According to the latest predictions from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) price volatility, climate change and crop diseases combined with poor harvests in 2010 could herald another food crisis in 2011, particularly in parts of Africa and Asia.
Floods in Pakistan and China and the summer drought in Russia, which led to a ban on all wheat exports this year, mean that stocks of wheat, maize and some other foods were not as high as in previous years.
It has already been seen that this has led to to commodity price speculation that pushed up the prices of these grains and food by 40% in a few months and food price inflation is currently running at 15% per year.
Almost certainly consumers and shoppers in most of the world will be facing higher food bills in 2011. The FAO’s November monthly report forecasts that these factors will lead to a running down of global food reserves, which are currently at around 74 days, and an increase in prices of between 10% and 20% in 2011.
The prediction is its most pessimistic since 2008, when more than 25 countries experienced food riots after price rises precipitated a food crisis that hit the poorest in many parts of the world.
Several other factors add to the problem. Current forecasts for world grain production next year are at 2% below 2009, lower than was anticipated last June, when production for 2011 was being forecast to expand.
In addition, the FAO says, climate change and the competition between food and biofuel production means that grain crops particularly command higher prices as biofuel rather than as food.
Increasingly unpredictable weather patterns attributed to climate change are adding to the situation’s volatility and the potential for further price speculation as well as the ongoing problem of some increasingly intractable diseases such as wheat rust, a fungus that can seriously affect the level of the harvest.
The report says: “The most feared disease of wheat’stem rust has re-emerged in a new virulent form, and new aggressive stripe rust strains are devastating wheat crops in several countries.” Since was first identified the pathogen, which is wind-borne and can travel up to several thousand kilometres, has continued to mutate and spread.
While reaching global agreement on tackling such issues as climate change and combating the temptation towards price speculation, protecting national economies by using import tariffs and restrictions in a global economic crisis may be moving far too slowly to have any major impact on food production and scarcity in the short term there are other strategies that could be used.
One is taking urgent action to restore degraded land around the world. There is an estimated 1bn hectares-plus of land with the potential to be restored. Another is to increase the fertility of existing land. In the context of improving fertility the use of disease resistant seeds, integrated pest management and conservation agriculture can all play a part.
The work of biopesticides developers in devising low-chem agricultural yield enhancers, biopesticides and biofungicides, all of which are kinder to the environment, soil and ecosystems could be particularly helpful to poorer small farmers in the developing world as long as there is wider agreement on speedy regulation and licensing as well as proper training and financial support for farmers to be able to access them.
Copyright (c) 2010 Alison Withers