As the prices of basic food staples like corn and wheat have risen 45% since the end of 2006 and food inflation has reached 80% in some countries, the world’s hungry are increasing in number and desperation. A poignant article on the front page of today’s New York Times shows a young girl standing on a garbage heap, interrupting her food foraging to pose for the photographer. The rising costs of food are causing not only desperation in Haiti, but a bread crisis in Egypt, riots in Burkina Faso and inflation-spurred government upheaval in Malaysia. The World Bank now lists 33 countries that are on the verge of large-scale upheaval due directly to inflated food costs. You can understand why I am finding it hard to post the Passover recipes I had planned for the weekend. Who can care about matzo candy when children featured in the Haiti article survive on two spoonfuls of rice each day?
But I didn’t just come here to bring you down. A new agricultural economics paper has given us some reason to hope, if we can organize our food industry to action.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) released a report today confirming that global food production is sufficient to feed everyone. So why are 800 million people under- and malnourished? Because like all types of wealth, the food we grow is distributed unequally. As global warming impacts growth cycles through desertification and weather changes, our population continues to grow. We have more mouths to feed and less land to do it on and the inequality of distribution causes political instability and resource disputes the world over, threatening everyone’s security.
The 400 scientists who contributed to the IAASTD report recommended that we do several things. First, we have to abandon food crops as sources for biofuel. Rather than focus on maximum output, agriculture has to be practiced in a sustainable way so that soil richness, watershed health and ancient forests are protected. While the report received money from the “GM Industry” (the usual suspects like Monsanto…), a dispute last year saw them removed from the project as the scientists predicted a very minimal role for GM crops. The report also recommended that the current subsidized farming structure must change dramatically, as cheap cash crops from wealthy countries in the Northern hemisphere encourage wastefulness and discourage agricultural growth in developing countries by undercutting prices.
Without these changes made, the report warns, an increase in famine and thus conflict could be in our near future.
(Photo by Tyler Hicks for the New York Times)