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Today’s the day to print and mail Form 4868.
There are no finer people than the people of Iowa. I had a farm there for many years, and the people I dealt with were just as solid and decent as they come.
But Iowa’s traditional dominance of the electoral calendar has totally screwed up our farm policy – and is now having potentially disastrous global consequences.
As Dan Nachbar pointed out last week: ‘Corn ethanol is stupid. Cellulosic ethanol is brilliant. The difference is crucial yet you and nearly all other members of the press fail to make the distinction. No wonder scientists get grumpy.’
It takes nearly as much energy to grow corn as that corn produces in energy – and, meanwhile, drives up the global cost of food. And, with it, global instability.
As with Bobby Kennedy, Jr.’s, column yesterday, this is really not a very difficult problem to solve. But a lot of children will starve to death in the time it takes us to get around to solving it.
Here‘s the deal, excepted from Saturday’s Toronto Star:
THE COMING HUNGER
By Lynda Hurst
The warning bells are ringing, furiously.
This week, food riots paralyzed Haiti, with angry marchers outside the president’s palace shouting “We are hungry!” Five people were killed in the chaos.
In Egypt, a 15-year-old boy was shot and killed this week in two days of violence over food shortages. Last month, a two-week protest at government-subsidized bakeries ended with the deaths of 10 Egyptians in clashes with police.
Rice is the staple food of 4 billion people. But the prices for it, along with corn, wheat and other basics, has surged by 40 per cent to 80 per cent in the last three years and caused panicked uprisings in some of the poorest countries on Earth, from Cameroon to Bolivia.
The situation has deteriorated so swiftly that some experts predict the effects of a global food crisis are going to bite more quickly than climate change.
According to the World Bank, 33 countries are now vulnerable to social unrest and political instability because of food insecurity – and that has implications for all the rest. Major rice producers like China, Cambodia and Vietnam are already battening down, curbing exports to ensure supplies for their own populations. The Philippines, whose population has grown from 60 million to almost 90 million in 17 years, is warning rice hoarders they’ll be charged with economic sabotage.
Why is it happening? Was Malthus right when he said the world would eventually be too populated to feed itself?
The United Nations already provides food for 73 million people in 78 countries worldwide. But the planet is getting hungrier. At least 4 million more people are being added to the list, most of them living in high-density, Third World cities.
The new face of hunger – and thirst – is overwhelmingly urban.
It takes 1,000 tonnes of water to produce one tonne of food, but water scarcity is affecting supplies. And, as Lester Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute in Washington, has cautioned: “A future of water shortages will be a future of food shortages.”
The current crisis was ignited by a number of elements coming together in deadly tandem. Analysts say the most important one – the jump in global fuel prices – has triggered a chain reaction in the entire food-production system, from seed planting right through to the delivery process.
The world has been down this road before, of course. In 1973-74, OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) quadrupled the world price of oil, resulting in spiralling food prices and distribution snarls. The disaster led to a World Food Summit in 1976, but nothing was done to prevent it happening again.
Today’s crisis is even worse because biofuels, a factor unanticipated in the mid-’70s, has been added to the mix, says David Bell, emeritus professor of environmental studies at York University.
“A false environmental sensibility has led to a push on biofuel production and corn is the product of choice,” he says. “There’s been a significant diversion of crops away from food use.”
The corn needed to produce ethanol fuel has to be grown somewhere and when land available for food farming is converted, food prices are pushed up: “That’s what’s tripped off the food riots this time.”
And the environmental benefits of corn fuel, he scathingly adds, are “completely illusory.”
Throw in the new and exploding demand for meat in economically booming China and India and even more land is being converted – for cattle, and the feeding thereof.
Climate change is also making its toxic contribution. Major droughts have hit wheat-producing nations such as Australia and Ukraine, leading to a 30-year low in the world’s wheat inventories.
This week, John Holmes, the UN’s top humanitarian and emergency relief co-ordinator, warned that the number of global “extreme weather” disasters has doubled in the past two decades to 400 a year. What’s building in consequence of all these factors, he said, is a “perfect storm.”
“The security implications should not be underestimated …Current food price trends are likely to increase sharply both the incidence and depth of food insecurity.”
In other words, this week’s food riots may be just a foreshadowing of what looms ahead in the not-so-distant future.
It took all of human history for the world to reach a population of 2.5 billion in 1950. Half a century later, it’s risen to more than 6.5 billion. By 2030, it’s expected to reach 8.2 billion, and by 2050, a staggering 9 to 12 billion.
Can the world sustain that number of people?
A UN report says we are already living beyond the planet’s means – just as Thomas Malthus warned could occur. The early 19th-century British demographer and political economist believed population growth was exponential and man’s “struggle for existence” eventually would outstrip Earth’s capacity to sustain it.
Malthus’s thinking influenced Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, but it also led to nightmare scenarios. In 1968, American biologist Paul Ehrlich notoriously predicted that by the 1980s, hundreds of millions would die because of overpopulation and subsequent lack of food. It didn’t happen. Not only did Ehrlich take a drubbing, but Malthus’s theory did, as well.
Critics have continually insisted that Malthus was too pessimistic. Humans would always find alternatives to resources that have been exhausted, they say, develop new technologies to improve crop yield. [And I believe the critics are right – this problem is eminently solvable . . . if we take the needed steps to solve it. Corn ethanol is not one of them; the steps Bobby Kennedy outlines in Vanity Fair very much are among them. – A.T.]
But how far, asks David Bell, can substitution go?
After having dismissed Malthus, people are starting to talk about him again, he says. “His warning of a crash as a possible outcome may not be that far wrong. Ultimately, more mouths to feed is going to exacerbate political pressures. There will be more failed societies.”
Today, projections are that, by 2030, global agriculture/agribusiness will have to double its output – and use less water to do it. Fish as a food source? Every fishery in the world is expected to have collapsed within 25 to 50 years, says Bell.
The UN’s food program has launched an appeal to boost its budget from $2.9 billion to $3.4 billion. But that’s just to meet the demands of the hungry today.
What about tomorrow?
“We’re a selfish species,” says Bell. “But we’re going to have to do things differently.”
Lynda Hurst is a feature writer for the Toronto Star. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
☞ And if you need further inspiration for living lighter on the land, watch Human Footprint on the National Geographic Channel, being rebroadcast tomorrow night at 9pm and midnight and again next Sunday afternoon at 4pm.
Tomorrow: (which you can read today): Equality. (And a safe-ish way to short the market.)
Quote of the Day
Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.~Andrew Carnegie
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