V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Food shortage and climate

Toronto Sun, Sun Media papers, October, 2007.

The global food shortage that has sparked bloody riots around the world serves as another grim reminder of how international crises are intimately tied to the state of the planet.

Last year, this column devoted a page to Darfur that explained how the humanitarian crisis that has killed 200,000 people and displaced another 2.2 million has its roots not in a web of politics, but in an "ecological crisis" described by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Similarly, extreme weather patterns linked to climate change, the rising price of oil and the frenzied production of ethanol are all being blamed for the "silent tsunami" that has the potential of becoming a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented scale.

For years, environmentalists and economists have been sounding the alarm about food security.

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute has long warned of the folly of raising food crops for fuel. About one-third of the American corn crop is now being used to produce biofuel -- at a time when 18,000 children around the world die of hunger a day.

Ten years ago, the world's carryover stocks of grain had enough food to last six months. Today that number is down to 40 days, said Don Smith, chairman of the Department of Plant Sciences at McGill University.

"That's perilously trim," he said.

But the global food shortage that has killed 40 people in Cameroon in violent riots and raised the price of food by 83% since 2005 was a long time coming, Smith said, with several forces at work to create the perfect storm of events.

"The situation was already precarious," he said. "It came to a tipping point in a number of ways, and biofuels was one of them."

Increased wealth in countries such as China and India translates into increased consumption of meat, for example, which demands increased production of crops.

It's been estimated that in a few decades, 80% of the world's meat will go to China. Meanwhile, it takes 10 kilos of plant material to produce one kilo of beef, Smith said.

The world's population is growing at a pace the planet can't sustain.

The number of humans on the planet has grown more since 1950 than it has in the past 400 million years, from one billion in the 1900s to 6.6 billion today. Much of that growth is concentrated in the developing world.

Meanwhile, Canada, the U.S. and the European Union have long been under fire for their history of agricultural subsidies that undercut African farmers. For decades, American and European farmers have enjoyed huge subsidies, allowing them to export their agricultural surplus to Africa and sell it at a price well below production, forcing their own farmers who can't compete to go bust.

Achim Steiner, head of the UN's Environmental Programme, has said there's enough food to feed everyone on the planet and blamed market speculation for distorting availability, resulting in the stockpile of supplies and driving up prices.

Extreme weather patterns have also sent cues to the world, when droughts in Australia halved its wheat production last year.

Warming has been projected to reduce maize production by 30% in southern Africa, and a 15% drop in wheat yields by 2030.

The crisis has renewed fresh debate over the role of "Frankinfoods," genetically modified foods advocates say will become a necessity in order to feed the planet. But like the knee-jerk reaction of modifying corn for fuel, perhaps it's best to tread with caution when tampering with our food supplies.

"We'll see more extreme weather patterns which will reduce global production of grains. This is going to be an ongoing problem," Smith said.

All of these issues -- ecological warfare, ethanol euphoria and overpopulation -- have been discussed in these pages and are sadly reunited under this one giant human disaster. Indeed, it has become the perfect storm.

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