Shades of Green: Food, Glorious Food
The unfolding food crisis on the planet is a convincing argument for protecting local agricultural land, for encouraging small farms and for establishing backyard gardens. Indeed, global food security seems stressed as never before. And a partial solution to this crucial problem is the utilization of all the local resources.
The importance of local food sources is defined by the global situation. The cost of food, as measured by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Food Price Index, is at its highest value ever – the 2008 record index of 224.1 for 55 essential food products has reached 231. Crop failures caused by extreme weather in several primary grain producing areas – Russia, Ukraine, Australia and Canada – have combined with rising oil prices – about 40% of industrial fertilizer comes from oil – to lower supply and raise prices. While costlier food is a burden more easily absorbed by affluent countries, expensive food creates havoc in poor ones.
Although the estimated 700-900 million of the world’s poor suffer in silence, food shortages have recently caused riots in Bolivia, Peru, Mozambique, Haiti, Indonesia and India. The recent political upheaval in Tunisia was sparked by a food riot. And the fact that Arab nations are the world’s largest single importers of grain causes a vulnerability and tension that is connected to the current paroxysms of unrest passing from country to country across North Africa and the Middle East.
Population growth presents its own challenges to food supplies. Within 40 years, global food production will have to increase by at least 40 percent to feed the additional 2.5 billion people who will then inhabit a planet endowed with just 11 percent arable land. This challenge is complicated by rising affluence that increases per-capita food consumption, by threatened water shortages that impair crop growth, and by widespread soil erosion and degradation that is reducing arable land at a rate of about 10 million hectares per year.
The so-called Green Revolution provided a temporary solution to the food shortages of the 1960s and ’70s. But it created other problems. It increased water consumption beyond sustainable levels, caused a false sense of food security, and lower price of food ended research for further innovation and productivity.
In anticipation of food shortages, some cash-rich countries are now buying agricultural land in poorer countries. Future political tension is likely to be caused by the more than $100 billion spent on this “agrarian-colonialism”. South Korea has a 99 year lease on 1 million hectares of Madagascar. Saudi Arabia has acquired 500,000 hectares in Indonesia. Kuwait and Qatar are buying land in Vietnam. Nearly 20 percent of Laos has been signed over to foreign owners. Even Ukraine and Brazil are target properties. As China’s own agricultural land suffers the multiple effects of erosion, depletion, contamination and desertification, its need for food security is inspiring heavy investment in fertile swaths of Africa, Russia and the Philippines.
Meanwhile, the decision of affluent countries to convert food crops into bio-fuel is increasing the stress – about 30 percent of edible corn has been diverted to ethanol production. Speculation in the global financial markets adds further costs to those who can least afford to buy sustaining nutrition.
Nick Cullather argues that agricultural policy since the 1930s has created other problems (Globe & Mail, Jan. 26/11). Both Germany and Russia began to isolate the “agricultural sector” from the larger economy in their quest to give priority to industrial growth. Food production was degraded to a secondary consideration. The new function of rural regions was to provide a “reservoir of cheap labour” for urban centres. This thinking became so widespread by the end of the 1930s that, according to Rebecca West, all communist, fascist and capitalist countries had adopted “the insane dispensation which pays the food-producers worst of all workers” (Ibid.). The consequences of this absurdity persist today in boom-and-bust food production, badly manages soils, abandoned farms, impoverished farmers and social unrest.
As Cullather reminds us, all civilizations are founded on food. His solution is to pay farmers what they deserve. He believes that the agricultural sector is extremely responsive to economic incentives and, if it were elevated from its “subordinate status”, the ingenuity and resourcefulness of farmers could do much to address the challenge of feeding a rising population in an age of climate change.
Meeting this challenge could be aided by elevating the status and income of farmers, by changing tax structures to favour the protection and use of agricultural land, by eliminating the subsidies that deflate the market value of crops, and by encouraging local food production and processing. Farmers’ markets, community gardens, backyard vegetable plots and urban farming can do much to diversify production, provide fresh produce, offer healthy recreation, furnish rewarding employment, reduce transportation costs, create independence from imported crops, and relieve food stress.
If predictions are correct, the challenge of producing enough food for a growing population on a shrinking planet is only going to increase. Surely this prospect should induce us all to think more seriously about food. After all, there’s nothing quite like it.