A recent report from World Bank Chief Robert Zoellick warns of increasing pressures on world food supplies which are approaching dangerous levels and states that since June 2010 a further 44 million world wide have been pushed into extreme poverty. (Ten times the population of New Zealand) The steadily increasing world population is a continuing factor but there are a number of issues which are aggravating the overall situation.
The first of course are the natural situations. The extreme floods in Australia, the worse than expected winter storms, particularly in the US, and last year’s fires in Russia are serious contributing factors. While it is true that some areas have benefited by un-seasonal weather, like for example the increase in rainfall in the Sub Sahara area, it is the geopolitical factors which are placing the international supplies under extreme pressure. One factor here is the increasing competition on normally food producing regions to supplement alternative fuels. For example the choice to grow maize and palm oil for bio-fuels forces maize prices up and removes some of the productive land normally associated with food production from the mix.
The choice to produce food to produce maximum profit is another factor. For example diverting crop land use to dairy production instead puts more pressure on water supply for agriculture. Wheat, sugar, maize and edible oils are the main commodities attracting unexpectedly high prices at present. In some areas in Asia an increase in global share of wealth has brought its own problems as wealthier consumers vie for an increasing share of the food. Although producers may be able to increase profits by enlarging food production units and moving to single crop production, this is not always good for the land and the subsistence farmers can be deprived of both land and the means to survive.
In addition, substantial regions of political instability produce much potentially avoidable suffering. Prolonged civil war and political unrest make survival for indigenous populations much more problematic. For example recent instability in Tunisia and Egypt, and unresolved security problems in a number of African and Middle Eastern countries such as the Congo, Jordan, Iraq and Afghanistan are not helping. Export bans and trade inequalities have been exacerbated by a drop in fortunes for some of the normally stable economies whose production and trade is thereby reduced. Continued pressures on fishing stocks again influence price and demand.
Costlier food, particularly in central Asia, parts of South America and Eastern Europe puts great pressure on local economies. Over the last six months maize prices have gone up 73 percent, while prices for sugar has jumped 20 percent and fats and oils 22 percent in the last quarter alone.
The fact is that few countries who are in a position to make a significant difference meet their intended obligations to help the poor. As an ethical problem the local assumption is often that looking after one’s own must always take precedence, yet just as with global pollution, the reality is that instability in one area inevitably finishes by costing far more in the long run for other States and nations in the region. According to the World Bank surveys, those defined as poor spend more than 80 percent of their total disposable income on basic food stuffs, and if prices rise, poor families have little alternative but to eat less.
Although we might hope that issues of conscience may affect a change in international responsibility, realistically, this is not likely to occur in the near future.
This leaves us with some questions.
Whose responsibility is it to do something about the plight of those who find it hard to get sufficient access to food?
Should those who are currently redirecting food production into biofuel production be required to take responsibility for those disadvantaged by the shift in production?
Which actions are now appropriate? Birth control eg an extension of one child per family policy cf China, resettlement in nations with spare food production capacity, shift in traditional patterns of food production etc?
How much aid is reasonable to expect wealthy nations to give as a percentage of GDP?