How food, or its absence, is shaping our future

Food is looming as the next big global crisis [16 October 2012 | Peter Boyer]


In the next few years, expect to see a couple of bits of human anatomy — each in its own way a useful barometer of well-being — finding their way into all manner of conversations.

One is the stomach, which informs us when it’s time to eat and when it’s past time we stopped. The other is the well-documented neural warning system, the hip pocket nerve. Food and the stuff we need to acquire it are about as basic as it gets, affecting everything we do.

There’s a day for everything these days. Today is a big one: World Food Day, which aims to raise awareness of hunger and how we can end it. This year the spotlight is on agricultural cooperatives, which the United Nations sees as a key to feeding the world.

The UK government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington, who was in Australia last week, has a particular concern about prospects for keeping up a food supply to a bigger world population and meeting food and water demands of a rising middle class in developing countries.

With food prices steadily rising since 2008, he says, “we’re not producing enough, and food isn’t getting to where it’s needed.” As for Australia, he pointed to modelling showing climate change through the 21st century would significantly reduce land in this country available for agriculture.

Beddington sees answers coming both from high technology — including genetically-modified foods — and low-tech “climate-smart” changes in land use patterns aimed at more intensive food production.

A couple of months ago I wrote about how potential grain shortages resulting from drought in the US, eastern Europe and Russia was making governments and food organisations around the world twitchy.

Combined with flood and storm damage to crops elsewhere and a weak monsoon season in India (a leading rice exporter), these events are now expected to cause a 10 per cent rise in Asian rice prices and a marked drop in world cereal stocks to less than 500 million tonnes within 12 months.

That’s not yet at the crisis level we saw in 2007-08 when prices of wheat and rice nearly doubled, but it underlines the continuing fragility of global food supplies and their reliance on stable climate and a continuing supply of oil-based fertilisers.

It’s sufficiently worrying to the big players in the world food scene, including the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, to seek an emergency meeting to address food supplies into next year and beyond, to try to forestall panic buying, public unrest and hoarding by food producers.

The FAO director-general, Jose Graziano da Silva, has even called on the US to suspend biofuel production to release more corn for food. Others’ hard times may be our gain: an expected good Australian wheat and rice harvest this year is expected to fetch top dollar in world markets.

Everything joins up to everything else in the global food marketplace. The cost of producing every food item based on cereals, including meat, rises with the cereal price, and if such food produced in Australia attracts a good price overseas, expect to see its cost rise here too.

“Every time you open your fridge and food cupboards, you step into the global food system,” says Oxfam. We’re part of that system — a vast web of people, organisations and governments producing, distributing, selling and buying food — whoever and wherever we are on the planet.

But it’s a system that badly needs attention. There’s the inequity of chronic hunger afflicting nearly a billion people (only to be exacerbated by a billion more people on the planet within 13 years) while a majority of people in a majority of developed countries are overweight.

There are the niggling concerns that foreign investment, including purchase of land, is not always a good thing. International land sales have rapidly escalated over the past decade, with a major focus on poor countries with large numbers of hungry people. The 2008 food price rises caused a doubling of farmland deals in poor countries by investors from places such as the Gulf states.

With prices again on the rise, we can expect richer countries to again look to land to try to secure food supplies. But all too often, land deals in developing countries result in the forced evictions of poor farmers. Food aid groups are putting pressure on the World Bank to set an example to investors and governments globally by taking measures to prevent land-grabbing.

We also have to be concerned that volatile prices continue to plague both small producers and consumers while a few powerful corporations play their suppliers and customers off against each other.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims told an Australian Food and Grocery Council conference last week that the ACCC was investigating claims that Australia’s major supermarket chains were misusing market power and mistreating suppliers.

He said legal complexities meant that this would be a long process. All the while, complaints continue to emerge from the Australian farm sector that retailers’ price wars are putting small growers under the pump and forcing some of them out of business.

• Fixing the world’s broken food system is the subject of a presentation by Andrew Hewett, director of Oxfam Australia, at 6 pm tomorrow at the University of Tasmania’s social science lecture theatre (entry from Churchill Avenue).

• On Saturday the Warrane-Mornington Neighbourhood Centre in Bligh Street, Warrane, is hosting a Water Awareness Expo, offering practical guidance on managing this essential resource. The first 50 local residents who attend will receive a free plant.

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