Thursday, June 02, 2011

Wolf at the door

Oxfam report about food crisis should be a wake-up call to govts around the world

Future wars may take place not over territory or other such issues but over food. International aid agency, Oxfam, has warned that the world faces an unprecedented food crisis. In the next 20 years, prices of food staples will more than double as the global demand goes up by 70 percent. A staggering increase, in the range of 120 to 180 percent, in the cost of key crops is expected. Not surprisingly, the hardest hit will be those at the bottom of the heap, the poorest of the poor. In fact, this year itself will see a billion people go hungry despite the fact that there's enough food available to feed the global population.

Oxfam uses some unusually sharp language to warn that the global food supply system is "pretty much bust," urging governments and policy planners to take immediate remedial steps. Alarmingly, these predictions of doom are shared and backed by other international agencies and organizations. Last week, the United Nations warned spiraling food inflation could lead to riots around the world, as in 2008. The World Bank has also been increasingly talking about the coming "food poverty" crisis.

Number of hungry people, 1969-2010

Source: FAO

So what's driving the inevitable hunger explosion? There are many factors like speculation and "financialization of food" at work but the chief of them is — why are we surprised? — climate change.  It's not an explosion in global population or an implicit overconsumption of available food and water resources but the excessive use of fossil fuels contributing carbon emissions and a mindless exploitation of natural resources that is at the heart of the unfolding disaster. Despite its relatively fewer numbers, the rich and developed North — or the industrialized world, to be more precise — eats more food and expends more natural resources like water, oil and gas than the burgeoning billions of the Third World.

So the industrialized world is not just contributing alarming levels of carbon emissions to the Earth's atmosphere and is fast denuding the planet of its green cover — forests and farm lands — but is actually consuming — or wasting — more food and water than its fair share. For instance, on an average, a Western citizen eats 85 kilograms of meat annually against 3 kgs of the Third World average. This is also a case of wrong priorities and appalling economic inequality — and not just between the North and South. Even as millions in Africa go hungry, the Americans are turning their corn into fuel to run Hummers and other gas-guzzlers. Hundreds of millions of tons of foodgrains rot in state warehouses in India while its poor die of hunger and farmers kill themselves.

The Oxfam report must come as a wake-up call to governments and decision makers around the world. This is an existential threat and demands a global solution. Hunger and starvation do not belong in the 21st century, especially when there is plenty to feed everyone. These findings also remind us of the greater existential threat the world faces in climate change. No war on hunger can be successful without confronting the causes and consequences of global warming. The specter of climate change appears to have been conveniently forgotten by everyone after the hype and spectacular failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit. Ignoring it will not make the threat go away though. Having largely been responsible for the problem, the developed world must take the lead to tackle it.