Monday, June 02, 2008

The Global Food Crisis: Facts and Opportunities

The Global Food Crisis: Facts and Opportunities

There can be little doubt that we are faced with an unprecedented food crisis. The media has covered it extensively. All major leaders have expressed an opinion. A common and perplexing theme running across all these is the premise that increased prosperity and consumption in countries like India is a major cause for the catastrophe. Rhetoric has replaced reality, style is scoring over substance. What are the facts?

· The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has reported that the cereal intake in India in 2007-08 was 197.8 million tons compared to 193.1 million tons for the previous year, representing an increase of just 2.17%. In contrast, the US accounted for 310.4 million tons of consumption in 2007-08 against 277.6 million tons the previous year, representing an increase of 11.8%. The world average itself increased by a modest 2.06%. Perhaps more importantly, while in Asia and Africa, there was a slight increase in consumption, there was a corresponding increase in production as well. In the US, while consumption increased by 11.8%, production in fact declined.

· Equally revealing are figures from the US Department of Agriculture. The per capita consumption of grain, milk, and vegetable oils has been reported to be 2300, 172, and 90 pounds respectively for the US. The figures for India are 392, 79 and 24 pounds respectively. The consumption statistics for meat products provides an even more striking contrast. The US accounts for per capita consumption of 94 pounds of beef, 100 pounds of poultry, and 65 pounds of pork. The corresponding figures for India are 3.5 pounds, 4.2 pounds, and negligible. Even after considering the differences in population, the figures are quite staggering.

Given these facts (One by a UN agency and the other by a department of the US government), it is rather difficult to accept the notion that increased prosperity and consumption in India have a significant impact on global food prices.

Amidst all the points and counterpoints, what is lost sight of is the plight of a billion people who live on $1 a day and an equal number who subsist on $2 a day. They are the most vulnerable and yet no one seems to care for them. After all, they don’t vote governments to power. Already the first signs of discontent, strife, and riots are visible. What next? Thanks to lop-sided measures and knee-jerk reactions by several countries, the price of rice has spiked 120% in 2008 alone.

Any crisis also represents an opportunity. The present food crisis is no exception. While there would inevitably be some pain in the short term, prudent measures taken now can avoid a repetition of the scenario in the future. A few suggestions are given below:

· We need to protect the available farm land and invest in improving agricultural productivity. Productivity increases are close to zero in many cases. In many countries, land holdings of small farmers have fallen below one hectare. There is an urgent need for cooperative farming. The notion of a green revolution needs to be turned into an ever green revolution.

· While no one can dispute the need to develop alternatives for fossil fuels, rapid substitution of farm land to crops suitable for bio-fuels needs to be approached with caution.

· Protecting the most vulnerable (nearly a third of the world’s population) must assume the highest priority. A safety net in the form of buffer stocks that can be distributed at affordable prices seems to be the only way out. The World Food Program (WFP) must be funded based on GDP or per capita income parameters.

· Governments would do well do stop meddling in food markets. Interventions in any form – subsidies or controls – tend to damage the entire food supply chain on a global scale.

· Finally, as humans inhabiting this fragile planet, we need to work together. Given the collective will of humanity, no problem is insurmountable. Cooperation is the key – not blaming each other.

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