Nov 2010

Food shortages: still a serious issue

At the start of the year I wrote a short blog post entitled “2010: A year of global famine?” In it I linked to an agricultural analyst who suggested that crop yields were down across the globe in 2009 and would continue to fall in 2010. He suggested that we were facing global food shortages.

Today a comment was added to the post by Frank Maloney. I started to respond on that thread, but my comment grew to the point where it merited a post of its own. And here it is!

How’s that whole global food shortage for 2010 working out? Everyone just about exhausted their emergency supply of MRE’s?

The only thing that causes food shortages in modern societies is politics. Look at Ethiopia which has always been a poster child for famine, despite the poverty, cycle of droughts and hunger the region is producing and exporting huge surpluses of food on private farms owned by mid east governments.

Frank Maloney

Wrong! (and glad to be so)

Let me start by saying that the fact food shortages in 2010 weren’t as bad as were feared should be a cause for celebration rather than triumphalism and internet point-scoring. I’m very happy that predictions of global famine in 2010 were wrong. The predictions of worldwide food security issues for this year were shared by the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) and I suspect they are also very happy to discover that their worst fears were not realised.

That said, I fear we risk a dangerous complacency if we simply dismiss the issue because the worst case scenario for a single year failed to materialise. We should be happy that less people found themselves suffering food shortages in 2010 than had been expected by many analysts, but we should also be concerned by the numbers that did — nonetheless — face famine conditions and very worried indeed by the developments that created this year’s shortages. Because although a global famine did not occur, the situation remains extremely precarious and many — including the UNWFP — see it as a crisis postponed rather than a crisis prevented.

To an extent I agree with Frank’s comment, in that historically the primary reason for famine and food shortages has been political. However I disagree that will always be the case and believe we are already beginning to see it change. This change is being driven by two primary factors; Climate Change and resource depletion. The latter, resource depletion, covers a multitude of direct and indirect problems. Water shortages (also linked to Climate Change), peak oil (which drives up biofuel production — in the US this year, almost one third of all corn produced was converted to ethanol — as well as damaging fertiliser and pesticide production) and a looming shortage of essential nutrients such as phosphorous. All of these threaten to significantly impact the quantity of food being produced on our planet.

Now, there’s no doubt that you can tenuously link all of these things to “politics” rather than “nature”. But in doing so you essentially blur the distinction between the two to the point of meaninglessness. The Climate Change-driven droughts become “a political problem” because we have failed to find the political will to curb our emissions. Peak oil becomes “a political problem” because we haven’t found a politically acceptable way to eliminate non-essential consumption of crude oil. And so on.

But as I say, that’s semantics. Historically, when we spoke of famines as a political problem we generally meant that the shortages in a given area were the result of inequitable distribution due to the political machinations of corrupt (or incompetent) regimes. So while the Russian grain export ban (extended for another year in September) is obviously a political decision, it’s just sheer-bloody-mindedness to insist that the reason for that ban — successive low crop yields due to unusual weather — is also political.

High food and fuel prices

If you take a look at the UNWFP website, you’ll see the phrase “high food and fuel prices” crop up time and time again. Frank Maloney’s comment makes specific reference to Ethiopia, so I checked out the Ethiopia page. Because although the feared global famine did not appear in 2010, we did nonetheless suffer food shortages in several places this year and also witnessed food riots around the world. Ethiopia was one of the places to suffer, with the food security of over five million people coming under serious pressure. This is attributed to “a combination of factors: poor and erratic rainfall over the last two years, the high food and fuel prices that hit the country in 2008 and are persisting and the global financial crisis.” Of these factors, only the last one is unambiguously a political problem.

It is my contention, and I believe this is backed up by the evidence, that the current high food prices are here to stay (which isn’t to say that there won’t be periodic dips in the price, but like oil I feel we have reached a production peak — or perhaps “plateau” might be a better word — and that a long term drop in global food production is inevitable). As I say, there will be peaks and troughs; perhaps the weather in Russia and China will be perfect next year and we’ll see a bumper crop, but it looks almost certain that we’ve entered a new phase whereby Climate Change and resource depletion have placed our global production on a downward trend, notwithstanding the occasional spike.

In the wealthy countries this will mean we’ll have to spend more on our weekly shop. There’ll be some belt-tightening but starvation is unlikely. Here in Ireland, for instance, the combination of high food prices and economic collapse has resulted in a 2.6% drop in food consumption per capita in 2010 alone. For a nation that, by-and-large, has been overconsuming for a couple of decades, that’s not going to create serious hunger. But in the parts of the world already close to subsistence-level, that’s the kind of reduction that can tip them over into famine.

And it’s not the result of political decisions, or at least, it’s not only the result of politics; instead it’s the result of a very real drop in global food production. And there are few serious analysts suggesting that’s not set to continue.

Posted in: Opinion