Balance needed to relieve world food crisis

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Last week there was an article in the Independent in the UK titled “The fight for the world's food.” It described a growing crisis in the world's food supply. Prices are rising around the world while supplies are falling. We are now consuming more grain than we are producing and world grain reserves are dwindling. Food is going to be taking up a much larger portion of a family's income, and many people in the world may be priced out of the market.

Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, published a piecerecently detailing the loss of agricultural productivity around the world due to increasing soil erosion and loss of fertility. Poor farming practices combined with the expansion of farm land into marginal areas, deforestation, and over grazing which have occurred during the past two centuries are to blame. In many areas of the world, he says, erosion is exceeding the ability of the planet to create new soil.

Another reason for the rise in food costs and the shortage of grain in the food supply is the fact that grain production is being diverted to making biofuels, both to lessen dependence on petroleum and to create fuel with a smaller carbon emission. Corn is particularly affected as it is a major component of many processed foods and other items on one hand, and a source of ethanol for fuel on the other. As corn production is diverted from food crops to fuel crops the price of much of what we buy will rise. Our farm animals are fed corn, corn is a major sweetener in a society that uses tons of sugar in much of its processed food, it is a filler, and a component in batteries and many other non-food products. About twenty-five per cent of what you find on the average grocery store shelf contains corn in one form or another.

Currently the switch of corn to fuel production from food has caused a problem in Mexico where corn flour is a staple of the diet. Over the past three months the price of corn flour has risen 400 per cent, threatening the lives of millions of Mexicans as tortillas became too expensive for many. Protesting Mexicans have taken to the streets all across the country, forcing the government to intervene and stabilize corn prices for the time being. What will happen if corn supplies continue to shrink remains to be seen.

Considering the current way that we do business in the world, shrinking resources is a given. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in its 2007 Spotlight on Agriculture says that about sixty per cent of our ecosystem services are being degraded or used unsustainably. Bio-diversity is being destroyed, making it more difficult for our life support systems to function properly, and climate change will impact both bio-diversity and the ability to grow food.

What we are seeing in Mexico and in central Africa and other parts of the world is that millions are undernourished and have little hope of improving their lives in the face of rising demands for resources that are being depleted. This is a precursor of what much of the world will look like in the future if radical changes are not made in the way that we organize our society and economic models.

Expanding our agricultural activity over more area has become counterproductive, and producing the energy that our societies require to maintain themselves in the present fashion is making things worse. Not only is energy production fouling the atmosphere and changing the climate, switching to food resources for energy production could starve millions. Climate changes may reduce our capacity to produce food and bio-fuels, and bringing the climate change problem under control without other measures may reduce us all to a near primitive lifestyle. Recently Al Gore has called for a ninety per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the developed world over 50 years. Such a change can not be made without a radical adjustment to the way society functions. An article in the Belfast Telegraph last week was titled “This planet ain't big enough for the 6,500,000,000 of us.” It made a case for the obvious that most politicians seem to avoid, the root of our problems lie in the fact that we have grossly overpopulated the planet with humans. Our ecological predicament, including waning agriculture and climate change, is one caused by too much demand on our system. We are beyond the limits of sustainability and need to regroup. Adopting improved technologies and more efficient practices will help some, but it won't be enough in the long run. The surest way to reduce demand and provide for a decent standard of living for future generations is to see that the size of those generations is much smaller in number. More than cutting greenhouse gasses we also need to implement aggressive controls on human reproduction until our species and the environment that supports it are in balance again.

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