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.”

  • Steve

    I would argue that there is not now nor ever really has been a world wide shortage of food.

    There is now and almost always has been a world wide shortage of cheap food

    Farmers are finally seeing the possibility of a return to the prosperity they enjoyed in the post war era because food is finally a valuable commodity again.

    The world population is unsustainable and surely there will be a plague or famine that will greatly reduce our numbers. Hopefully we will learn but I am not holding my breath

  • Rory

    There is more than enough food produced in the world to feed the existing population many times over. Furthermore the only problem to feeding those immediately deprived as a result of crop failure or natural catastrophe is that of ease of distribution which difficulty, thanks to modern communication systems, is greatly allayed.

    The biggest obstacle remains greed. The demands of investors in commodities for an ever increased return in the rate of profit and the obscene practice of speculation in futures demands that need is never satisfied as that would harm profit. The terrible irony is that of course it is greed itself that can never know satisfaction -those with most are ever hungry for more and more is never enough.

    We only have to recall how it was that a brash, bombastic, foul mouthed pop star earned his knighthood – by agreeing to shut his ugly mouth after having witnessed the effect of the aid system’s demand for cash crops such as tobacco to be grown instead of food as a precondition to receiving aid in the form of loans in the very knowledge that such crops would strip the soil and leave it vulnerable to erosion and subsequent famine.

    It is those nation states that most pay lip service to Christianity, such as the UK and the USA, that are most voracious in this respect paying scant regard to the example given by the the distribution of the loaves and fishes.

  • Turgon

    Pretty harsh but not completely unfair

  • topdeckomnibus


    From little know much

    The ease with which Coalfield Regeneration Trust gave an 8000 pound grant for security fencing at our self managed allotments. Dig for Victory strategy in preparation ?

    Some of our last year wet season glut damson supply (Your erudite contribution if I recall about damsons in distress) is still being consumed in the form of damson rum and port.

    It is said that saw palmetto has many benefits for men in the autumn of their years.

    Ongoing empirical testing seems to show that damson rum and port is better … but an extensive period of further testing is scheduled.

    We have put in goji berries and asparagus this year to add to the varieties.

    Our allotments have been in use as such for around 150 years. Which is a pretty good provenance for healthy soil. So I am not being entirely facetious. Councils across the land seem to be security fencing the good old allotments.

    It was either Marshalls or Thompson and Morgan I think who put out free seed yjis season for allotment trials for smaller cabbages I think it was. Cultivars suitable for the window box urban veggie gardener new market expected ?


  • The Raven

    I’d love to see more allotments. In my own garden I grow potatoes, peas, broad beans, a few other bits and pieces…herbs and stuff (legal only, mind). It all tastes much better than a lot of the shit they dole out at the supermarkets.

    I was glad to see at the time that BCC didn’t cave to Eric Cairns when he was looking to build over Annadale.

    More councils should be providing services of this sort…perhaps one or two parts of some public parks could be used?

    Anyway, I was wondering if serving the delegates who attend this food summit the equivalent of a meal in the Third World at each mealtime would focus their minds a little…?

  • The Raven

    “..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.”

    We may be, Turgon.

    However, and I pick these at random from a couple of publications:

    Almost a quarter of the species on this planet will be extinct in the next 30 years. One half will be gone in less than 100 years.

    The current day extinction rate is 1,000-10,000 times faster than it should naturally be.

    25% of the 600-odd species of great ape – our closest biological relative – will be gone in the next 20 years.

    God may have put creatures on the earth for our social and economic benefit. But it doesn’t mean carte blanche to wipe them out. I’d rather not be the victim of a Malthusian Disaster….but I see no other way out for the rest of the creatures inhabiting the blue planet.

  • joeCanuck

    With regards to genetically modified food, just about everything we eat, animals included (even ourselves) has been genetically modified, initially by chance mutations but aided and abetted by farmers. So no need to get excited.
    It is disgusting, however, that a large part of the food production market, especially G.M. food, is controlled by the “profits at any cost” band of fellow citizens through a few mighty companies.

  • Turgon

    The Raven,
    I agree and of course I was using a bit of hyperbole but without being too sarcastic much as I do not want the lesser spotted wombat dying out I am actually more worried about the African children I have seen die of preventable or treatable diseases.

    We need a way of saving both but I know which I regard as of more importance.

  • Harry Flashman

    As I recall the foul-mouthed pop star spent the 1980’s telling us the reason that the people were starving in Ethiopia was because the (then) EEC had a butter mountain, oh how we all hooted in derision when the Mad Scratcher calmly pointed out to him that the Ethiopians were not dying because of an excess of food in Europe but because of a deliberately engineered famine by their left wing government.

    Turns out she was right.

  • abucs

    Perhaps also the rise in oil price will affect the cost of global food transportation.

    This may give more incentive and rewards to local farmers ?

  • Dread Cthulhu

    Rory: “The biggest obstacle remains greed. The demands of investors in commodities for an ever increased return in the rate of profit and the obscene practice of speculation in futures demands that need is never satisfied as that would harm profit.”

    Actually, as I think on it, the obstacle is oftern political, not profit. Ethiopia, Sudan, the Ukraine in the thirties in order to control populations, their political masters prevent aid from reaching those in need. Then there are those instances of gross mismanagement — the Great Leap forward, the collectivization of Russian farms in the Soviet Union following the Russian Civil War, the dismemberment of commercial farms in Zimbabwe.

    Lastly, there are those cases where there is logistical difficulty — getting the food to the area of need.

    Farmer’s raise cash crops not because some corporate master demands it. Farmers, at least in free economies, raise cash crops because they farm as much a matter of of making a living as a matter of family tradition or culture.

    Part of the current difficulty is that the hand-wringers want to change the world, they just don’t have any solutions. The don’t like modern farming, but don’t have an adequate alternative to feed the masses. They don’t like burning fossil fuels, but don’t like any of the alternatives, be they bio-mass, nuclear, hydro-electric — they even find reasons to complain about wind power.