Saturday, April 19, 2008

World Food Crisis: 2008… a beginning?

I had been scavenging through the news sections littered all over the web for the new crisis that is slowly folding across the world. The food crisis, as it is called, has been affecting millions across the developing world. It is leading to hunger, pushing people deeper into poverty, and worst of it all, leading to riots that leads to instability, as people with nothing to lose, take law into their hands. Even in the developed world, the prices have gone up, but the food plays such a small fraction of their spending, that it has practically gone unnoticed, till now! Is the cheap food a thing of the past,… already! Errr… Am I hearing it right?! I thought struggle for food was thing of the past! Damn, when can man forget worrying about the food and indulge in high forms of arts and entertainment!

Well, well, I will leave the sarcasm apart. The media is full of statistics if anybody is interested in it. We in US are still complacent, yet to feel the pain the rest of the world feels. (The words are coming from a bum who is still being able to feed himself!) Not for too long though! In any case, within a year, rice is gone up 74%, soya by 87% and wheat by 135%. This statistics is going to change faster than we speak and in the near future is only going to be worse because of the global shortage. The Governments, not just people, had become complacent over the years. And it has been only 20-30 years since the last major global food crisis. So, when the crops failed, inventories were used under the assumption that in case of emergency, the food could be imported! But nature tests us and now we have host of explanations for such a crisis. The four main factors that are talked about everywhere are: 0) world population (ofcourse! Duh!), 1) rising oil prices, 2) climatic changes leading to crop failures in many places including food exporting countries such as Australia, 3) the conversion of food crops to bio-fuels and 4) changing diet of the food in developing countries such as China and India.

What can we do about the rising oil prices? Really nothing, but to make pleas to Oil producing countries! Though it might be an excuse big enough for those who want to drill a hole through Alaska for more oil. Climate change… well Bush finally made some random statements on cutting the emission of CO2 by introducing few more ridiculous policy decisions. The idea is to provide some tax incentives to those who don’t need it so that they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions in America! The mockery insults the intelligence of even a primary class student. Well I wasted my time reading the news articles that talk about Bush’s proposal. Every Bush's policy proposal is a new business and investment opportunity though! It is like a suction pipe that snatches meager resources from poor in the world for ruthlessly driven entrepreneurs. Of course “What would have Jesus done?” In short: Trashed the planet!

The reasons 3) and 4) are my favorites. Dire search for causes lead analysts and economists to quickly come up with some rough estimates on how these causes might be affecting the current crisis! The Times magazine published a beautiful article describing the cost of converting crops to oil in article posted “The Clean Energy Scam”. To make its point, the article spent most of its time in Amazon, where the destructive biofuel dynamic is on vivid display. The message was unambiguous “the basic problem with most biofuels is amazingly simple, given that researchers have ignored it until now: using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon.”… “It was as if the science world assumed biofuels would be grown in parking lots.”… “More deforestation results from a chain reaction so vast it's subtle: (Given the subsidies) U.S. farmers are selling one-fifth of their corn to ethanol production, so U.S. soybean farmers are switching to corn, so Brazilian soybean farmers are expanding into cattle pastures, so Brazilian cattlemen are displaced to the Amazon. It's the remorseless economics of commodities markets.” And the conclusion even simple: “The biofuels boom, in short, is one that could haunt the planet for generations--and it's only getting started.”

Of course as soon the cry for hunger became loud, people started capitalizing on these causes. Oil producing countries loved the fact that everybody is blaming on biofuels, so they joined the bandwagon criticizing it. Why would an oil rich state not love this statement: “Strange as it sounds, we're better off growing food and drilling for oil. Sure, we should conserve fuel and buy efficient cars, but we should keep filling them with gas if the alternatives are dirtier.”

No wonder, as soon as world leaders, including the ones from World Bank started criticizing biofuels, the Bush administration, true to its spirit, disregarded the claims by saying that reasons are unclear just like it did couple of years in relation to the climate change. I don’t watch Fox, but I am sure the news channel would have echoed the same sentiment for millions of Americans who love their dumb President and don’t want to believe otherwise. Also, it made the senators from Iowa unhappy who wondered if there is any world leader who would eat the remains of corn. Well I can’t really blame him. Iowa is the silicon valley of biofuels. They didn’t read Times magazine article or any other that explains chain reaction. Of course, if I was one of them, I would not even want to read it even if the article was in front of my eyes (Trust me after Bush’s stupid proposal on converting corn into ethanol; I was searching for ways to invest money in some corn field in Iowa). The biggest impassioned defense, however, came from Brazil’s President Lula. In his response to the U.N. report that biofuels are a “crime against humanity”, he rightly said it was easy for someone sitting in Switzerland to preach to Brazil. Ofcourse, as everybody is Brazil says: why an average Brazilian does not have the right to an American dream? “"Biofuels aren't the villain that threatens food security,” he said, “On the contrary... they can pull countries out of energy dependency without affecting foods.” So who are the villains that threaten food security? Food prices were going up, he said, because people in developing countries like China, India and Brazil itself were simply eating more as their economic conditions improved.

This brings me to the reason 4. The statistics show the Chinese meat consumption has gone up from 20 kg/capita to 50 kg/capita. Now 800 calories of grain and ten times more water is needed to produce 100 calories of beef. No body really shows what the consumption of meat in US is, so that Chinese could know what they are catching upto while the rest of the world can point fingers at China and do not talk about changing their consumption habits. Ofcourse if they do, they would make enemies of “meat industry” in America, which has successfully brain washed an American mind to believe that meat is healthier than grain, while it has been grain that had filled the stomach of people for thousands of years!

So here we are। As the appeal against biofuels gets politicized by those who make money on oil, it gives a good reason for those in favor of biofuel to reject the plea against biofuel and blame it on the developing world for eating more. Ofcourse the developing world can point fingers back at developed world. Thankfully there is one solution that some are talking about which no one really minds. In short-term: give those who are suffering some food aid. In long term: A farming revolution. Now how and when this farming revolution for a greener revolution is materialized, is a big if! But till then, three cheers to those who are trashing the planet even further!

For those who want to read further, I found a beautiful report from TIME again on food crisis in 1974:,9171,911503,00.html. The problem is same, just that the cold war realities made the world somewhat different. It seems like we are again working to avoid the nightmare of Parson Thomas Malthus, the English economist who predicted nearly two centuries ago that population would outrun man's capacity to produce food.