Global Food Supply Near the Breaking Point

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Inter Press Service News Agency

Monday, May 22, 2006 10:05 GMT


Global Food Supply Near the Breaking Point

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, May 17 (IPS) - The world is now eating more food than

farmers grow, pushing global grain stocks to their lowest level in 30 years.

Rising population, water shortages, climate change, and the growing costs of

fossil fuel-based fertilisers point to a calamitous shortfall in the world's

grain supplies in the near future, according to Canada's National Farmers

Union (NFU).

Thirty years ago, the oceans were teeming with fish, but today more people

rely on farmers to produce their food than ever before, says Stewart Wells,

NFU's president.

In five of the last six years, global population ate significantly more

grains than farmers produced.

And with the world's farmers unable to increase food production, policymakers

must address the "massive challenges to the ability of humanity to continue

to feed its growing numbers", Wells said in a statement.

There isn't much land left on the planet that can be converted into new

food-producing areas, notes Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy

Institute, a Washington-based non-governmental organisation. And what is

left is of generally poor quality or likely to turn into dust bowls if

heavily exploited, Brown told IPS.

Unlike the Green Revolution in the 1960s, when improved strains of wheat,

rice, maize and other cereals dramatically boosted global food production,

there are no technological magic bullets waiting in the wings.

"Biotechnology has made little difference so far," he said.

Even if the long-promised biotech advances in drought, cold, and

disease-resistance come about in the next decade, they will boost yields

little more than five percent globally, Brown said.

"There's not nearly enough discussion about how people will be fed 20 years

from now," he said.

Hunger is already a stark and painful reality for more than 850 million

people, including 300 million children. How can the number of hungry not

explode when one, two and possibly three billion more people are added to

the global population?

The global food system needs fixing and fast, says Darrin Qualman, NFU's

research director.

"Many Canadian and U.S. farmers are going out of business because crop prices

are at their lowest in nearly 100 years," Qualman said in an interview.

"Farmers are told overproduction is to blame for the low prices they've been

forced to accept in recent years."

However, most North American agribusiness corporations posted record profits

in 2004. With only five major companies controlling the global grain market,

there is a massive imbalance of power, he said.

"The food production system is designed to generate profits, not produce food

or nutrition for people," Qualman told IPS.

He says there are enormous amounts of food stored in central Canada's farming

heartland, but thousands of people there, including some farm families, are

forced to rely on food banks.

"It's a system that's perfectly happy to leave hundreds of millions of people

unfed," he said.

Inequity and poverty are at the heart of the hunger problem, according to

experts, including the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Economic inequity is becoming more widespread, with hunger and malnutrition a

chronic problem for the poor in both the South and the North, says Brown.

And the present situation is likely to worsen with climate change.

An estimated 184 million people in Africa alone could die from floods,

famine, drought and conflict resulting from climate change before the end of

the century, according to a new report by Christian Aid, a British-based


Millions more in other parts of the world will also perish, and recent gains

in reducing poverty could be thrown into reverse in coming decades, said the

report, "Climate of Poverty: Facts, Fears and Hopes".

"This is a grave crisis for global society and we need global solutions,"

said Andrew Pendleton, climate and development analyst at Christian Aid.

In the "Hope" section of the report, the group envisions poor regions using

renewable energy to power a new, and clean, era of prosperity.

Another vision is already making a difference in villages in 10 African

countries. With some money to buy better seeds, fertiliser, a share in a

protected water source, and a bed net to fend off malarial mosquitoes,

hundreds of thousands of villagers in the Millennium Villages project are

now able to grow enough food and sell the surplus.

Developed by Jeffrey Sachs and others at Columbia University's Earth

Institute and the U.N. Millennium Project, each project is led by local

community members using proven, practical, low-cost technologies.

Making a substantial difference in Africa's food security and poverty issues

means development assistance to spread the project to the more than 100,000

villages in Africa, organisers have said.

That kind of frontal assault on poverty, along with population stabilisation

and sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate

change, top Brown's list of what needs to be done immediately.

Shifting from a global food production system to local food for local people

would go a long way towards addressing inequity, Qualman believes.

"The 100-mile diet, where people obtain their food from within a 100-mile

radius of their homes, makes good sense for most of the world," he said.

The whole fabric of the food production system needs to change, or hunger and

malnutrition will only get much worse.

"North America's industrial-style agricultural system is a really bad idea

and maybe the worst on the planet," Qualman concluded. (FIN/2006)

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