The grave food crisis

Just 11 days ago, January 19, under the title “The time has come to do something,” I wrote:

“The worst is that, to a large degree, their solutions will depend on the richest and most developed countries, which will reach a situation that they really are not in a position to confront, unless the world which they have been trying to mold… collapses around them.”

“I am not talking at this point about wars, the risks and consequences of which wise and brilliant people, including many from the United States, have conveyed.

“I am referring to the food crisis produced by economic acts and climate change which are apparently already irreversible as a consequence of the actions of human beings, but which in any case the human mind has the duty to address with haste.

“The problems have suddenly increased as a result of phenomena which are being repeated on all continents: heat waves, forest fires, loss of harvests in Russia, with many victims; climate change in China, heavy rainfall or drought; progressive reduction of water reserves in the Himalayas which is threatening India, China, Pakistan and other countries; torrential rain in Australia, which has flooded almost one million square kilometers; unseasonable and unprecedented cold in Europe […] drought in Canada and unusual cold in this country and the United States…”

I likewise mentioned unprecedented rainfall in Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil.

In that Reflection I noted that “production of wheat, soy beans, corn, rice and many other grains and legumes, which constitute the nutritional base of the world – the population of which has today reached an estimated 6.9 billion, rapidly approaching the unprecedented figure of seven billion and where more than one billion are suffering hunger and malnutrition – is being seriously affected by climate change, creating an extremely grave problem worldwide.”

On Saturday, January 29, the Internet news bulletin which I receive daily reproduced an article by Lester R. Brown published on the Organic Way website and datelined January 10, whose content, I believe, should be widely circulated.

Its author is the most prestigious and recognized U.S. ecologist, who has been warning of the harmful effect of the growing and substantial volume of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. I will just take paragraphs from his well-argued article which coherently explains his point of view.

“As the new year begins, the price of wheat is setting an all-time high…

“…the world population has nearly doubled since 1970, we are still adding 80 million people each year. Tonight, there will be 219,000 additional mouths to feed at the dinner table, and many of them will be greeted with empty plates. Another 219,000 will join us tomorrow night. At some point, this relentless growth begins to tax both the skills of farmers and the limits of the earth’s land and water resources.

“The rise in meat, milk, and egg consumption in fast-growing developing countries has no precedent.

“In the United States, which harvested 416 million tons of grain in 2009, 119 million tons went to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars. That’s enough to feed 350 million people for a year. The massive U.S. investment in ethanol distilleries sets the stage for direct competition between cars and people for the world grain harvest. In Europe, where much of the auto fleet runs on diesel fuel, there is growing demand for plant-based diesel oil, principally from rapeseed and palm oil. This demand for oil-bearing crops is not only reducing the land available to produce food crops in Europe, it is also driving the clearing of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia for palm oil plantations.

“…The combined effect of these three growing demands is stunning: a doubling in the annual growth in world grain consumption from an average of 21 million tons per year in 1990-2005 to 41 million tons per year in 2005-2010. Most of this huge jump is attributable to the orgy of investment in ethanol distilleries in the United States in 2006-2008.

“While the annual demand growth for grain was doubling, new constraints were emerging on the supply side, even as longstanding ones such as soil erosion intensified. An estimated one third of the world’s cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming through natural processes – and thus is losing its inherent productivity. Two huge dust bowls are forming, one across northwest China, western Mongolia, and central Asia; the other in central Africa. Each of these dwarfs the U.S. dust bowl of the 1930s.

“Satellite images show a steady flow of dust storms leaving these regions, each one typically carrying millions of tons of precious topsoil.

“Meanwhile aquifer depletion is fast shrinking the amount of irrigated area in many parts of the world; this relatively recent phenomenon is driven by the large-scale use of mechanical pumps to exploit underground water. Today, half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling as overpumping depletes aquifers. Once an aquifer is depleted, pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge unless it is a fossil (nonreplenishable) aquifer, in which case pumping ends altogether. But sooner or later, falling water tables translate into rising food prices.

“Irrigated area is shrinking in the Middle East, notably in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and possibly Yemen. In Saudi Arabia, which was totally dependent on a now-depleted fossil aquifer for its wheat self-sufficiency, production is in a freefall. From 2007 to 2010, Saudi wheat production fell by more than two thirds.

“The Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where spreading water shortages are shrinking the grain harvest. But the really big water deficits are in India, where the World Bank numbers indicate that 175 million people are being fed with grain that is produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping provides food for some 130 million people. In the United States, the world’s other leading grain producer, irrigated area is shrinking in key agricultural states such as California and Texas.

“The rising temperature is also making it more difficult to expand the world grain harvest fast enough to keep up with the record pace of demand. Crop ecologists have their own rule of thumb: For each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum during the growing season, we can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields.

“Another emerging trend that threatens food security is the melting of mountain glaciers. This is of particular concern in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau, where the ice melt from glaciers helps sustain not only the major rivers of Asia during the dry season, such as the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers, but also the irrigation systems dependent on these rivers. Without this ice melt, the grain harvest would drop precipitously and prices would rise accordingly.

“And finally, over the longer term, melting ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica, combined with thermal expansion of the oceans, threaten to raise the sea level by up to six feet during this century. Even a three-foot rise would inundate half of the riceland in Bangladesh. It would also put under water much of the Mekong Delta that produces half the rice in Vietnam, the world’s number two rice exporter. Altogether there are some 19 other rice-growing river deltas in Asia where harvests would be substantially reduced by a rising sea level.

“The unrest of these past few weeks is just the beginning. It is no longer conflict between heavily armed superpowers, but rather spreading food shortages and rising food prices — and the political turmoil this would lead to — that threatens our global future. Unless governments quickly redefine security and shift expenditures from military uses to investing in climate change mitigation, water efficiency, soil conservation, and population stabilization, the world will in all likelihood be facing a future with both more climate instability and food price volatility. If business as usual continues, food prices will only trend upward.”

The existing world order was imposed by the United States at the end of World War II and it reserved for itself all the privileges.

Obama does not have any way to manage the pandemonium which they have created. A few days ago the government collapsed in Tunisia, where the United States had imposed neoliberalism and was happy with its political prowess. The word democracy had vanished from the scene. It is incredible how now, when the exploited people are shedding their blood and assaulting stores, Washington is stating its satisfaction with the defeat. Everybody is aware that the United States converted Egypt into its principal ally within the Arab world. A large aircraft carrier and a nuclear submarine, escorted by U.S. and Israeli warships, passed through the Suez Canal en route for the Persian Gulf some months ago, without the international press having access to what was occurring there. Egypt was the Arab country to receive the largest supplies of armaments. Millions of young Egyptians are suffering unemployment and the food shortages provoked within the world economy, and Washington affirms that it is supporting them. Its Machiavellian conduct includes supplying weapons to the Egyptian government, while at the same time USAID was supplying funds to the opposition. Can the United States halt the revolutionary wave which is shaking the Third World?

The famous Davos meeting that has just ended turned into a Tower of Babel, with the richest European states headed by Germany, Britain and France only agreeing on their disagreement with the United States.

But one doesn’t have to worry in the least; the Secretary of State has once again promised that the United States will help in the reconstruction of Haiti.
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Fidel Castro Ruz
January 30, 2011
6:23 p.m.