No Notches Left

by Juan L. Mercado


“Food is the new oil and land the new gold,” says  Earth  Policy Institute’s  Lester Brown. Altered  weather,  dry wells  and food needs of  larger populations interlock in a  struggle for  arable land and water. Meet  the “new  geopolitics of food scarcity.”

“As food supplies tighten, we are moving into a new  era where it is every country for itself,”  Brown notes in his  new  book  “Full Planet, Empty Plates”.  “We  face  a future of rising food prices driven by rising temperatures.”

Abrupt doubling in grain prices, between 2007 and 2008, left more people hungry than at any time in history. It ignited riots in Egypt and  Haiti as well as stoked the Arab Spring  protests. This September, Food and Agriculture Organization tracked  a  17 percent  price surge.

Carryover stocks  are a  key  food security indicator.  Granaries stored a comfortable 107 days of consumption — until 2001,  when it  slumped  by  a  third.  Since then,  that  safety net  had  only 74 days of stocks.  “An unprecedented period of world food security  ended”.

The rich  rearranged  their menus. The poor, who  spend  50-70 percent of income on food, yanked belts  a notch tighter.  But there may be no notches left. 

Almost  24 percent of families, in India, now go thru foodless days, a “Save the Children” survey found.  For Nigerians, it is 27 percent,  14 percent for Peruvians.  In September, Social Weather Stations  reported about 4.3  million Filipino families experienced hunger.

Hunger often has a child’s face. Millions  are physically and mentally stunted  Here, 21 out of every 100 infants have low weight at birth. Wasting and stunting (32 percent)  result when kids are nursed by wizened, malnourished mothers.  “Poor nutrition contributes to more than a third of under-five deaths,” says Unicef’s State of the World Children 2012.

Diets of  three billion people  are changing, as  incomes  rise  in emerging economies.  Appetites for steak and chicken fricasse are sated by  grain-consuming  livestock and poultry.  China now  tucks away  twice as much meat  as  the US.   Grain is  used to fuel cars. Almost  32 percent of the US corn harvest  last  year went to ethanol distilleries.

Only farmers can raise  needed  food. They’re squeezed  between  diverging  pulls  of  demand and supply.  Despite  lower fertility, population  continues  to surge  from  momentum of  earlier  high growth.   “Each year the world adds nearly 80 million people, ” Brown writes. “Tonight,  there’ll  be 219,000 people at table who were not there last night, many with empty plates.”

There were 93.3 million  Filipinos in 2010, the official headcount says. There are  five of us today where there was one in 1940.  Population could rise to  111.7 million by 2020, National Statistical Coordination Board projects.

Supply hasn’t caught up. E rosion of  vital topsoil  has worsened.  “Some 30 percent of the world’s cropland is losing productive topsoil far faster than nature can replace it”, Brown notes. In the Philippines, over 52 percent for farmland, in 22 provinces, are eroded. Ambuklao Dam’s lifespan of 60 years was halved to 32 when  eroded soil piled up as  silt.

Vital  aquifers  are being depleted. “Irrigation wells are going  dry in 18 countries that contain half the world’s people”. Saudi Arabia harvested last year its last wheat crop  as it  pumped fossil  (no-replenishment) aquifers dry. Now, 30 million Saudis—the equivalent of Canada— swap oil for  grain.  Cebu City’s  aquifers are wrecked irreversibly as it  pumps twice what is recharged.

Grain surplus  countries  “hit  a glass ceiling”, Brown  notes . Yields in  rice surplus countries, like Japan and South Korea,” are stagnating just beyond 5 tons per hectare.”  Wheat rich France, Germany and the UK  slammed into the same  glass ceiling.”

Global  warming is the third new challenge,  writes Brown. For every  one  degree Celsius rise in temperature, above optimum during growing season, grain yields shrink by 10 percent.  If the world continues with business as usual, the earth’s temperature, during this century, could easily rise by 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit). Crop cycles would be radically altered.

As  food prices  bolted,  exporting countries like Vietnam, Russia and Argentina barred exports to tamp down  home  prices.  Importing countries, like Yemen and the Philippines, shopped for  long-term  supply agreements.  They had no luck. “In a seller’s market, exporters were reluctant to make long-term commitments.”

Saudi Arabia, China, and South Korea  took the unusual step of buying or leasing land long term in other countries on which to grow food for themselves. These land acquisitions have since grown rapidly in number. Most  are in Africa.

“Among principal destinations for land hunters are Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan. These  are countries where millions are sustained with food donations from the U.N. World Food Programme.

A 2011 World Bank analysis of these “land grabs” reported that at least 140 million acres were involved—an area that exceeds  cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the US. This onslaught of land acquisitions has become a land rush.

Many of  us  grew up  when, after a devastating typhoon or  severe dry spell, things would  revert  to normal, however  slowly.  Government  patched  farm production and  shopped abroad among  suppliers competing to sell  grain.

But that  was yesterday. Today,  our grand children no longer have “any normal to return to.”

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