the FAO, food prices are already at close to record levels, having risen 1.4% in September following an increase of 6% in July.
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Buzzing in the Blogs
John Vidal speaks to analyst Lester Brown who warns that time may is running out to address the problem of food scarcity. He writes in the Guardian:
“This situation is not going to go away,” says Lester Brown, an environmental analyst and president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. In a new book, Full Planet, Empty Plates, he predicts ever increasing food prices, leading to political instability, spreading hunger and, unless governments act, a catastrophic breakdown in food. “Food is the new oil and land is the new gold,” he says. “We saw early signs of the food system unravelling in 2008 following an abrupt doubling of world grain prices. As they climbed, exporting countries [such as Russia] began restricting exports to keep their domestic prices down. In response, importing countries panicked and turned to buying or leasing land in other countries to produce food for themselves.”
“The result is that a new geopolitics of food has emerged, where the competition for land and water is intensifying and each country is fending for itself.”
Brown has been backed by an Oxfam report released last week. It calculated that the land sold or leased to richer countries and speculators in the last decade could have grown enough food to feed a billion people – almost exactly the number of malnourished people in the world today. Nearly 60% of global land deals in the last decade have been to grow crops that can be used for biofuels, says Oxfam.
The next danger signal, says Brown, is in rising food prices. In the last 10 years prices have doubled as demand for food has increased with a rapidly growing world population and millions have switched to animal-based diets, which require more grain and land.
Most grain prices have risen between 10% and 25% this year after droughts and heatwaves in Ukraine and Australia as well as the US and other food growing centres. The UN says prices are now close to the crisis levels of 2008. Meat and dairy prices are likely to surge in the new year as farmers find it expensive to feed cattle and poultry. Brown says: “Those who live in the United States, where 9% of income goes for food, are insulated from these price shifts.
“But how do those who live on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder cope? They were already spending 50% to 70% of their income on food. Many were down to one meal a day already before the recent price rises. What happens with the next price surge?”
Oxfam said last week it expected the price of key food staples, including wheat and rice, to double again in the next 20 years, threatening disastrous consequences for the poor.
But the surest sign, says Brown, that food supplies are precarious is seen in the amount of surplus food that countries hold in reserve, or “carry over” from one year to the next.
“Ever since agriculture began, carry-over stocks of grain have been the most basic indicator of food security. From 1986 to 2001 the annual world carry-over stocks of grain averaged 107 days of consumption. After that, world consumption exceeded production and from 2002 to 2011 they averaged just 74 days of consumption,” says Brown. Last week the UN estimated US maize reserves to be at a historic low, only 6.3% below estimated consumption and the equivalent of a three-week supply. Global carry-over reserves last week stood at 20%, compared to long term averages of well above 30%.
Although there is still – theoretically – enough food for everyone to eat, global supplies have fallen this year by 2.6% with grains such as wheat declining 5.2% and only rice holding level, says the UN.
There is no guarantee, says Brown, that the world can continue to increase production as it has done for many years. “Yields are plateauing in many countries and new better seeds have failed to increase yields very much for some years,” he said.
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By Mark Leon Goldberg and Tom Murphy; Photo Credit
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