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Simon Leufstedt posted a article in AgricultureIn 2007, food prices increased dramatically and the world quickly ushered in a global food crisis that lasted until late 2009. The global price increase mainly affected basic food commodities such as wheat, rice and corn, but not so much products such as coffee and cacao. The effects were felt fast and hard, especially in developing countries where much of the food was being imported and where people, who already spent half or more of their income on groceries, couldn't afford a doubling of food prices. Riots started to take place in many cities around the world by people who no longer could afford to buy enough food to themselves and their families. In the developing countries worst affected, the national governments tried to counter the food price crisis with various political and economic means. They reduced taxes on cereals and lowered the tariff on imports of food and/or introduced various food subsidizes for their citizens. Many developing countries, including China and India, also introduced export restrictions on their own agricultural and food products - sparking heavy criticism from the US and IMF. Looking back at the events it's easy to see that it was just a bubble and that food prices, almost as quickly as they had come, went back to their previous levels again. But back then, in the middle of it, many people claimed that the crisis was a sign of things to come, and that overpopulation was the main culprit. In a discussion on Nightwaves on BBC Radio 3, Susan Blackmore, a neuroscientist, and Professor John Gray, from the London School of Economics, discussed overpopulation and its link to the then ongoing food crisis. Both agreed that the "fundamental problem" is that there are just "too many people", with Blackmore adding that she hoped, "for the planet's sake", that a global disease, such as the bird flu, would come and "reduce the population". In a TV interview, Britain's Prince Phillip said that it was the demand for food from "too many people" that had caused the food price crisis. Number (in millions) of undernourished people between 1990 and 2012. Source: FAO Hunger Portal 2012. According to recent figures, around 870 million people were undernourished during 2010-2012. Those numbers equal 12.5 percent of the global population. The majority of these people live in developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Western Asia and Northern Africa. As can be see in the figure above, this number is a reduction since early 1990's levels when around 19 percent of the global population was undernourished. So progress in food security has been made. But from the numbers one can also see that most of this progress was accomplished before the global food price crisis in 2007-2008. Since then, the reduction in undernourished people has slowed down and leveled off. Despite this, the actual increase in global hunger was less severe than previously expected. The FAO, WFP and IFAD concludes in their 2012 report on food insecurity that "it is clear" that the previous achievements in reducing hunger has "slowed considerably since 2007", and that it's doubtful that the Millennium Development Goals, as well as previously stated hunger targets and commitments in several regions around the world will be achieved in the near future. These failures in reducing undernourishment can be blamed on political instability due to wars and conflicts. But a lack of political will to prioritize hunger reductions, weak government structures and institutions such as the absence of proper transparency and food programs, both on a regional and global level, can also be blamed for the failure. The food price crisis, nor the halt in the reduction of global hunger, had nothing to do with overpopulation and inadequate food production - such as the scenario populationists are constantly warning about. In fact, both 2007-2008 were pretty normal years for farmers. Their yields varied no more than usual and the total world food production continued to grow by 1-2 percent per year - the same pace as it had done for the past decade. It's true that farmers had troublesome years during 2006-2007 in Australia due to drought, and that the EU and Ukraine produced much less wheat than estimated before 2007. But this reduction was offset by unusually good harvests in Russia, USA, Argentina and Kazakhstan. In fact, the total amount of wheat on the global market increased by around 5 percent which resulted in record yields in 2006-2007. Demands from large populous nations such as China and India had no effect on the rising food prices either as the two nations are both net exporters of cereals. Instead, rising oil prices and growing productions of biofuels were to blame for the food price crisis. Fossil energy in the form of oil is an important component in the modern agriculture industry, so it's not surprising that changes in oil price will have effects on the price of food for consumers worldwide. In this case it was the increasing costs involved in the highly energy intense production of nitrogen fertilizers for agriculture that in turn resulted in increased food prices. The second reason was the growing production of biofuels from agricultural commodities. To put things into perspective and to show just on what massive scale global biofuel production is on let's take the US as an example: About 25 percent of the US corn production is now used in producing ethanol - which is far more than the country's entire total corn export. Globally, biofuel production, which is based on agricultural commodities, has more than tripled 2000-2008. Today it accounts for more than two percent of the global consumption of transport fuels. Another example: In 2007-2008, roughly 10 percent of the total usage of coarse grains was used in the production of ethanol. Jean Ziegler, UN's independent expert on the right to food, has called the production of biofuels from food crops a "catastrophe for the hungry people" and a "crime against humanity". In light of the food price crisis the FAO convened a three-day meeting with experts in Rome, Italy, in June of 2009. They came to the conclusion that the food price crisis was a result of increases in energy prices, and that it shows how energy and agricultural markets are becoming more intertwined with each other. In their report they warn that a further rise in biofuels production would be "a real risk" for global food security. They therefore urge that policies that promote the use of agricultural commodities for biofuels production "should be reconsidered" so that the competition between food and fuels can be mitigated. These malnutrition numbers represents people who don't get their minimum energy intake, which FAO considers to be about 1900 calories per day/person, the exact amount of calories varies depending on region, age and gender. The human body needs a diet of enough variation between vitamins, fat, proteins and minerals. So just because one gets enough of calories doesn't mean one has a balanced and satisfactory diet. It's estimated that at least one billion people suffers from this "hidden hunger" which is characterized by various forms of nutrient shortages, which turns into deficiency diseases and often develops into chronic sickness. Here's the twist. We are currently experiencing a nutrition transition, characterized by overnutrition and obesity, which affects all societies around the world. As urbanization increases and people's incomes grow bigger, more people are gradually adopting a lifestyle which involves not just reduced physical activity but also a more energy-dense diet, which consists of semi-processed foods which are higher in saturated fats, sugars and cholesterol. Obesity has more than doubled since the 1980's and the majority of adult obesity can be found in developed countries, with the US being a prime example. As a result of this transition, the number of overweight people has reached more than 1.4 billion people worldwide. This surpasses the number of undernourished people in the world.
In 2011 the world's population passed the seven billion mark. By 2050 the human family is expected to reach nine billion individuals. Many believe that we are in the midst of a population crisis that already has far-reaching effects on our society and our environment. Globally, almost 900 million people are chronically undernourished today, and more than 1.4 billion people are estimated to suffer from malnutrition. Despite various UN goals to halve hunger in recent years there just seems to be no end in sight. At the same time, ecological degradation is getting worse. We can see how important and unique ecosystems are being destroyed, we can see the alarming loss of biodiversity, we can see how desertification and soil erosion is spreading, we can see the worrying signs of depletion of freshwater reserves, and we can see the devastating effects from the increasing quantities of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that we are spewing out. Our food production system and our agricultural practices play a central role in both worsening and lessening the effects of environmental degradation. So it seems we are facing an environmental food crisis as well. The main argument brought forward by populationists and Malthus-inspired thinkers is that we cannot feed a growing population and that, if we haven't already, we will soon reach our carrying capacity. War, pestilence and famine will follow and wreak havoc around the world, they warn. Others believe that more alternative and environmentally friendly agricultural practices can help us sustain population numbers while at the same time safeguarding our environment from further degradation. Populationists have always been pessimistic about our possibilities to sustain current and future populations let alone to do it from organic farming, which they argue will give us smaller yields than what we get from more conventional agriculture. But which side of this debate is correct? Is it possible for us to convert to more environmentally friendly agricultural practices that can help stop, or at least slow down, ecological degradation while at the same time being able to feed a growing number of humans? That's a pretty big question to try and explain. Therefore I will divide everything up into smaller and more manageable chapters and parts. The first part will take a closer look on popular overpopulation theories, both from the early days of Malthus and to more modern flavors of population theory. Part 2: Popular overpopulation theories Part 3: Population levels for today and tomorrow Part 4: The end of cheap food Part 5: Conventional agriculture Part 6: Alternative agriculture Part 7: Reaching food security today and tomorrow
We are already now starting to see riots and protests around the world that have been triggered by the lack of resources. And unfortunately this is a sight we will see more and more of in the future. People are protesting in Haiti, Argentina, Cambodia, Indonesia, Egypt, Bolivia, Senegal and Yemen because of rising food costs or because they can't even buy any food - cause there isn't any. The FAO, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, warns that the crisis is much worse than previously thought. According to a new report released earlier this month 37 countries around the world are currently facing food crises. FAO urges "all donors and International Financing Institutions to increase their assistance or consider reprogramming part of their ongoing aid in countries negatively affected by high food prices". Sir John Holmes, undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and the UN's emergency relief coordinator, warns that the rising food price threatens global security and will undermine already weak governments. The food prices are rising due to many different things that are linked together like a huge global ecosystem. When our global population grows at record speeds the demand for food and other resources also grows. And when the oil reserves shrink the price on gas and oil rises and makes it harder to sustain our global trade system. Farmers must pay more for their gas to their tractors and equipments and shipping the food around also costs more due to the rising fuel costs. At the same time farmers face climate changes (that our addiction to oil have created) that reduces their harvests. Now we are even trying to satisfy our oil addiction and car-fetish by replacing the oil with different biofuels (that are overall worse than the oil). The European Environment Agency's (EEA) Scientific Committee recently called for the suspension of EU's target to increase the share of biofuels used in transport to 10% by 2020. The committee calls for a new, "comprehensive scientific study on the environmental risks and benefits of biofuels" before any targets should be set. The rising demand for meat is also a part of the problem. But no matter how much we try to stop our unsustainable food and resource system and move over to a more local and sustainable system the food crisis will still remain a big issue around the world, now and further ahead in the future. Now maybe the only thing that can save us is the rationing of greenhouse gas emissions as well as our provisions, especially the meat, worldwide. Image Credit: UN World Food Programme. Photo by Giuseppe Bizzarri.