Food scarcity can creep up on any nation

This article appeared originally in Gulf News: link to original article

Can the world feed itself? Don’t answer yet. Take a minute to reflect on this question and its implications, and then continue reading.

According to the UN, by 2050, the world’s population is estimated to reach about 10 billion. Not only that, the data extending from 1960 to 2050 projections show an upward trajectory, subject to various, probable shifts in demographic curves across the globe.

Another worrying observation is that of the daily calorie consumption per person that has also been trending upwards since the 1960s. The curve doesn’t look like it’s going to flatten out anytime soon. The UN, therefore, estimates that “food supply needs to increase by 70-100 per cent” by 2050.

You may think here: so? The world can surely increase its food production as it always has, and should consequently be able to accommodate the growth in population as well as growth in daily calorie intake. This could be the case, but it unfortunately isn’t.

Where’s the problem? It surely isn’t the growth in population or the increase in the daily calorie consumption — not that it’s a healthy trend though. In my point of view, there are three core issues when it comes to food security: 1. Food sovereignty. 2. Meat consumption (please do not rephrase this into a pro vegetarian slogan) and 3. Market inefficiencies.

Food sovereignty is the attempt by countries to produce all the food that they need. They may excel of course in certain commodities, but there’s no country that can aim at producing everything and be cost-efficient in all. That defies basic economic and trade principles, and leads to countries subsidising farmers and agriculture even if the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Estimates by agricultural economists and others point to anywhere between $15 billion and $25 billion spent a year on agricultural subsidies. (WTO agreement, signed in 2015, scraps agricultural export subsidies, not all agricultural subsidies.) Robert Guest estimates that “the total value of agricultural subsidies in developed countries is almost a billion dollars a day”.

The consumption of meat, of all kind, is not the main problem here. It’s that high demand for meat resulted in the rise of industrial farms and fuelled their expansion. That led to two issues.

First, food insecurity caused by feeding great portions of main food staples, such as maize, to animals in industrial farms. Moreover, “90 per cent of the world soya meal is destined for industrial livestock” (Philip Lymbery).

Second, industrial farms use tremendous amounts of antibiotics, which enable bacteria to adapt, making those antibiotics obsolete in the short-run. Not a food security issue, but perhaps you would like to know that infections may be a main killer in the future.

And besides all of that, more people are joining the middle-class ranks in countries like China and India, which have the world’s two biggest populations, and which further fuel demand for meats. That in turn will exacerbate the problem.

Keep in mind here too that meat production is a high water-intensive activity, resulting in adding to already diminishing water resources.

The point on market inefficiencies has a local as well as global angle to it. The global commodities’ markets operate just like any other market. When commodities are worth more; producing countries are encouraged to export more, allowing deficits and possible famines to take place within their borders. And if tariffs on agricultural imports are in place, a double whammy.

On a local level, many famines are not caused by a bad year or by food deficits, rather by lack of the right infrastructure to: 1. Support activities of buying and selling commodities, 2. Facilitate the transfer of food from regions of surplus to regions of deficit, thus avoiding a possible famine.

The last though that I want to leave you with: what happens when countries neglect the production of main food staples such as wheat, maize, and rice paddy to focus instead on the production of cash crops?