Another crisis

Despite the fact that the most important thing in the world is the possible crisis in our government I thought I might discuss something really, really irrelevant.

There is a significant world wide crisis in food production and we are told the era of cheap food may be over. The UN has been having a summit on this subject. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has suggested that world food production will have to rise by 50% by 2030 and has suggested that actually this crisis may be “an historic opportunity to revitalise agriculture.”
Clearly there are a whole series of problems facing world agriculture at the moment. Whilst Robert Mugabe (an expert on food crises if ever there was one) has talked about the problems of biofuels and global warming, the Brazilians have defended their growing of biofuels and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran seems to blame the USA (no change there then).

The real reasons are probably very complex, multifactorial and difficult to solve. One clear problem is the sheer number of people in the world and that is continuing to rise. An improvement in living standards may somewhat attenuate this rise but the whole problem can become cyclical with richer people requiring more food than poorer ones. Certainly in Sub Saharan Africa where infant mortality is still withering, it is difficult to tell people to have less children when many of them will die in infancy; not for the first time I point to malaria as an important issue.

Biofuels have almost certainly not helped the situation but another problem is actually the rise in living standards in India and China, the world’s two most populous countries. This has resulted in people (not unreasonably) wanting to eat more (and not starve) and also eat things like meat which results in using grain to feed the cattle etc.

A possible solution to some of the problems has been suggested in the extremely controversial option of GM foods. Whilst in Europe this has been vigorously opposed, in the USA GM foods have been in general use for 10 years and a number of African countries are looking at the options.

Whilst personally I see no problems with GM foods I do see that some worry about possible environmental effects. Although anti GM campaigners always deny a Malthusian approach I always worry that somewhere in there people are so busy worrying about the environment and the possibility of future problems that they are insufficiently concerned about people going hungry now. That is of course an overly simplistic accusation to level at green groups but equally their solutions often seem ill suited to the problem of people dying now.

I well remember being with one of my personal all time heroes Stephen Cowan asking me why I thought an area of Kenyan bush was quite green compared to the previous areas. I did not know. He answered that that was because there was no water nearby. He waited until I was really puzzled and explained that the lack of water meant that local people did not bring their animals there and as such the vegetation did better and was more fertile. When you think about it that sort of problem is immense. Parts of Africa already have a population density greater than they can easily sustain.

As I said before, however, I am not a fan of a Malthusian catastrophe and whilst opposed to environmental destruction and loss of species and habitat we must remember that we should also oppose loss of people’s lives. To quote the Bible “ye are of more value than many sparrows.”