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Feeding or fighting

Geoff Hiscock looks at how enough food production and water usage for everyone is attainable. But how further conflict awaits if no progress is made.

The world looks to have won a brief reprieve from a food security crisis, with grain prices stabilizing in the last few months of 2012 after a mid-year surge that brought back memories of the 2007-08 food riots.

But as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warns in its latest outlook (September 6, 2012), the need for vigilance is ongoing. Volatility is likely to be a hallmark of the year ahead as a combination of water stress, weather extremes, civil strife, population growth, urbanisation, inefficient distribution systems and spiraling demand for more water-intensive food continues to put pressure on global supply capacity.

North Africa and West Africa’s Sahel region – where 18 million people are going hungry this year – are again the areas most likely to face food shortages in 2013. Drought in the Horn of Africa has dispersed almost a quarter of Somalia’s population to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. In the conflict-hit border zone between Sudan and South Sudan, high food prices add to the existing tension.

Drought in the United States and Eastern Europe, floods in South America and crops hit by disease and pests in China have all helped push down food production in 2012, though higher prices mean farmers in developed economies will maintain their incomes.

© Reuters

In Australia - a key southern hemisphere grain producer - a long spell of dry weather after devastating floods in 2010-11 means that the 2012-13 wheat harvest is likely to be around 22.5 million tonnes (or about 6 per cent) below the mid-year estimate.

On average, the world’s wheat growers produce about 3 tonnes a hectare, with intensive farming in Europe showing the greatest yields above 8 t/ha and some New Zealand farmers getting 15 t/ha. China and India, the world’s two biggest wheat producers, are both around 3 t/ha, as is the United States.

While greater yields are desirable, output is not really the issue. The world produces enough food to feed its current population of 7 billion and with innovations in cropping techniques, seeds and other inputs, has the capacity to feed the other 2 billion expected by 2050, even in the face of continued climatic extremes.

What it lacks is a workable mechanism to get this food to where it is most needed.

Not too little, just too little where needed

© Reuters

The rich countries have plenty of food, while the poor countries lack the money and the infrastructure to get beyond subsistence. Storage and distribution are their two big challenges, compounded by conflict and poor governance.

The world also must somehow lessen the impact that rising food production – particularly meat – has on the globe’s most precious resource: clean water.

Inefficient water use – whether from leaking pipes, run-down irrigation systems, a failure to recycle or simply profligate usage that takes no account of the full cost of water – is setting up the world for water wars. Wherever there is a river or freshwater lake with more than one claimant to its water, the potential for conflict exists.

We see that today in tensions between India and China over the Yarlung Zangbo-Brahmaputra system, between China and its downstream neighbours over the Mekong River, between India and Pakistan over dams on the Indus River and in the Middle East between Israel and its neighbours over the Jordan River.

Water stress is not going to go away. By 2020, India and China, the two biggest water users and home to 2.5 billion people between them, will face difficult decisions over how they price their water resources. Increasing prosperity will lift demand for more food, including protein-rich meat and dairy, whose production consumes more water. Imports can help, of course: China is likely to import 80 million tonnes of soybeans and 20 million tonnes of corn by 2015.

One consequence of this prosperity is that China is drawing on its groundwater faster than rainfall can replenish it. This unsustainable water use increases pressure to find new water sources, such as river diversions from the west, or from as-yet unexploited aquifers.

Food inefficiency

India is an example of how mismanagement of its food supply chain hurts the poorest of the poor. Chaotic rural transport connections, a lack of cold storage facilities, rapacious middlemen, occasional banditry, weak governance, poor quality control and the all-pervasive cloud of corruption hang heavy over the Indian hinterland, where 800 million of the country’s 1.2 billion people live.

Up to 30 per cent of India’s fresh food is spoilt, pilfered or otherwise lost in transit – which means that irrespective of how bountiful the monsoon rains may be in any given year (2012 saw a relatively weak monsoon), it is this vexed journey from farm to consumer that saps the lifeblood from Indian rural families.

Even the mechanised and well-watered large landholders of the Punjab - traditionally among India’s most prosperous communities and the standard-bearers for the 1970s “Green Revolution” that pushed up crop yields – now face a fresh set of social and environmental problems stemming from excessive use of fertilisers and subsidised irrigation leading to groundwater depletion.

The situation is even worse in poorer parts of Asia such as Bangladesh. And in Africa, civil war, clashes over water usage and the general vagaries of the weather have kept large parts of the continent impoverished. That makes starvation an ever present fear for many millions of people there.

Even so, in Africa and around the world generally, it is bad water that kills more people than starvation, war or any other cause. Children are particularly vulnerable to waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera, polio and gastroenteritis. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 2.2 million children under the age of five die every year from dirty water, inadequate sanitation and a lack of hygiene.

Putting answers into action

With the right measures, these deaths can be prevented. There is a significant economic benefit too, with the WHO estimating that clean water and better sanitation can add between 2 and 7 per cent to a country's gross domestic product.

© Reuters

There are signs the magnitude of the food and water challenge is at last being recognised outside of the World Bank, UN agencies such as the FAO and the World Food Programme, and environmental groups. The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Vladivostok in early September, for example, had food security and commodity supply chain improvements high on its list of priorities.

Leaders of the 21 APEC nations – who account for more than 50 per cent of global GDP – agreed to increase sustainable agriculture, develop food markets, boost farmers’ welfare and improve access to food for vulnerable groups. They also committed to achieving a 10 per cent improvement in supply-chain performance by 2015 in the Asia-Pacific region – not just in food, but across all goods and services.

A recent report entitled “The Global Water Crisis: Addressing an urgent security issue,” by the InterAction Council of eminent former leaders, estimates that the value of water related businesses will grow from about $520 billion five years ago to $1 trillion by 2020.

But today, about 2 billion of the world’s people lack adequate sanitation and about 1 billion of these also lack access to safe, reliable water supplies. Imagine the economic benefit if these figures were substantially reduced.

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the Author

Geoff Hiscock is the author of, ‘Earth Wars: The Battle for Global Resources’

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790),
Poor Richard's Almanac, 1746
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