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[afro-nets] Finding long-term solutions to the world food crisis

  • From: "Dr Rana Jawad Asghar" <jawad@alumni.washington.edu>
  • Date: Mon, 28 Apr 2008 00:59:49 -0700 (PDT)


The Lancet 2008; 371:1389

Finding long-term solutions to the world food crisis

While customers at restaurants in New York City will soon be able to count the calories of their meals in an attempt to curb the obesity epidemic, people in New Delhi are currently counting their grains of rice. From Bolivia to Yemen, people around the world are taking to the streets in protest at the spiralling increases in food prices. Politicians have been sacked, protesters have died, and some governments are imposing extreme measures to ration food and control their hungry populations.

The era of cheap food is over. In the past year, the cost of wheat has risen by 130%, rice by 120%, with corn and soya not far behind. As a result, millions of people are starving and at least 100 million more people will be pushed further into poverty. Food, the fundamental determinant of health, is unaffordable to an increasing proportion of the world's population. As usual, the poorest are affected the most, with those living in absolute poverty—less than US$1 a day—surviving on just one meal a day if they are lucky. And since the International Fund for Agricultural Development has estimated that the number of food-insecure people in the world will rise by 16 million for every percentage increase in the prices of staple foods, this situation is likely to get worse. The target of MDG 1—to reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger—is in reverse.

There are many contributing factors to the current crisis. The world will have 3 billion more mouths to feed by 2050. Emerging economies are not only eating more, but eating more meat. (It can take up to 9 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of meat.) Crop yields in developing countries have fallen dramatically with diminishing returns for at least a decade. Climate change has disrupted crop growth and water distribution. After the collapse of the US housing market, investors are ploughing trillions of dollars into commodities, such as food and raw materials, resulting in a “commodities super-cycle” where commodity price inflation feeds on itself leading to hugely inflated prices. Global trade distortions, where subsidised produce from rich countries is dumped on the markets of poorer ones, have wrecked the livelihoods of small-scale farmers and decreased local food production. But one of the largest contributors to the crisis is the rise of biofuels—in
which potential food crops are burned as fuel in car engines—a situation that the UN Special Rapporteur for the right to food, Jean Ziegler, has called “a crime against humanity”.

Biofuels once perceived as the green alternative to fuel have recently been discredited. After the agricultural displacement effects of these fuels are taken into account, emissions from biofuels are many times worse than those from fossil fuels. Yet in the drive to make the USA self-sustaining for fuel production, massive ethanol subsidies and millions of acres of American corn have led to a boom in biofuels. American cars now burn enough corn to cover the import needs of 82 food-deficit countries. But thanks to a backlash against biofuels in Europe, the European Union, once committed to a 10% biofuel target by 2020, is now sensibly rethinking its position.

As the current food crisis affects every country in the world, it is no surprise that the situation is at the top of the international agenda. The UK Prime Minister wants the world food crisis to be discussed at the G8 Summit in July. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is planning its crisis meeting for June, while another UN body, the Economic and Social Council, will hold a debate on the crisis next month in New York City. The Bretton Woods siblings, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have already met to discuss the problem. And the Secretary-General of the UN is considering holding a World Summit to discuss the crisis.

With so many different talks planned there is a danger of a disjointed international effort in which the most powerful nations will be allowed to continue to promote protectionist practices. Short-term solutions, such as more humanitarian aid to help meet the World Food Programme's previous commitment to feed 73 million people in 78 countries, will no doubt distract attention from the causes of the world food crisis. For example, the USA and France, among the first to announce their increase in food aid donations, have directly contributed to the crisis by repeatedly failing to stand up to their own farmers by abolishing agricultural subsidies.

Food is a complex political issue and quick fixes are not enough. Without a long-term plan that takes a bold stand against ethanol subsidies, the use of biofuels, and the trade distortions that have contributed to the crisis, any action will just be a temporary sticking plaster. Continuous food crises will be the new global norm unless the international community works together to find fair and sustainable solutions to tackle the root causes of global food insecurity.

The Lancet

Rana Jawad Asghar MD. MPH.
Coordinator South Asian Public Health Forum
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