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Major river basins have enough water to sustainably double food production in the coming decades

Major river basins have enough water to sustainably double food production in the coming decades.

ScienceDaily (Sep. 25, 2011) — While water-related conflicts and shortages abound throughout the rapidly changing societies of Africa, Asia and Latin America, there is clearly sufficient water to sustain food, energy, industrial and environmental needs during the 21st century, according to two special issues of the peer-reviewed journal, Water International (Volume 35, Issue 5 and Volume 36, Issue 1), released September 26 at the XIV World Water Congress.

The report from the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) of the CGIAR finds that the “sleeping giant” of water challenges is not scarcity, but the inefficient use and inequitable distribution of the massive amounts of water that flow through the breadbaskets of key river basins such as the Nile, Ganges, Andes, Yellow, Niger and Volta.

“Water scarcity is not affecting our ability to grow enough food today,” said Alain Vidal, director of the CPWF. “Yes, there is scarcity in certain areas, but our findings show that the problem overall is a failure to make efficient and fair use of the water available in these river basins. This is ultimately a political challenge, not a resource concern.”

“Huge volumes of rainwater are lost or never used,” he added, “particularly in the rain-fed regions of sub-Saharan Africa. With modest improvements, we can generate two to three times more food than we are producing today.

While Africa has the biggest potential to increase food production, researchers identified large areas of arable land in Asia and Latin America where production is at least 10 percent below its potential. For example, in the Indus and Ganges, researchers found 23 percent of rice systems are producing about half of what they could sustainably yield.

The analysis — which involved five years of research by scientists in 30 countries around the world — is the most comprehensive effort to date to assess how, over vast regions, human societies are coping with the growing need for water to nurture crops and pastures, generate electricity, quench the thirst of rapidly growing urban centers, and sustain our environment. The findings also present a picture of the increasingly political role of water management in addressing these competing needs, especially in dealing with the most pressing problem facing humanity today: doubling food production in the developing world to feed a surging population, which, globally, is expected to expand from seven to 9.5 billion people by 2050.

The 10 river basins that were studied include: the Andes and São Francisco in South America; the Limpopo, Niger, Nile and Volta basins in Africa; and the Ganges, Indus, Karkheh, Mekong, and Yellow in Asia. The basins — distinct and gargantuan geographic areas defined by water flows from high-ground to streams that feed major river systems — cover 13.5 million square kilometers and are home to some 1.5 billion people, 470 million of whom are amongst the world’s poorest.

According to Vidal, the 10 basins were selected for study because they embody the full measure of water-related challenges in the developing world. The research examines the role of policy and governance in managing water resources in ways that reduce poverty and improve living standards for the greatest number of people

“The most surprising finding is that despite all of the pressures facing our basins today, there are relatively straightforward opportunities to satisfy our development needs and alleviate poverty for millions of people without exhausting our most precious natural resource,” said Dr. Simon Cook, of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and Leader of the CPWF’s Basin Focal Research Project (BFRP).

For example, Cook and his colleagues found that if donors and government ministries put more emphasis on supporting rain-fed agriculture, food production can increase substantially and rapidly. In Africa, it was found that the vast majority of cropland is rainfed and researchers found that only about four percent of available water is captured for crops and livestock.

“With a major push to intensify rainfed agriculture, we could feed the world without increasing the strain on river basins systems,” said Cook.

The authors also note that boosting food production in the basins studied requires looking beyond crops to consider more efficient uses of water to improve livestock operations and fisheries. Water policies often ignore the role livestock and fish play in local livelihoods and diets. For example, the researchers found that in the Niger basin, freshwater fisheries support 900,000 people while 40 million people in the Mekong depend on fisheries for at least part of the year. In the Nile, researchers note that almost half of the water in the basin flows through livestock systems.

“The basin perspective is critical in order to assess the upstream and downstream impacts of water allocation policies, and to determine opportunities for optimizing the sum of benefits across many residents,” said Dennis Wichelns, Deputy Director General at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), which was a major partner in the research.

The researchers contrast the poor use of water resources within river basins observed in many areas — which they refer to as “dead spots” for agriculture development — to “bright spots” of water efficiency. They said bright spots can be found in the large areas of the Ganges, Nile and Yellow River basins, where farmers and governments have responded to development challenges by vastly improving the amount of food produced from available water. They also single out “hot spots” — which can be found in the in the Indus, Yellow, Nile and Limpopo river basins — where there is mounting concern and conflict over sharing water resources and reaching consensus on development approaches.

Confronting the “Complete Fragmentation” of Water Management

Cook and his colleagues caution that while globally there is enough water to sustain human development and environmental needs, water-related conflicts will continue if particular issues like food security and energy production are considered in isolation from one another. Cook observed that in most areas there is a “complete fragmentation of how river basins are managed amongst different actors and even countries where the water needs of different sectors — agriculture, industry, environment and mining — are considered separately rather than as interrelated and interdependent.”

“In many cases, we need a complete rethink of how government ministries take advantage of the range of benefits coming from river basins, rather than focusing on one sector such as hydropower, irrigation or industry,” the authors stated.

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Crop disease to add to east Africa's woes

Crop disease to add to east Africa’s woes – environment – 13 July 2011 – New Scientist.

NEARLY 20 million people face starvation in east Africa as the region experiences its worst drought for 60 years. Hopes now focus on the return of the rains, perhaps as early as the autumn. But that could just bring another problem with it.

A new, aggressive strain of yellow rust, a fungal disease of wheat, is waiting in the wings, and east Africa isn’t the only region at risk.

The disease had already struck the US, Australia and Europe when, in 2010, a particularly virulent strain infested an area from Morocco to Pakistan, and spread faster than any known major crop disease (see map). Most wheat varieties in warm countries have no defence against it. Its march continued this year, with an outbreak in northern India.

Concern about yellow rust has languished as wheat scientists rushed to respond to a related disease, the Ug99 strain of stem rust against which little of the world’s wheat has any resistance. Yellow rust has historically been less deadly than stem rust, and thrived only in cool countries.

But in 2000, a new aggressive strain of the disease was detected in California, though it probably evolved in Africa or Asia, says Mogens Hovmøller of Aarhus University, Denmark. It generates more spores than its ancestors, so it spreads farther, faster.

It is also nastier. Yellow rust typically does not destroy entire crops, even in the absence of fungicide. But this lineage wiped out organic crops in Denmark, says Hovmøller. Based on the location of recent outbreaks, Colin Wellings of the University of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia, says some of the world’s major wheat producers are at risk from the new strain.

Concern is greatest in the tropics, where most farmers cannot afford fungicide and yellow rust has not typically been a problem: until now, the disease has not been adapted to warm temperatures. As a result, most local wheat varieties carry only one gene to resist it, called Yr27.

The new strain tolerates warmer temperatures and appears to have acquired genes to defeat Yr27, possibly from other yellow rusts. No one knows where or when this happened, but plant pathologists discovered last year that yellow rust can reproduce sexually, suggesting the new strain may have picked up genes from local strains by mating with them.

The result was an epidemic that in 2010 killed up to 40 per cent the wheat crop in Ethiopia, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Morocco and Kenya. The spores like humidity, and struck irrigated fields in drought-stricken areas, says Mahmoud Solh, head of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, Syria. Drought is now holding them at bay in some places, but “when the rains return to Africa, the rust will be waiting”, he warns. Hovmøller agrees.

Wheat researchers meeting at ICARDA in April said they had developed wheat varieties that can resist the new strain of yellow rust. They also yield 15 per cent more grain and resist Ug99 stem rust. But it will take several years to breed enough seed for regions blighted by the new strain, cautions Solh. And the aggressive strains produce so many spores so fast, adds Hovmøller, that they mutate and adapt faster than yellow rust has in the past. “What works now may not last long,” he says.

Dry onion skin a treasure we're tossing out?

Dry onion skin has a use.

ScienceDaily (July 14, 2011) — More than 500,000 tonnes of onion waste are thrown away in the European Union each year. However, scientists say this could have a use as food ingredients. The brown skin and external layers are rich in fibre and flavonoids, while the discarded bulbs contain sulphurous compounds and fructans. All of these substances are beneficial to health.

Production of onion waste has risen over recent years in line with the growing demand for these bulbs. More than 500,000 tonnes of waste are generated in the European Union each year, above all in Spain, Holland and the United Kingdom, where it has become an environmental problem. The waste includes the dry brown skin, the outer layers, roots and stalks, as well as onions that are not big enough to be of commercial use, or onions that are damaged.

“One solution could be to use onion waste as a natural source of ingredients with high functional value, because this vegetable is rich in compounds that provide benefits for human health,” says Vanesa Benítez, a researcher at the Department of Agricultural Chemistry at the Autonomous University of Madrid (Spain).

Benítez’s research group worked with scientists from Cranfield University (United Kingdom) to carry out laboratory experiments to identify the substances and possible uses of each part of the onion. The results have been published in the journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition.

According to the study, the brown skin could be used as a functional ingredient high in dietary fibre (principally the non-soluble type) and phenolic compounds, such as quercetin and other flavonoids (plant metabolites with medicinal properties). The two outer fleshy layers of the onion also contain fibre and flavonoids.

“Eating fibre reduces the risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal complaints, colon cancer, type-2 diabetes and obesity,” the researcher points out.

Phenolic compounds, meanwhile, help to prevent coronary disease and have anti-carcinogenic properties. The high levels of these compounds in the dry skin and the outer layers of the bulbs also give them high antioxidant capacity.

Meanwhile, the researchers suggest using the internal parts and whole onions that are thrown away as a source of fructans and sulphurous compounds. Fructans are prebiotics, in other words they have beneficial health effects as they selectively stimulate the growth and activity of bacteria in the colon.

Sulphurous compounds reduce the accumulation of platelets, improving blood flow and cardiovascular health in general. They also have a positive effect on antioxidant and anti-inflammatory systems in mammals.

“The results show that it would be useful to separate the different parts of onions produced during the industrial process,” explains Benítez. “This would enable them to be used as a source of functional compounds to be added to other foodstuffs.”

Is free global trade too great a threat to food supplies, natural heritage and health?

Is free global trade too great a threat to food supplies, natural heritage and health?.

ScienceDaily (June 9, 2011) — Researchers from the UK Research Councils’ Rural Economy and Land Use Programme say that we face a future of uncertainty, and possible new threats to our food supplies, natural heritage, and even human health, from animal and plant pathogens. Human behaviour, travel and trade exacerbates the problem and we may need to reconsider our approach to free trade.

We face a future of uncertainty, and possible new threats to our food supplies, natural heritage, and even human health, from animal and plant pathogens, according to researchers from the UK Research Councils’ Rural Economy and Land Use Programme.

In a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, the academics take a fresh look at infectious diseases of animals and plants, from an interdisciplinary perspective.

They conclude that increasing global trade may put us at greater risk from pathogens in the future, as more exotic diseases enter the country. This process is already happening, particularly in plant disease. Climate change is driving shifts in cropping patterns across the world and they may take pests and diseases with them. We are also seeing completely new pathogens evolve, while existing ones develop the ability to infect new hosts. During the 20th century the number of new fungal, bacterial and viral diseases in plants appearing in Europe rose from less than five per decade to over 20.

But these problems are exacerbated by human behaviour, and understanding this could be key to helping policymakers deal with risk and uncertainty.

In many cases the spread of disease is caused by increased trade, transport and travel. Trends in the international horticultural industry have been towards fewer, larger producers, supplying vast numbers of retailers. Thus, disease which begins in one location may be spread far and wide.

Changes in the livestock trade have similar effects at national level. Reduction in income per animal, and the introduction of mechanisation, means that fewer farmers manage more animals per farm, and animals are moved around more frequently. They may be born in one location but sold on and reared elsewhere. Government policy and the classification of diseases may even increase the risks. Farmers restocking to combat one disease may, unwittingly, introduce another.

Understanding the biological dimensions of animal and plant disease is important, but it is equally important to understand the role played by human beings in spreading disease. Whether the threat is from a tree disease such as Sudden Oak Death that could devastate familiar landscapes, or from zoonotic diseases such as E coli or Lyme disease that affect human health, it can only be addressed effectively if an understanding of human behaviour is part of the strategy, and people are given the information they need to reduce risks.

Director of the Relu Programme, Professor Philip Lowe said: “We live in a global economy: we have seen in the recent E. coli outbreak in Germany, how the complexity of the food chain can increase risk and uncertainty.

“Ultimately we may have to take a more precautionary approach to the movement of animal and plants, and recognise that free trade could, in some cases, pose unacceptable risks.”

The New Geopolitics of Food

The New Geopolitics of Food – By Lester R. Brown | Foreign Policy.

In the United States, when world wheat prices rise by 75 percent, as they have over the last year, it means the difference between a $2 loaf of bread and a loaf costing maybe $2.10. If, however, you live in New Delhi, those skyrocketing costs really matter: A doubling in the world price of wheat actually means that the wheat you carry home from the market to hand-grind into flour for chapatis costs twice as much. And the same is true with rice. If the world price of rice doubles, so does the price of rice in your neighborhood market in Jakarta. And so does the cost of the bowl of boiled rice on an Indonesian family’s dinner table.

Welcome to the new food economics of 2011: Prices are climbing, but the impact is not at all being felt equally. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their income in the supermarket, the soaring food prices we’ve seen so far this year are an annoyance, not a calamity. But for the planet’s poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who are barely hanging on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely. This can contribute — and it has — to revolutions and upheaval.

Already in 2011, the U.N. Food Price Index has eclipsed its previous all-time global high; as of March it had climbed for eight consecutive months. With this year’s harvest predicted to fall short, with governments in the Middle East and Africa teetering as a result of the price spikes, and with anxious markets sustaining one shock after another, food has quickly become the hidden driver of world politics. And crises like these are going to become increasingly common. The new geopolitics of food looks a whole lot more volatile — and a whole lot more contentious — than it used to. Scarcity is the new norm.

Until recently, sudden price surges just didn’t matter as much, as they were quickly followed by a return to the relatively low food prices that helped shape the political stability of the late 20th century across much of the globe. But now both the causes and consequences are ominously different.

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In many ways, this is a resumption of the 2007-2008 food crisis, which subsided not because the world somehow came together to solve its grain crunch once and for all, but because the Great Recession tempered growth in demand even as favorable weather helped farmers produce the largest grain harvest on record. Historically, price spikes tended to be almost exclusively driven by unusual weather — a monsoon failure in India, a drought in the former Soviet Union, a heat wave in the U.S. Midwest. Such events were always disruptive, but thankfully infrequent. Unfortunately, today’s price hikes are driven by trends that are both elevating demand and making it more difficult to increase production: among them, a rapidly expanding population, crop-withering temperature increases, and irrigation wells running dry. Each night, there are 219,000 additional people to feed at the global dinner table.

More alarming still, the world is losing its ability to soften the effect of shortages. In response to previous price surges, the United States, the world’s largest grain producer, was effectively able to steer the world away from potential catastrophe. From the mid-20th century until 1995, the United States had either grain surpluses or idle cropland that could be planted to rescue countries in trouble. When the Indian monsoon failed in 1965, for example, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration shipped one-fifth of the U.S. wheat crop to India, successfully staving off famine. We can’t do that anymore; the safety cushion is gone.

That’s why the food crisis of 2011 is for real, and why it may bring with it yet more bread riots cum political revolutions. What if the upheavals that greeted dictators Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya (a country that imports 90 percent of its grain) are not the end of the story, but the beginning of it? Get ready, farmers and foreign ministers alike, for a new era in which world food scarcity increasingly shapes global politics.

THE DOUBLING OF WORLD grain prices since early 2007 has been driven primarily by two factors: accelerating growth in demand and the increasing difficulty of rapidly expanding production. The result is a world that looks strikingly different from the bountiful global grain economy of the last century. What will the geopolitics of food look like in a new era dominated by scarcity? Even at this early stage, we can see at least the broad outlines of the emerging food economy.

On the demand side, farmers now face clear sources of increasing pressure. The first is population growth. Each year the world’s farmers must feed 80 million additional people, nearly all of them in developing countries. The world’s population has nearly doubled since 1970 and is headed toward 9 billion by midcentury. Some 3 billion people, meanwhile, are also trying to move up the food chain, consuming more meat, milk, and eggs. As more families in China and elsewhere enter the middle class, they expect to eat better. But as global consumption of grain-intensive livestock products climbs, so does the demand for the extra corn and soybeans needed to feed all that livestock. (Grain consumption per person in the United States, for example, is four times that in India, where little grain is converted into animal protein. For now.)

At the same time, the United States, which once was able to act as a global buffer of sorts against poor harvests elsewhere, is now converting massive quantities of grain into fuel for cars, even as world grain consumption, which is already up to roughly 2.2 billion metric tons per year, is growing at an accelerating rate. A decade ago, the growth in consumption was 20 million tons per year. More recently it has risen by 40 million tons every year. But the rate at which the United States is converting grain into ethanol has grown even faster. In 2010, the United States harvested nearly 400 million tons of grain, of which 126 million tons went to ethanol fuel distilleries (up from 16 million tons in 2000). This massive capacity to convert grain into fuel means that the price of grain is now tied to the price of oil. So if oil goes to $150 per barrel or more, the price of grain will follow it upward as it becomes ever more profitable to convert grain into oil substitutes. And it’s not just a U.S. phenomenon: Brazil, which distills ethanol from sugar cane, ranks second in production after the United States, while the European Union’s goal of getting 10 percent of its transport energy from renewables, mostly biofuels, by 2020 is also diverting land from food crops.

This is not merely a story about the booming demand for food. Everything from falling water tables to eroding soils and the consequences of global warming means that the world’s food supply is unlikely to keep up with our collectively growing appetites. Take climate change: The rule of thumb among crop ecologists is that for every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the growing season optimum, farmers can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. This relationship was borne out all too dramatically during the 2010 heat wave in Russia, which reduced the country’s grain harvest by nearly 40 percent.

While temperatures are rising, water tables are falling as farmers overpump for irrigation. This artificially inflates food production in the short run, creating a food bubble that bursts when aquifers are depleted and pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge. In arid Saudi Arabia, irrigation had surprisingly enabled the country to be self-sufficient in wheat for more than 20 years; now, wheat production is collapsing because the non-replenishable aquifer the country uses for irrigation is largely depleted. The Saudis soon will be importing all their grain.

Saudi Arabia is only one of some 18 countries with water-based food bubbles. All together, more than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling. The politically troubled Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where grain production has peaked and begun to decline because of water shortages, even as populations continue to grow. Grain production is already going down in Syria and Iraq and may soon decline in Yemen. But the largest food bubbles are in India and China. In India, where farmers have drilled some 20 million irrigation wells, water tables are falling and the wells are starting to go dry. The World Bank reports that 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping is concentrated in the North China Plain, which produces half of China’s wheat and a third of its corn. An estimated 130 million Chinese are currently fed by overpumping. How will these countries make up for the inevitable shortfalls when the aquifers are depleted?

Even as we are running our wells dry, we are also mismanaging our soils, creating new deserts. Soil erosion as a result of overplowing and land mismanagement is undermining the productivity of one-third of the world’s cropland. How severe is it? Look at satellite images showing two huge new dust bowls: one stretching across northern and western China and western Mongolia; the other across central Africa. Wang Tao, a leading Chinese desert scholar, reports that each year some 1,400 square miles of land in northern China turn to desert. In Mongolia and Lesotho, grain harvests have shrunk by half or more over the last few decades. North Korea and Haiti are also suffering from heavy soil losses; both countries face famine if they lose international food aid. Civilization can survive the loss of its oil reserves, but it cannot survive the loss of its soil reserves.

Beyond the changes in the environment that make it ever harder to meet human demand, there’s an important intangible factor to consider: Over the last half-century or so, we have come to take agricultural progress for granted. Decade after decade, advancing technology underpinned steady gains in raising land productivity. Indeed, world grain yield per acre has tripled since 1950. But now that era is coming to an end in some of the more agriculturally advanced countries, where farmers are already using all available technologies to raise yields. In effect, the farmers have caught up with the scientists. After climbing for a century, rice yield per acre in Japan has not risen at all for 16 years. In China, yields may level off soon. Just those two countries alone account for one-third of the world’s rice harvest. Meanwhile, wheat yields have plateaued in Britain, France, and Germany — Western Europe’s three largest wheat producers.

IN THIS ERA OF TIGHTENING world food supplies, the ability to grow food is fast becoming a new form of geopolitical leverage, and countries are scrambling to secure their own parochial interests at the expense of the common good.

The first signs of trouble came in 2007, when farmers began having difficulty keeping up with the growth in global demand for grain. Grain and soybean prices started to climb, tripling by mid-2008. In response, many exporting countries tried to control the rise of domestic food prices by restricting exports. Among them were Russia and Argentina, two leading wheat exporters. Vietnam, the No. 2 rice exporter, banned exports entirely for several months in early 2008. So did several other smaller exporters of grain.

With exporting countries restricting exports in 2007 and 2008, importing countries panicked. No longer able to rely on the market to supply the grain they needed, several countries took the novel step of trying to negotiate long-term grain-supply agreements with exporting countries. The Philippines, for instance, negotiated a three-year agreement with Vietnam for 1.5 million tons of rice per year. A delegation of Yemenis traveled to Australia with a similar goal in mind, but had no luck. In a seller’s market, exporters were reluctant to make long-term commitments.

Fearing they might not be able to buy needed grain from the market, some of the more affluent countries, led by Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and China, took the unusual step in 2008 of buying or leasing land in other countries on which to grow grain for themselves. Most of these land acquisitions are in Africa, where some governments lease cropland for less than $1 per acre per year. Among the principal destinations were Ethiopia and Sudan, countries where millions of people are being sustained with food from the U.N. World Food Program. That the governments of these two countries are willing to sell land to foreign interests when their own people are hungry is a sad commentary on their leadership.

By the end of 2009, hundreds of land acquisition deals had been negotiated, some of them exceeding a million acres. A 2010 World Bank analysis of these “land grabs” reported that a total of nearly 140 million acres were involved — an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States. Such acquisitions also typically involve water rights, meaning that land grabs potentially affect all downstream countries as well. Any water extracted from the upper Nile River basin to irrigate crops in Ethiopia or Sudan, for instance, will now not reach Egypt, upending the delicate water politics of the Nile by adding new countries with which Egypt must negotiate.

The potential for conflict — and not just over water — is high. Many of the land deals have been made in secret, and in most cases, the land involved was already in use by villagers when it was sold or leased. Often those already farming the land were neither consulted about nor even informed of the new arrangements. And because there typically are no formal land titles in many developing-country villages, the farmers who lost their land have had little backing to bring their cases to court. Reporter John Vidal, writing in Britain’s Observer, quotes Nyikaw Ochalla from Ethiopia’s Gambella region: “The foreign companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving people of land they have used for centuries. There is no consultation with the indigenous population. The deals are done secretly. The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands.”

Local hostility toward such land grabs is the rule, not the exception. In 2007, as food prices were starting to rise, China signed an agreement with the Philippines to lease 2.5 million acres of land slated for food crops that would be shipped home. Once word leaked, the public outcry — much of it from Filipino farmers — forced Manila to suspend the agreement. A similar uproar rocked Madagascar, where a South Korean firm, Daewoo Logistics, had pursued rights to more than 3 million acres of land. Word of the deal helped stoke a political furor that toppled the government and forced cancellation of the agreement. Indeed, few things are more likely to fuel insurgencies than taking land from people. Agricultural equipment is easily sabotaged. If ripe fields of grain are torched, they burn quickly.

Not only are these deals risky, but foreign investors producing food in a country full of hungry people face another political question of how to get the grain out. Will villagers permit trucks laden with grain headed for port cities to proceed when they themselves may be on the verge of starvation? The potential for political instability in countries where villagers have lost their land and their livelihoods is high. Conflicts could easily develop between investor and host countries.

These acquisitions represent a potential investment in agriculture in developing countries of an estimated $50 billion. But it could take many years to realize any substantial production gains. The public infrastructure for modern market-oriented agriculture does not yet exist in most of Africa. In some countries it will take years just to build the roads and ports needed to bring in agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and to export farm products. Beyond that, modern agriculture requires its own infrastructure: machine sheds, grain-drying equipment, silos, fertilizer storage sheds, fuel storage facilities, equipment repair and maintenance services, well-drilling equipment, irrigation pumps, and energy to power the pumps. Overall, development of the land acquired to date appears to be moving very slowly.

So how much will all this expand world food output? We don’t know, but the World Bank analysis indicates that only 37 percent of the projects will be devoted to food crops. Most of the land bought up so far will be used to produce biofuels and other industrial crops.

Even if some of these projects do eventually boost land productivity, who will benefit? If virtually all the inputs — the farm equipment, the fertilizer, the pesticides, the seeds — are brought in from abroad and if all the output is shipped out of the country, it will contribute little to the host country’s economy. At best, locals may find work as farm laborers, but in highly mechanized operations, the jobs will be few. At worst, impoverished countries like Mozambique and Sudan will be left with less land and water with which to feed their already hungry populations. Thus far the land grabs have contributed more to stirring unrest than to expanding food production.

And this rich country-poor country divide could grow even more pronounced — and soon. This January, a new stage in the scramble among importing countries to secure food began to unfold when South Korea, which imports 70 percent of its grain, announced that it was creating a new public-private entity that will be responsible for acquiring part of this grain. With an initial office in Chicago, the plan is to bypass the large international trading firms by buying grain directly from U.S. farmers. As the Koreans acquire their own grain elevators, they may well sign multiyear delivery contracts with farmers, agreeing to buy specified quantities of wheat, corn, or soybeans at a fixed price.

Other importers will not stand idly by as South Korea tries to tie up a portion of the U.S. grain harvest even before it gets to market. The enterprising Koreans may soon be joined by China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and other leading importers. Although South Korea’s initial focus is the United States, far and away the world’s largest grain exporter, it may later consider brokering deals with Canada, Australia, Argentina, and other major exporters. This is happening just as China may be on the verge of entering the U.S. market as a potentially massive importer of grain. With China’s 1.4 billion increasingly affluent consumers starting to compete with U.S. consumers for the U.S. grain harvest, cheap food, seen by many as an American birthright, may be coming to an end.

No one knows where this intensifying competition for food supplies will go, but the world seems to be moving away from the international cooperation that evolved over several decades following World War II to an every-country-for-itself philosophy. Food nationalism may help secure food supplies for individual affluent countries, but it does little to enhance world food security. Indeed, the low-income countries that host land grabs or import grain will likely see their food situation deteriorate.

AFTER THE CARNAGE of two world wars and the economic missteps that led to the Great Depression, countries joined together in 1945 to create the United Nations, finally realizing that in the modern world we cannot live in isolation, tempting though that might be. The International Monetary Fund was created to help manage the monetary system and promote economic stability and progress. Within the U.N. system, specialized agencies from the World Health Organization to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) play major roles in the world today. All this has fostered international cooperation.

But while the FAO collects and analyzes global agricultural data and provides technical assistance, there is no organized effort to ensure the adequacy of world food supplies. Indeed, most international negotiations on agricultural trade until recently focused on access to markets, with the United States, Canada, Australia, and Argentina persistently pressing Europe and Japan to open their highly protected agricultural markets. But in the first decade of this century, access to supplies has emerged as the overriding issue as the world transitions from an era of food surpluses to a new politics of food scarcity. At the same time, the U.S. food aid program that once worked to fend off famine wherever it threatened has largely been replaced by the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), where the United States is the leading donor. The WFP now has food-assistance operations in some 70 countries and an annual budget of $4 billion. There is little international coordination otherwise. French President Nicolas Sarkozy — the reigning president of the G-20 — is proposing to deal with rising food prices by curbing speculation in commodity markets. Useful though this may be, it treats the symptoms of growing food insecurity, not the causes, such as population growth and climate change. The world now needs to focus not only on agricultural policy, but on a structure that integrates it with energy, population, and water policies, each of which directly affects food security.

But that is not happening. Instead, as land and water become scarcer, as the Earth’s temperature rises, and as world food security deteriorates, a dangerous geopolitics of food scarcity is emerging. Land grabbing, water grabbing, and buying grain directly from farmers in exporting countries are now integral parts of a global power struggle for food security.

With grain stocks low and climate volatility increasing, the risks are also increasing. We are now so close to the edge that a breakdown in the food system could come at any time. Consider, for example, what would have happened if the 2010 heat wave that was centered in Moscow had instead been centered in Chicago. In round numbers, the 40 percent drop in Russia’s hoped-for harvest of roughly 100 million tons cost the world 40 million tons of grain, but a 40 percent drop in the far larger U.S. grain harvest of 400 million tons would have cost 160 million tons. The world’s carryover stocks of grain (the amount in the bin when the new harvest begins) would have dropped to just 52 days of consumption. This level would have been not only the lowest on record, but also well below the 62-day carryover that set the stage for the 2007-2008 tripling of world grain prices.

Then what? There would have been chaos in world grain markets. Grain prices would have climbed off the charts. Some grain-exporting countries, trying to hold down domestic food prices, would have restricted or even banned exports, as they did in 2007 and 2008. The TV news would have been dominated not by the hundreds of fires in the Russian countryside, but by footage of food riots in low-income grain-importing countries and reports of governments falling as hunger spread out of control. Oil-exporting countries that import grain would have been trying to barter oil for grain, and low-income grain importers would have lost out. With governments toppling and confidence in the world grain market shattered, the global economy could have started to unravel.

We may not always be so lucky. At issue now is whether the world can go beyond focusing on the symptoms of the deteriorating food situation and instead attack the underlying causes. If we cannot produce higher crop yields with less water and conserve fertile soils, many agricultural areas will cease to be viable. And this goes far beyond farmers. If we cannot move at wartime speed to stabilize the climate, we may not be able to avoid runaway food prices. If we cannot accelerate the shift to smaller families and stabilize the world population sooner rather than later, the ranks of the hungry will almost certainly continue to expand. The time to act is now — before the food crisis of 2011 becomes the new normal.

Identifying "Hot Spots" of Future Food Shortages Due to Climate Change

Identifying “Hot Spots” of Future Food Shortages Due to Climate Change: Scientific American.

climate change, global warming, food, agriculture, food crisis FOOD CRISIS: A new report identifies world regions likely to be hardest hit by climate change’s impact on food. Image: Evelyn Simak/Wikimedia Commons

Southern Africa, India and Southeast Asia will be plagued with both high susceptibility and a lack of coping mechanisms as climate change takes its toll, according to models published in a new study.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’s (CGIAR) Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security identified world regions that will bear the brunt of climate change’s consequences on food availability. The project’s researchers measured current food security indicators and climate-sensitive zones in 2050, and the overlap between the two.

Other high-risk hot spots include Mexico, northeast Brazil, southern Africa and West Africa, assessed by indicators like future water availability, number of days above 30 degrees Celsius, length of the growing period, reliable growing days and high or low rainfall.

“In all of these areas, food security is always an issue,” said Philip Thornton, one of the study’s authors and a senior scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute. In addition to climate and economy, “these are areas where population increases are projected to carry on, adding more potential problems.”

How productivity flips
The researchers mapped vulnerability to nine thresholds — the points at which a region can “flip” from normal productivity to subpar yields. One example of a threshold is the 120-day growing period, the minimum length needed for a crop like corn to survive. If climate change causes growing periods to shrink to less than 120 days, it will take a significant toll on food sustainability.

Southern Africa — encompassing Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa — showed to be highly exposed to several of the eight thresholds. Spots in northeastern Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan were also very vulnerable, concluded the study.

Food security indicators, a combination of economic, health, logistic and population statistics, assessed which areas are currently at greatest risk for hunger and malnutrition.

“Africa and South Africa are clearly much more chronically food insecure regions than Latin America or China,” states the study. “In terms of resource pressure, again Africa is highlighted for population growth rates.”

Market access, economy also key
North Africa, a region that will not be especially vulnerable to climate change according to the study’s findings, ranked high in the number of hours needed to access a market. As seen in food riots earlier this year, the region is also sensitive to price volatility in international markets.

“One of the key areas in helping to provide food security is not simply an idea of more productivity, but also access and affordability of food to those who need it,” said Thornton, in regard to North Africa.

But for the regions that are faced with increasingly stressful weather patterns, “there’s a great deal that could be done to offset the impacts of climate change through adaptation, farming with new technology and government policies that are conducive to promoting small-holder agriculture,” he said.

Crop substitution for a drier and warmer climate, converting cropland to livestock grazing land, and making better use of rainfall are proven methods.

“It’s not particularly rocket science,” he said.

Thornton’s words reflect the conclusions of another report released this week. The nonprofit aid organization Oxfam released a food security report recommending government investment in small-scale farming and instituting concrete plans to deal with climate change. Continuing to follow the current system may drive food prices up 70 to 90 percent in the next 18 years, warns Oxfam.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

Are we having another food crisis?

Are we having another food crisis? – environment – 28 October 2010 – New Scientist.

The world food price index is at its highest since 2008, when food prices rocketed and millions of people suffered. This year the crisis seems to be happening again. Prices for the staple grains that underpin the world’s food supply soared after forecasts for the US and Chinese maize harvests fell in October, Pakistan lost its wheat to floods, and crop losses to drought and wildfire led Russia to ban grain exports until 2011. Food prices have soared in India, Egypt and elsewhere and are being blamed for riots in Mozambique.

Are we having another food crisis? New Scientist investigates.

Is this another crisis like the one we had in 2008?

Not quite. Maximo Torero of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington DC notes that oil, the real driver of food prices and of the 2008 crisis, is relatively cheap, at around $75 a barrel, not over $100 as it was in 2008.

In 2008, both immediate grain prices, and the prices offered for future grain purchases in commodities markets, climbed steadily for months, whereas now they are spiking and dipping more unpredictably, which economists call volatility.

“The market fundamentals – supply and demand – do not warrant the price increases we have seen,” says Torero. Not all harvests have been bad, and after 2008 countries rebuilt grain stocks. “There are enough stocks in the US alone to cover the expected losses in Russia.”

The food riots in Mozambique were not due to world grain prices, he says, but because Mozambique devalued its currency, making imported food more expensive.

So what has been happening this year?

Markets are responding nervously to incomplete information. First there was a series of shocks: Russia’s export ban, lower maize forecasts, then, days later, a US ruling to allow more bioethanol in fuel which seemed likely to further reduce the maize – the main source of bioethanol – available for food. Meanwhile there was no reliable information about grain stocks, which is strategic information that most countries keep secret.

The result was nervous bidding and sporadically surging prices in commodity markets. And that attracted the real problem: investors wielding gargantuan sums of speculative capital and hoping to make a killing. When speculation exacerbated the price crisis of 2008, Joachim von Braun of the University of Bonn, Germany, then head of IFPRI, predicted that it would continue causing problems. “We saw that one coming and it came,” he says. “Food markets have new design flaws, with their inter-linkages to financial markets.”

Volatility also makes it harder to solve the long-term, underlying problem – inadequate food production – by making farmers and banks reluctant to invest in improved agricultural technology as they are unsure of what returns they will get. “Investment in more production alone will not solve the problem,” says von Braun. As long as extreme speculation causes constant price bubbles and crashes, either farmers will not get good enough returns to continue investing in production, or consumers will not be able to afford the food.

“Without action to curb excessive speculation, we will see further increases in these volatilities,” he says.

What can we do?

This is where technology comes in. All the major producers already use remote sensing technology to watch each other’s fields. If countries would reveal just once what stocks they hold, says Torero, the satellite images can be used to calculate whether those stocks have risen or fallen, as growing conditions change. “All we need to know is the baseline,” he says. Reliable information about stocks could offset unwarranted jitters about crop failures, such as the ones that are contributing to the current market volatility.

Von Braun goes farther: he says there should be a global technical organisation that keeps track of world grain stocks and production, and which decides, using complex computerised models of world food markets, what range of grain prices are actually warranted by real supply and demand. Then if speculation starts to drive prices up out of this band, countries could intervene on markets, buying and selling just enough to counter speculative pressure. “This doesn’t stop speculation, just extreme speculation,” he says.

He thinks it would take a fund of $20-$30 billion to do the trick. In September the World Bank extended a $2 billion fund to respond to food price crises, but that is aimed at helping the poorest survive price spikes rather than intervening to stop them happening.

Even if we stop the volatility, don’t we still need to grow more food?

Yes. As well as stable markets we also need more research into increasing yields that will produce enough grain to sell, plus investment in getting research products into farmers’ hands, and the roads, markets and communications technology the farmers need to get it to market.

The more farmers are selling into the world market, says von Braun, the more stable it will be, as when one country falls short, another will have extra.

UN warned of major new food crisis at emergency meeting in Rome | Environment | The Guardian

UN warned of major new food crisis at emergency meeting in Rome | Environment | The Guardian.

Environmental disasters and speculative investors are to blame for volatile food commodities markets, says UN’s special adviser

russia wildfires July’s wildfires in Russia have led to a draconian wheat ban, pushing up prices. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPAThe world may be on the brink of a major new food crisis caused by environmental disasters and rampant market speculators, the UN was warned today at an emergency meeting on food price inflation.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) meeting in Rome today was called last month after a heatwave and wildfires in Russia led to a draconian wheat export ban and food riots broke out in Mozambique, killing 13 people. But UN experts heard that pension and hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds and large banks who speculate on commodity markets may also be responsible for inflation in food prices being seen across all continents.

In a new paper released this week, Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s special rapporteur on food, says that the increases in price and the volatility of food commodities can only be explained by the emergence of a “speculative bubble” which he traces back to the early noughties.

“[Beginning in ]2001, food commodities derivatives markets, and commodities indexes began to see an influx of non-traditional investors,” De Schutter writes. “The reason for this was because other markets dried up one by one: the dotcoms vanished at the end of 2001, the stock market soon after, and the US housing market in August 2007. As each bubble burst, these large institutional investors moved into other markets, each traditionally considered more stable than the last. Strong similarities can be seen between the price behaviour of food commodities and other refuge values, such as gold.”

He continues: “A significant contributory cause of the price spike [has been] speculation by institutional investors who did not have any expertise or interest in agricultural commodities, and who invested in commodities index funds or in order to hedge speculative bets.”

A near doubling of many staple food prices in 2007 and 2008 led to riots in more than 30 countries and an estimated 150 million extra people going hungry. While some commodity prices have since reduced, the majority are well over 50% higher than pre-2007 figures – and are now rising quickly upwards again.

“Once again we find ourselves in a situation where basic food commodities are undergoing supply shocks. World wheat futures and spot prices climbed steadily until the beginning of August 2010, when Russia – faced with massive wildfires that destroyed its wheat harvest – imposed an export ban on that commodity. In addition, other markets such as sugar and oilseeds are witnessing significant price increases,” said De Schutter, who spoke today at The UK Food Group’s conference in London.

Gregory Barrow of the UN World Food Program said: “What we have seen over the past few weeks is a period of volatility driven partly by the announcement from Russia of an export ban on grain food until next year, and this has driven prices up. They have fallen back again, but this has had an impact.”

Sergei Sukhov, from Russia’s agriculture ministry, told the Associated Press during a break in the meeting in Rome that the market for grains “should be stable and predictable for all participants.” He said no efforts should be spared “to the effect that the production of food be sufficient.”

“The emergency UN meeting in Rome is a clear warning sign that we could be on the brink of another food price crisis unless swift action is taken. Already, nearly a billion people go to bed hungry every night – another food crisis would be catastrophic for millions of poor people,” said Alex Wijeratna, ActionAid’s hunger campaigner.

An ActionAid report released last week revealed that hunger could be costing poor nations $450bn a year – more than 10 times the amount needed to halve hunger by 2015 and meet Millennium Development Goal One.

Food prices are rising around 15% a year in India and Nepal, and similarly in Latin America and China. US maize prices this week broke through the $5-a-bushel level for the first time since September 2008, fuelled by reports from US farmers of disappointing yields in the early stages of their harvests. The surge in the corn price also pushed up European wheat prices to a two-year high of €238 a tonne.

Elsewhere, the threat of civil unrest led Egypt this week to announce measures to increase food self-sufficiency to 70%. Partly as a result of food price rises, many middle eastern and other water-scarce countries have begun to invest heavily in farmland in Africa and elsewhere to guarantee supplies.

Although the FAO has rejected the notion of a food crisis on the scale of 2007-2008, it this week warned of greater volatility in food commodities markets in the years ahead.

At the meeting in London today, De Schutter said the only long term way to resolve the crisis would be to shift to “agro-ecological” ways of growing food. This farming, which does not depend on fossil fuels, pesticides or heavy machinery has been shown to protect soils and use less water.

“A growing number of experts are calling for a major shift in food security policies, and support the development of agroecology approaches, which have shown very promising results where implemented,” he said.

Green MP Caroline Lucas called for tighter regulation of the food trade. “Food has become a commodity to be traded. The only thing that matters under the current system is profit. Trading in food must not be treated as simply another form of business as usual: for many people it is a matter of life and death. We must insist on the complete removal of agriculture from the remit of the World Trade Organisation,” she said.

Food price graphs

Artificial meat? Food for thought by 2050 | Environment | The Guardian

Artificial meat? Food for thought by 2050 | Environment | The Guardian.

Leading scientists say meat grown in vats may be necessary to feed 9 billion people expected to be alive by middle of century

Food and overpopulation : Crowded Oshodi Market in Nigeria A sea of shoppers and vendors in Lagos, Nigeria. With the world population forecast to hit 9 billion people by 2050 novel ways to increase food production will be needed, say scientists. Photograph: James Marshall/CorbisArtificial meat grown in vats may be needed if the 9 billion people expected to be alive in 2050 are to be adequately fed without destroying the earth, some of the world’s leading scientists report today.

But a major academic assessment of future global food supplies, led by John Beddington, the UK government chief scientist, suggests that even with new technologies such as genetic modification and nanotechnology, hundreds of millions of people may still go hungry owing to a combination of climate change, water shortages and increasing food consumption.

In a set of 21 papers published by the Royal Society, the scientists from many disciplines and countries say that little more land is available for food production, but add that the challenge of increasing global food supplies by as much as 70% in the next 40 years is not insurmountable.

Although more than one in seven people do not have enough protein and energy in their diet today, many of the papers are optimistic.

A team of scientists at Rothamsted, the UK’s largest agricultural research centre, suggests that extra carbon dioxide in the air from global warming, along with better fertilisers and chemicals to protect arable crops, could hugely increase yields and reduce water consumption.

“Plant breeders will probably be able to increase yields considerably in the CO2 enriched environments of the future … There is a large gap between achievable yields and those delivered … but if this is closed then there is good prospect that crop production will increase by about 50% or more by 2050 without extra land”, says the paper by Dr Keith Jaggard et al.

Several studies suggest farmers will be up against environmental limits by 2050, as industry and consumers compete for water. One group of US scientists suggests that feeding the 3 billion extra people could require twice as much water by then. This, says Professor Kenneth Strzepek of the University of Colorado, could mean an 18% reduction in worldwide water availability for food growing by 2050.

“The combined effect of these increasing demands can be dramatic in key hotspots [like] northern Africa, India, China and parts of Europe and the western US,” he says.

Many low-tech ways are considered to effectively increase yields, such as reducing the 30-40% food waste that occurs both in rich and poor countries. If developing countries had better storage facilities and supermarkets and consumers in rich countries bought only what they needed, there would be far more food available.

But novel ways to increase food production will also be needed, say the scientists. Conventional animal breeding should be able to meet much of the anticipated doubling of demand for dairy and meat products in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, but this may not be enough.

Instead, says Dr Philip Thornton, a scientist with the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, two “wild cards” could transform global meat and milk production. “One is artificial meat, which is made in a giant vat, and the other is nanotechnology, which is expected to become more important as a vehicle for delivering medication to livestock.”

Others identify unexpected hindrances to producing more food. One of the gloomiest assessments comes from a team of British and South African economists who say that a vast effort must be made in agricultural research to create a new green revolution, but that seven multinational corporations, led by Monsanto, now dominate the global technology field.

“These companies are accumulating intellectual property to an extent that the public and international institutions are disadvantaged. This represents a threat to the global commons in agricultural technology on which the green revolution has depended,” says the paper by Professor Jenifer Piesse at King’s College, London.

“It is probably not possible to generate sufficient food output or incomes in much of sub-Saharan Africa to feed the population at all adequately … For least developed countries there are prospects of productivity growth but those with very little capacity will be disadvantaged.”

Other papers suggest a radical rethink of global food production is needed to reduce its dependence on oil. Up to 70% of the energy needed to grow and supply food at present is fossil-fuel based which in turn contributes to climate change.

“The need for action is urgent given the time required for investment in research to deliver new technologies to those that need them and for political and social change to take place,” says the paper by Beddington.

“Major advances can be achieved with the concerted application of current technologies and the importance of investing in research sooner rather than later to enable the food system to cope with challenges in the coming decades,” says the paper led by the population biologist Charles Godfray of Oxford University.

The 21 papers published today in a special open access edition of the philosophical transactions of the royalsociety.org are part of a UK government Foresight study on the future of the global food industry. The final report will be published later this year in advance of the UN climate talks in Cancun, Mexico.

Scientists Find Evidence That Oil And Dispersant Mix Is Making Its Way Into The Foodchain


Scientists have found signs of an oil-and-dispersant mix under the shells of tiny blue crab larvae in the Gulf of Mexico, the first clear indication that the unprecedented use of dispersants in the BP oil spill has broken up the oil into toxic droplets so tiny that they can easily enter the foodchain. Continue reading Scientists Find Evidence That Oil And Dispersant Mix Is Making Its Way Into The Foodchain