(MintPress) – The world is on the precipice of a major food crisis. As the world’s population balloons, the global grains supply has stagnated or declined, according to the research article “Recent patterns of crop yield growth and stagnation,” published by Nature Communications and written in cooperation of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and McGill University. While food costs have dropped globally for the second consecutive month, with prices at their lowest since July, yields for maize, wheat and rice have stagnated. As most areas’ yields continue to grow, for 24-39 percent of maize, rice, wheat and soybean-growing areas, yields have declined or showed no growth.
An increase in meat and dairy consumption globally and the expansion of biofuel use have compounded the situation.
This is concerning as the population continues to explode. Since 1900, when the world’s population was at 1.6 billion, the population has increased by a factor of more than 4. At the current rate of growth, 1 billion new people will be added to the world every 15 years. Scientists project that a global food shortage will trigger food riots as early as August 2013.
Marco Lagi, a team member from the New England Complex System Institute, said to Technology Review that the correlation of rises in the global food price and the timing of riots around the world is not coincidental. “These observations are consistent with a hypothesis that high global food prices are a precipitating condition for social unrest.”
From the New England Complex System Institute’s position paper “The Food Crisis and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East,”
“Social unrest may reflect a variety of factors such as poverty, unemployment, and social injustice. Despite the many possible contributing factors, the timing of violent protests in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 as well as earlier riots in 2008 coincides with large peaks in global food prices. We identify a specific food price threshold above which protests become likely. These observations suggest that protests may reflect not only long-standing political failings of governments, but also the sudden desperate straits of vulnerable populations. If food prices remain high, there is likely to be persistent and increasing global social disruption. Underlying the food price peaks we also find an ongoing trend of increasing prices. We extrapolate these trends and identify a crossing point to the domain of high impacts, even without price peaks, in 2012-2013. This implies that avoiding global food crises and associated social unrest requires rapid and concerted action.”
In the United States, food production constitutes a small part — only 13 percent — of the maize market. Maize is primarily grown as animal feed, with a sizable portion (37 percent) set by subsidies to be reserved for biofuel conversion. With the rash of droughts that has hit much of the Midwest and the Great Plains in 2012, the United States’ corn exports were the lowest in recent years. Monsoons in India, early dryness in Russia and drought in the Sahel region have risen grain prices beyond the reach of the world’s poorest, sparking violent demonstrators.
“On the annual Pro Farmer tour, analysts and investors walk corn and soybean fields in seven Midwestern states over four days to assess prospects prior to the fall harvest … The crop tour doesn’t estimate soybean yields, but it reported an average 584.9 pods per 3-foot-by-3-foot square area in South Dakota, down 47% from a year ago. In Ohio, scouts reported soybean counts at an average of 1,033.72 pods per 3-foot-by-3-foot square area, down from 1,253.2 pods a year ago … Meanwhile, scouts with the Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour on Monday reported an average estimated corn yield in Ohio of 110.5 bushels per acre, down from the tour’s estimate of 156.3 bushels a year ago. In South Dakota, tour scouts reported an average yield estimate of just 74.3 bushels per acre, down from 141.1 bushels a year ago … While commodities traders and agronomists have braced for weeks for the prospect of a crop decimated by drought, the estimates were lower than many had expected.”
The United States accounted for 39 percent of the global corn (maize) trade in 2011-12 and exports 53 percent of the maize consumed in the world market. According to the Department of Agriculture, the stockpiles are down to 48 percent, as of August. The United States and other major maize producers have faced increased global production over the last 10 years and cannot currently meet demand. In light of a disappointing harvest this year, maize importing nations may face a major crop shortage. While the world’s richest nations spend only 10-20 percent of personal income on food and is, therefore, insulated from the effects of food shortages and food price increases, the developing world pays up to 80 percent. A 1 percent increase in food prices translates to 16 million people being pushed into poverty, as reported by al-Jazeera.
In Sahel in West Africa, more than 18 million people were affected by the severe food crisis there, which was triggered by high global food costs, drought and crop failure. Livestock have been sacrificed for food, and desperation has set throughout the region. Flooding in Niger has destroyed 7,000 hectares of crops. In Nigeria, thousands of farmers lost their livelihoods and farms. Crops such as maize, plantain, yam, cassava and pawpaw — all staple foods of the region — were wiped out in the floods. Oxfam International has launched relief efforts to mitigate the crisis and offer relief to millions in the area.
Many African nations have adopted maize as a staple crop (corn is a native plant of the Americas) and may — in the short run — be able to avoid the higher prices of the global food market. However, because local yields tend to be small runs, once local stockpiles are exhausted, nations ill-suited to deal with heightened food prices will be fully subjected to them.
Wheat and rice prices are typically lower than maize prices and serve as a fallback to heightened maize prices and shortages. Severe heat and drought, however, in Russia, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine — which amount to a quarter of world’s wheat exports — and in Iran have impacted global harvests. Export controls are an oft-talked about option, which will make wheat prices skyrocket. The threat of food riots are of grave concern in regards to the wheat harvest; it is thought that the 2011 Arab Spring started because of riots against high wheat prices, and, historically, the French Revolution was triggered by a wheat shortage. (Egypt is currently the largest wheat importer.)
The world must re-approach the question of the use of edible staples for non-edible reasons and how to best use arable lands. As the world’s population increases, the ethics of using food-stock for non-edible reasons — such as ethanol production, chemical fabrication and industrial uses — have to be addressed. As Americans are spending less for food today than they were in 1969 — adjusted for inflation, the world is finding itself struggling under the reality of less plentiful, more expensive food.
Shenggen Fan, director-general of the International Food Policy Research, said, “Biofuel production has to be stopped. That actually pushed global food prices higher and many poor people, particularly women and children, have suffered.” The United States uses 4.5 billion bushels (114.3 million metric tons) of corn for ethanol production. This is roughly the combined output of Argentina, Brazil and the Ukraine — the three largest exporters after the U.S.
This is in spite of the fact that 35 million acres of cropland — about 8 percent of the cropland in the country and, combined, roughly the size of the state of New York — is under conservation reserve in the United States and is not used (although, a coalition of farmers are removing their lands from conservation to cash in on global food costs at a rate equal to the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, as of 2008). Japan must import more than 767,000 tons of rice, despite the nation producing all the rice it needs domestically, according to World Trade Organization rules. The excess rice is turned into alcohol, used as animal feed or simply allowed to rot. The rising cost of oil has made fertilizer more expensive to make and transport. Fertilizer is an essential component of “green revolution” farming, which was influential toward increasing yields globally.
According to the Guardian,
“Leading water scientists have issued one of the sternest warnings yet about global food supplies, saying that the world’s population may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages.
“Humans derive about 20% of their protein from animal-based products now, but this may need to drop to just 5% to feed the extra 2 billion people expected to be alive by 2050, according to research by some of the world’s leading water scientists.
“‘There will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected 9 billion population in 2050 if we follow current trends and changes towards diets common in western nations,’ the report by Malik Falkenmark and colleagues at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) said.”
This has led to food riots in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mozambique, Myanmar, Senegal, Somalia, Tajikistan and Yemen.
The collapse of the ‘green revolution’
In the first half of the 20th century, the U.S. was the largest importer of grains in the world. By the end of the 20th century, it was the biggest exporter. The “green revolution,” or the suite of improvement in farming techniques that has rapidly increased yields per acre worldwide, is credited for the shift. Developed in Mexico by Norman Borlaug in 1943 and spread throughout the world by the Rockefeller Foundation, research into the techniques are currently maintained by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).
Work in India, which transferred India into one of the world’s largest rice exporters, vetted the “green revolution.” There is a saying that it took English wheat nearly 1,000 years for yields to increase from 0.5 to 2 metric tons per hectare, but only 40 years to go from 2 to 6 metric ton per hectares. Many nations have their own version of this saying.
The “green revolution” has saved large swathes of forest land and swamps from development for farmland, improved irrigation processes for poorer nations and made it easier to effectively harvest more with less land. However, the availability of more food has been blamed for the global population boom, which necessitated farming less suitable farm lands, which results in lessened yields. The heavy dependence in non-natural fertilizers, the lack of crop diversification, groundwater contamination and bioengineering to improve yields or to make crops pest-resistant have been negatives that have manifested into health concerns in recent months.
The focus on single crop growth has created a situation where millions are fed, but suffer from malnutrition. The lack of agricultural diversity lead to a lack of crop diversity and an incomplete nutrient profile for those without access to green produce or a more diverse slate of crops.
In response to such criticism, Borlaug responded,
“… some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels … If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”
Most damningly, “green revolution” techniques are dedicated equipment and resources-extensive, making the process inaccessible to smaller farmers and to the illiterate. In order to make this type of agriculture work toward feeding the whole of the population, international policies are needed that will not only effectively utilize available resources, but fairly distribute harvested crops and provide training in effective agricultural practices.