INTERVIEW-Food competition to leave poor hungrier by 2050-expert

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 2 May 2012 11:00 GMT

Environmental economist Lester Brown describes what global hunger will look like in 50 years

This story is part of AlertNet's special report Solutions for a hungry world

By Laurie Goering

LONDON (AlertNet) - In 2008, as world food prices soared as a result of drought-hit harvests, growing grain demand and high oil prices, South Korea had an uncomfortable glimpse of the future.

The country, which imports 70 percent of the grain it needs, suddenly found major wheat and maize producers such as Russia and Argentina imposing export bans, aimed at keeping enough food at home to satisfy demand.

Suddenly aware that markets might not always provide, South Korea launched a campaign to secure its own food security.

Around the world, Korean-owned companies began buying or leasing huge tracts of farmland to grow wheat and maize, including nearly 700,000 hectares in Sudan alone.

And from an office in Chicago, Korea began buying or building grain storage facilities across the U.S. Midwest, and contracting directly with U.S. maize growers to buy their harvests, effectively claiming a share of the world’s maize crop before it ever reaches market.

“If the Koreans do it, you can bet the Chinese or Japanese or Saudis won’t be far beyond,” said Lester Brown, a prominent environmental economist and founder of the Earth Policy Institute think tank in Washington.

“I see a lot of competition for control of food, land and waste resources. That’s the bottom line.”

What will hunger look like in 2050? The poor - increasingly living in cities - will struggle to get enough food as prices soar while the rich will continue to be able to buy much of what they like, experts like Brown say.

The hungry of the future, they predict, will live for the most part where an estimated 900 million hungry do today - in sub-Saharan Africa, in South Asia and in a range of particularly poor, badly governed or resource-scarce parts of the world from Haiti to Yemen.

Yet the scale of hunger - and how it is managed - could be very different. According to Brown, hunger in the future will depend on a huge range of sometimes seemingly unrelated factors.

There's the question of whether Europe and the United States will continue to push the use of biofuels and whether global climate change can be effectively limited. Are we reaching the biological limits of growth in plant productivity? Can corruption can be curbed? Will education of girls be improved?

What is clear is that countries that control land, water and - particularly - financial resources will fare best as competition for food inevitably grows, Brown said.


“Recent events indicate the emergence of an ‘every country for itself’ sort of situation,” said Brown, whose book "Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity" will be published in September.

“Just generally, the way things are going, there are going to be a lot more hungry people in the world,” he told AlertNet in an interview. “I think food is the weak link. It’s a huge challenge and I don’t think we grasp the dimensions of it yet.”

What nearly everyone agrees is that food prices are going to be much higher in the future.

At current rates of population growth, an additional 219,000 people are coming to the world’s dinner table each evening, Brown said.

Rates of population growth have been falling in most parts of the world for decades, but further cuts will require more of the sometimes controversial measures proven to curb births - educating women, ensuring their children survive and giving access to contraception to women who want it.

Changing appetites - as much or more than population growth - also are expected to drive up food prices.

As emerging countries such as China get richer, more and more people want to eat the same things people in rich countries eat, particularly more meat and milk.

But producing a pound of beef means feeding a cow at least six pounds of grain - a conversion that is leading to a dramatic rise in demand for grain crops.

A decade ago, worldwide demand for grain was growing at about 20 million tonnes a year; today it is close to 50 million tonnes a year, Brown said.

Growth in biofuel production - partly in response to climate change - is also driving up prices by creating more competition for agricultural land and for grain itself.

Last year the United States produced about 400 million tonnes of grain. More than a quarter of it - 124 million tonnes - went to ethanol distilleries, Brown said.

Such grain - and land used to grow other fuel crops like jatropha, an oil seed - could return to the world food supply, but only if policies in the rich world mandating biofuel use are reversed.

Growing more food to meet rising demand won’t be easy.

A warming climate may make it possible to produce more grain in some northern regions, from Siberia to Canada.

But the world’s biggest unused pieces of arable land today lie under the Amazon forest and tropical forests in the Congo basin and Indonesia. Cutting those to grow more food could change rainfall patterns and threaten agriculture across those regions, as well as decimating the earth’s biodiversity.


Growing more grain on the same amount of land won’t be easy either. Since 1950, about 80 or 85 percent of the growth in the world’s grain harvest has come from increases in yields - growing more food on the same amount of land, Brown said.

But while some new types of crops and new farming techniques could boost yields, many major food crops are reaching biological limits - their maximum ability to turn sunlight into food.

That suggests that continuing big jumps in production will be more and more difficult, he and others say.

Climate change, which is altering weather patterns and growing seasons, along with increasing competition for water will make the job of growing the same amount of food on a piece of land - never mind more food - increasingly difficult.

In a 2009 study, the International Food Policy Research Institute predicted that by 2050 wheat prices will rise 40 percent before climate change is taken into effect. With climate change happening at current rates, prices are expected to rise 170 to 194 percent.

Rice and maize also are expected to see price hikes of over 100 percent - and the model doesn’t take into account grain losses from sea level rise, worsening pest problems and increasingly variable weather.

South Asia, with its huge population, dwindling water supplies and already high rates of malnutrition, may be particularly hard hit, IFPRI scientists said. Worldwide, they predicted, child malnutrition rates will rise by 20 percent by 2050, even before climate impacts are taken into account.

What might mitigate the rising threat? There are plenty of ideas, few of them simple or easy.

Curbing the at least 30 percent of food that is ruined or lost on the way from farms to markets, or thrown away from grocery stores, restaurants and refrigerators, particularly in rich parts of the world, would make a huge impact, experts say.

So would giving women better access to education and contraception to further curb population increases, and better access to land and knowledge to improve their farming success.

Reducing the amount of meat and milk in diets worldwide would help, as would taking prompt action to limit climate change, ending the practice of turning grain into biofuel and helping small farmers around the world get more resilient and productive seeds, better advice and other tools they need to boost production.

The alternative, Brown said, is a world where prices continue to rise, shortages worsen and inequalities in access to food continue to grow - with potentially devastating consequences.

"There are going to be some real conflicts when people get hungry,” Brown said. “When people get hungry, they take it to the streets.”

(Editing by Tim Large)

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