News For Our Cook

by Juan L. Mercado

“The cost of fish and vegetables are up,” our cook wailed to the wife on return from the wet market.. “Cooking gas is up too. Will this continue in 2011?”

They probably will.

The price of tomatoes in Egypt and garlic in China crest at near-record levels We may face five years of food price uncertainty, World Bank president Robert Zoellick told the Guardian.

Governments and agencies fret over volatile fuel prices, depleted water availability and climate shock. Global Climatic Risk Index for 2011 lists the Philippines as seventh, among 10 countries, most vulnerable to. disastrous climate impacts”.

Drought compelled Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to extend, into 2011, an import ban on Russia’s Black Sea region wheat. Floods in Pakistan crimped food supplies.

For Filipinos, like half the world’s population, rice prices have a short fuse. Ample harvests in Thailand and Vietnam ensure adequate stocks for the first quarter, FAO adds. We’ve locked up import contracts with Hanoi, since self-sufficiency targets.always eluded our grasp.

”Food prices could come under pressure if other cereals become more expensive in 2011. Biofuels already compete for food crops, FAO director general Jacques Diouf noted. A third of U.S. maize, last year, went to ethanol for gas guzzlers.

The DG also has news for our cook: “Global cereal prices won’t come down at any time soon.”

“To a people famished and idle, the only form in which God dares to appear is work and the promise of food”, Mahatma Ghandi once wrote. He had an insight into the explosive force of hunger and it’s capacity to wreck. “Don’t ask a hungry man to guard your rice,” a Tibetan proverb counsels.

Food riots erupted December in Mozambique, where 12 died. Clashes followed in Algiers over similar cost spikes. In Iran, riot police poured into the streets after fuel and food subsidies ended. Sri Lanka remains edgy.

Food cost in India surged by 17 percent. Already reeling from extremist attacks on it’s Coptic Christians, Egypt treats similar inflation as a tinderbox. These tower above the Philippines relatively “benign” inflation — so far.

That could change in 2011. La Nina, for example, is likely to hit the region soon. So are effects of the severe winter on the traditional “North American” bread basket.

Even more basic for us, Filipinos, are “fundamentals” often ignored in our daily political squabbles. Like what?

Like how many Filipinos are there to be fed? Are there 94.01 million of us today, as some government offices estimate? Or are we really 99.9 million? Some international agencies and U.S offices work by that projection. …

Results of the seven-year delayed national census haven’t been released so far. Undercounting complaints are rife The Commission on Elections concede that voting population numbers in Maguindanao, Basilan and similar warlord redoubts are stuffed.

Population today is historically unprecedented in size, density or migration patterns. President Bengino Aquino says he’ll heed no-re-election provision in the Constitution. So, when he hands over Malacanang, come June 2016, his successor will have to “multiply the loaves and fishes” for 101.6 million Filipinos.

Never before were our farms and fishing grounds called upon to feed such chronically hungry multitudes. The 7th nutrition survey found more kids, below five years, are emaciated, shorter and skinnier. The proportion of ill-fed pregnant women has inched up.

One in 10 Filipinos work abroad. Here, many drift into city slums. Others encroach on ecologically-brittle uplands or overcrowded coastal villages.

The systems that place food on our tables of our children are severely strained. “IUU” or “illegal, unreported and unregulated” fishing result in depleted catches, warns Magsaysay Awardee and marine bioliogist Angel Alacala.

What separates us from starvation is three or four inches of topsoil. It takes over a century to form an inch of that topsoil. But a heavy downpour, in a country where less than 18 percent of forest cover is left, that can wash a century’s accumulation away in an hour.

About 74 to 81 million tons of near-irreplaceable soil are lost annually. “Fighting soil degradation makes combating insurgency child’s play,” the late National Scientist Dioscoro Umali once said.

The lethargy that chronic hunger spawns is so widespread we take it for granted. Like Lazarus waiting for scraps at the gate, it melds into the woodwork.

Eradication of hunger, however, is not a benevolent luxury. It is essential for our survival as a human community. We must tamp down hunger without pawning the natural resource base of suceeding generations. “We do not inherit the land from our parents,” the Indian proverb says. “We merely borrow it from our children.”

Rising temperatures meanwhile widened the “Tropical Belt”, notes Nature Geoscience. “In the Philippines, rice yields drop by 10% for every one degree centigrade increase in night-time temperature”, BBC’s Richard Black writes.

Adapt or starve may be ultimate option that an altered tropical belt could offer. PNoy’s shucking off ambitions of a prolonged presidency can help us all look beyond today’s political pygmies. We must tell our cook.

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