FOOD to Feed the World: There has to be a different way
Walker's World: The food crisis
Published: Sept. 7, 2010 at 6:13 AM
By MARTIN WALKER
UPI Editor Emeritus
PARIS, Sept. 7 (UPI) -- The deaths of 10 people during food riots in Mozambique last week, combined with Russia's renewed ban on wheat exports and floods that threaten crops in Pakistan, Canada and Argentina, have revived fears of the food shortages that rocked the world two years ago.
Welcome to the future. The combination of population growth, richer diets and the erosion of arable land means that there will be pressure on food supplies for decades to come.
Wheat prices touched $300 a ton last month, almost double their price in April. Beef prices in the United States are back to their 2008 peak of 90 cents a pound, after a bumpy but steady rise from 60 cents a decade ago. Prices for lamb have tripled in the course of this decade.
But there are two wild cards lurking in the future that could turn crisis into catastrophe. The first is climate change. It matters not whether one assumes this is caused by human action or is simply one of those centuries-long trends of warming and cooling that has marked the Earth's history. Temperatures are rising, weather and rainfall patterns are shifting and these changes will have major impact on crops and yields.
The most serious study yet produced on the likely impact of climate change on food, by William Cline of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, claims that the most serious change could come in India.
His model suggests that the overall food crop in India could fall by as much as 30 percent over the next 25 years. Since India's population is expected to grow from 1.1 billion to 1.5 billion over the same period, this spells disaster.
The second wild card is a form of wheat rust called Ug99, so named because it first emerged in Uganda in 1999. At first it was thought to have been controlled within a limited area but it seems to be spreading inexorably. First it hit crops in Kenya, then Ethiopia. Then it jumped across the Red Sea to Yemen and has now been found in Iran. This year it was found in South Africa.
Worse still, it isn't a single fungus. It has developed four variants so far, which means it can overcome most of the cocktails of wheat breeds that scientists have developed over recent decades. Two particular genetic variants, known as S24 and S31 which were developed as part of Norman Borlaug's famous Green Revolution, were long thought to have solved the problem of wheat rust.
But Ug99 defeats them. The red pustules it produces on wheat stems can burst and spread countless spores on the wind. And this means that 90 percent of the world's wheat supplies, which produce one-third of the calories that humans consume, is at risk.
Help may be at hand. This summer, scientists unpicked the complete genetic code of wheat and are desperately looking for strains of wheat that can resist Ug99.
It's a race against time. The fear is that the virus spreads from Iran eastward into the Punjab, the breadbasket of the Indian subcontinent, with dire implications for India and Pakistan. Or it could move north into the Caucasus and central Asia and then attack Russia and the Ukraine and Europe.
Worst of all, just one of those spores attached to a tourist's clothes could hop aboard a long commercial flight to the United States or to Brazil and spread the disease to the Western Hemisphere. That is what happened when yellow rust, a similar but less lethal disease, spread from France to Australia in the clothes of a visiting tourist.
Even without the wild cards of climate change and Ug99, the long-term outlook is deeply worrying. The global population, now 6.8 billion, is expected to top 9 billion by 2050, which means a lot more mouths to feed. Arable land is under intense pressure from urbanization, particularly in China. Most of the countries where population growth will be highest, which means Africa and the Indian subcontinent, are already facing severe stress on water supplies.
And human food habits are changing. As hundreds of millions of people in India and China and elsewhere clamber up the prosperity ladder, they also climb the protein ladder; they want meat and dairy products, hamburgers and a chicken in the pot. But it takes eight pound of wheat to produce a pound of beef.
The demand for beef is strong but the supply is problematic. Over the past decade, the total number of the U.S. beef herd has fallen from 100 million to 75 million. In Australia, the world's main supplier of lamb, the sheep herd has halved since the 1990s. Whatever the global demand, farmers are limited by local factors like Australia's drought or rising grain prices in the United States.
"In the past few weeks, global cereal markets experienced a sudden surge in international wheat prices on concerns over wheat shortages," the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said after scheduling a conference of agricultural experts to assess the crisis for Sept. 24.
"The purpose of holding the meeting is for exporting and importing countries to engage in constructive discussions on appropriate reactions to the current market situation," the FAO spokesman added.
The problem should be manageable, at least for this year. Globally, the world has seen a bumper crop of grains and, unlike 2008, food stocks are adequate.
But already experts are eyeing with alarm the coming of the El Nina currents and weather patterns in the Pacific, replacing the better-known El Nino. El Nina usually means reduced rainfall and smaller yields in Argentina, the world's largest exporter of corn after the United States and the third-biggest soybean exporter.