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Lester Brown: Food crisis 2011 is here

Lester Brown: Food crisis 2011 is here

Are rising global food prices here to stay?  Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute thinks so, and warns that things will only get worse in the face of climate change, increasing population, water scarcity, and soil erosion.

In “The Great Food Crisis of 2011” published in Foreign Policy Magazine, Brown argued the difference between past food crises and the present one:

“Whereas in years past, it’s been weather that has caused a spike in commodities prices, now it’s trends on both sides of the food supply/demand equation that are driving up prices. On the demand side, the culprits are population growth, rising affluence, and the use of grain to fuel cars. On the supply side: soil erosion, aquifer depletion, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, the plateauing of crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries, and — due to climate change — crop-withering heat waves and melting mountain glaciers and ice sheets. These climate-related trends seem destined to take a far greater toll in the future. “

Brown goes on to give examples of those stresses on the global food system.  For example, on the supply side, Saudi Arabia once relied on its own aquifer, or an underground water supply, which is now dried up.  From 2007-2010, Saudi wheat production fell by two-thirds, and “by 2012, wheat production will likely end entirely,” according to Brown.  This is no doubt part of Saudi Arabia’s recent impetus to lease land in Africa which was discussed earlier on the GFC blog.

On the demand side, Brown points out there is some good news in terms of our increasing population: “World population growth, which peaked at 2 percent per year around 1970, dropped below 1.2 percent per year in 2010. But because the world population has nearly doubled since 1970, we are still adding 80 million people each year.”  In addition to these new mouths, 3 billion people are “moving up the food chain” and consuming more grain-intensive livestock and poultry, generating even more demand for grains.

Biofuels are also increasing demand for grains.  According to the article, “In the United States, which harvested 416 million tons of grain in 2009, 119 million tons went to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars. That’s enough to feed 350 million people for a year.”

With these and other increasing stresses on food security, any hope for a “return to normal” state of affairs is unrealistic, according to Brown.

“Unless governments quickly redefine security and shift expenditures from military uses to investing in climate change mitigation, water efficiency, soil conservation, and population stabilization, the world will in all likelihood be facing a future with both more climate instability and food price volatility. If business as usual continues, food prices will only trend upward.”

Posted by Rishi Sidhu.

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