UNESCAP: Food Prices Will Rise Again

JOHANNESBURG, 26 May 2009 (IRIN) — Food prices will rise again by 2015, when economies are expected to have recovered from the global recession, pushing up demand once more, says a recent UN report.

2008 is seen as the year of food crises, prompted in part by high fuel prices, but these started declining as the global recession got underway in late 2008 and eventually returned to 2006 levels, though food prices in many developing countries are still higher than they were then.

“This has been a temporary respite,” said the report, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in Asia and the Pacific, by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

Citing the International Energy Agency’s Energy Outlook 2008, which projected that the price of crude oil would average US$100 per barrel in the 2008-2015 period, and rise again to $120 in 2030, the report predicted that “food prices will rise again, too”, partly because of resurgent demand, but also as a result of threats to sustainable agriculture, including climate change.

The report warned that unless farmers looked at ways to produce food more efficiently, the food security outlook would be “bleak”; sustainable agriculture involved stewardship of both natural and human resources — maintaining, regenerating or enhancing the natural environment, and ensuring the health of producers by offering them a decent income and working conditions.

Land degradation, brought on partly by over-intensive cultivation, and the use of mineral fertilisers to feed a growing population, was one of the biggest threats to agriculture.

From 1992 to 2002, countries such as India, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam increased their use of mineral fertilisers by as much as 90 percent, the ESCAP report noted.

In South and South-East Asia, around 74 percent of agricultural land has been severely affected by wind or water erosion, or chemical pollution.  “If this process continues at its current rate over the next 50 years, crop output in northeastern China could fall by as much as 40 percent,” the authors estimated.

The problems are particularly severe in Central Asia, said the ESCAP report: in Kazakhstan alone, around 66 percent of the total land area has been desertified.  Over-intensive livestock-keeping has also put pressure on rangeland.

Forests provide critical ecosystem services to the agricultural sector, including pollination and watershed protection, and support to river fisheries.  Between 1990 and 2005, deforestation accelerated in the Russian Federation, Cambodia, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea, partly prompted by the high fuel price crisis, which drove poor people to take more wood from the forests.

Water resources are also drying up, partly as a result of greater pressure being placed on agriculture by the increased demand for food.  Globally, 15 percent to 35 percent of total water withdrawals for irrigated agriculture are estimated to be unsustainable — “that is, the use of water exceeds the renewable supply,” the report commented.

In Asia and the Pacific region, this intensive withdrawal has depleted aquifers, particularly in South Asia and China, and has even reduced the flow of major waterways like the Ganges and Yellow rivers.

This article was first published by IRIN.