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January 02, 2008

Fillin' 'Er Up With Other People's Food Development  Energy  Environment  Ethics  Future  Peak Oil

$100 oil prices poor folks out of the market for energy. But worse than that, it prices them out of the market for food. It's already happening. IHT:

In an "unforeseen and unprecedented" shift, the world food supply is dwindling rapidly and food prices are soaring to historic levels, the top food and agriculture official of the United Nations warned [December 17].

The changes created "a very serious risk that fewer people will be able to get food," particularly in the developing world, said Jacques Diouf, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The agency's food price index rose by more than 40 percent this year, compared with 9 percent the year before - a rate that was already unacceptable, he said. New figures show that the total cost of foodstuffs imported by the neediest countries rose 25 percent, to $107 million, in the last year.

At the same time, reserves of cereals are severely depleted, FAO records show. World wheat stores declined 11 percent this year, to the lowest level since 1980. That corresponds to 12 weeks of the world's total consumption - much less than the average of 18 weeks consumption in storage during the period 2000-2005. There are only 8 weeks of corn left, down from 11 weeks in the earlier period.

Prices of wheat and oilseeds are at record highs, Diouf said Monday. Wheat prices have risen by $130 per ton, or 52 percent, since a year ago. U.S. wheat futures broke $10 a bushel for the first time [December 17], the agricultural equivalent of $100 a barrel oil.

Diouf blamed a confluence of recent supply and demand factors for the crisis, and he predicted that those factors were here to stay. On the supply side, these include the early effects of global warming, which has decreased crop yields in some crucial places, and a shift away from farming for human consumption toward crops for biofuels and cattle feed. Demand for grain is increasing with the world population, and more is diverted to feed cattle as the population of upwardly mobile meat-eaters grows.

"We're concerned that we are facing the perfect storm for the world's hungry," said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program, in a telephone interview. She said that her agency's food procurement costs had gone up 50 percent in the past 5 years and that some poor people are being "priced out of the food market."

To make matters worse, high oil prices have doubled shipping costs in the past year, putting enormous stress on poor nations that need to import food as well as the humanitarian agencies that provide it.

"You can debate why this is all happening, but what's most important to us is that it's a long-term trend, reversing decades of decreasing food prices," Sheeran said.

Climate specialists say that the vulnerability will only increase as further effects of climate change are felt. "If there's a significant change in climate in one of our high production areas, if there is a disease that effects a major crop, we are in a very risky situation," said Mark Howden of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra.

Already "unusual weather events," linked to climate change - such as droughts, floods and storms - have decreased production in important exporting countries like Australia and Ukraine, Diouf said. [...]

Sheeran said, that on a recent trip to Mali, she was told that food stocks were at an all time low. [...]

[R]ecent scientific papers concluded that farmers could adjust to 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) to 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees) of warming by switching to more resilient species, changing planting times, or storing water for irrigation, for example.

But that after that, "all bets are off," said Francesco Tubiello, of Columbia University Earth Institute. "Many people assume that we will never have a problem with food production on a global scale, but there is a strong potential for negative surprises." [...]

Part of the current problem is an outgrowth of prosperity. More people in the world now eat meat, diverting grain from humans to livestock. A more complicated issue is the use of crops to make biofuels, which are often heavily subsidized. A major factor in rising corn prices globally is that many farmers in the United States are now selling their corn to make subsidized ethanol.

The world's food stocks are rapidly shrinking. Could anything be more fundamental? And yet there is almost no awareness of this situation in the world's wealthier nations.

By being energy hogs, we make other people go hungry. It's really that simple. Picture it next time you fill your tank: some of what's going in there is other people's food. Either directly, in the form of ethanol from corn, or indirectly, because our profligate energy use drives prices up and fuels global warming. This is a central moral issue of our time: will we in the world's wealthier nations continue to use our wealth to maintain a way of life that is increasingly deadly to everyone else on the planet? In other words, will we make other people starve so we can drive our SUV to the mall?

Posted by Jonathan at January 2, 2008 05:04 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

Comments

There's a story on greencarcongress.com that Europeans talk a good game about increased fuel efficiency, but aren't willing to pay for it.

I don't think anybody's too worried about all the darkies starving, to be honest. Europe might wake up to it sooner, but here in the US we'll just build that big wall.

Posted by: Derek at January 2, 2008 07:14 PM