Gwynne Dyer: World countdown to crop catastrophe

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Worldwide food costs rose 23 per cent between 2006 and 2007. Many signs suggest that the era of cheap food is over. Josetta Sheeran, director of the World Food Programme calls it "the new face of hunger".

Launching an appeal for an extra US$500 million ($635 million) so it could continue supplying food aid to 73 million hungry people this year, he said: "People are simply being priced out of food markets ... We have never before had a situation where aggressive rises in food prices keep pricing our operations out of our reach."

The programme decided on an appeal three weeks ago because the price of the food it buys to feed the world's poor had risen by 55 per cent since last June.

By the time it actually launched the appeal a few days ago, prices had risen a further 20 per cent. So now it needs $700 million to bridge the gap between last year's budget and this year's prices.

In Thailand, farmers are sleeping in their fields after reports that thieves are stealing their rice, now worth $600 a tonne. Four people have died in Egypt in clashes over subsidised flour that was being sold for profit on the black market. There have been food riots in Morocco, Senegal and Cameroon.

Last year it became clear that the era of cheap food was over. Food costs worldwide rose by 23 per cent between 2006 and 2007. This year, what is becoming clear is the impact of this change on ordinary people.

For consumers in countries such as Japan, France, the US and New Zealand, the relentless price rises for food are an unwelcome extra pressure on an already stretched household budget. For less fortunate people in other places, they can mean less protein in the diet, or choosing between feeding the kids breakfast and paying their school fees, or even, in the poorest communities, starvation.

And the crisis is only getting started. It is the perfect storm - everything is going wrong at once.

For the 50 years between 1945 and 1995, as the world's population more than doubled, grain production kept pace.

But then it stalled. In six of the past seven years, the human race has consumed more grain than it grew. World grain reserves last year were only 57 days, down from 180 days a decade ago.

To make matters worse, demand for food is growing faster than population. As incomes rise in China, India and other countries with fast-growing economies, consumers include more and more meat in their diet - the average Chinese citizen now eats 50kg of meat a year, up from 20kg in the mid-1980s. Producing meat consumes enormous quantities of grain.

Then there is global warming, which is probably already cutting into food production. Many in Australia, formerly the world's second-largest wheat exporter, suspect climate change is the reason for the prolonged drought that is destroying the country's ability to export food.

But the worst damage is being done by the rage for "biofuels" that supposedly reduce carbon dioxide emissions and fight climate change. (But they don't, really - at least, not in their present form.) Some 30 per cent of this year's US grain harvest will go straight to an ethanol distillery, and the European Union is aiming to provide 10 per cent of the fuel used for transport from biofuels by 2010.

A huge amount of the world's farmland is being diverted to feed cars, not people. Rainforest is being cleared to grow more biofuels. A study in the US journal Science calculated that destroying ecosystems to grow corn or sugar cane for ethanol, or oil palms or soybeans for bio-diesel, releases between 17 and 420 times more carbon dioxide than is saved by burning the biofuel grown instead of fossil fuel.

It's all done in the name of fighting climate change, but the numbers don't add up.

"It would obviously be insane if we had a policy to try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the use of biofuels that's actually leading to an increase in greenhouse gases," said Professor Robert Watson, former chief scientific adviser to the World Bank and now filling the same role at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in London.

But that is the policy, both in Europe and in the United States. This is the one element that is completely under human control.

Governments can simply stop creating artificial demand for the current generation of biofuels (and often directly subsidising them). That land goes back to growing food instead, and prices fall.

Climate change is a real threat, but we don't have to have this crisis now.

"If ... more and more land [is] diverted for industrial biofuels to keep cars running, we have two years before a food catastrophe breaks out worldwide," said Vandana Shiva, director of the India-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy. "It'll be 20 years before climate catastrophe breaks out, but the false solutions to climate change are creating catastrophes that will be much more rapid than the climate change itself."

* Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

- NZ Herald

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