Tuesday, November 24, 2020

What Food Problem?

 Further to the earlier post on the impact of the corporate ownership and control of farming, this research paper also has some insightful points to dwell upon on our attitude to food production.

 '...“Feeding the world” is the principal public relations gambit of international agribusiness. Only agribusiness has the yields to save the poor and starving, is their claim. If the scarcity narrative is true, that claim is powerful. It transforms agriculture into a moral issue. Pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and monocultures may have negative consequences, goes the narrative, but they are the necessary alternative to starvation. The sole alternative, accordingly, is merely a luxury for the privileged and of no interest to policymakers. Alternatively, if scarcity is a myth, then all pesticides are sprayed, and all GMOs exist, exclusively for profit. The destruction of the ecosphere, which is largely for the sake of agriculture, is effectively a waste. The stakes are high. Agribusiness stands or falls on this point...

...  there is abundant, even overwhelming, evidence that agriculture, and in particular industrial monocultures, needs to be realigned to become kinder to ecosystems and more beneficial for the individuals and the communities that feed us. This will not occur, however, until the scarcity narrative is set aside...'

There has been an over-emphasis on the production food by the international bodies which has benefited the business models of the corporations. Even if the FAO targets of increasing food production by 2030 by 70%, hunger will still persist.  There will be only “Modest reductions in the numbers undernourished” and other estimates suggest only 120 million out of the 850 million hungry will be lifted out of their hunger. 

But the problem has never ever been about producing sufficient food to feed everybody but always about ensuring a fair and equitable distribution of existing food stocks.  In 2018, even though food production did subsequently increase, and food prices fell, the number of malnourished rose to 821 million. If FAO wants to solve hunger, their own model is telling them to look elsewhere than increasing production. 

 In 2011 researchers from the World Bank Institute proposed that the world already produced enough food for 14 billion people. This number is well above UN population predictions, which are expected to reach 10–11 billion in 2050 and to then decline thereafter.  Before the 2007/2008 price spike caused by changes in US and EU biofuel policies , food prices had been falling at approximately 4% per year. The apocalyptic scenarios inspired by Paul Ehrlich's 'Population Bomb' proved to be fantasies. Food supply significantly exceeds current food demand and that the gap is if anything widening. The scare-mongering projections are "overestimating demand or underestimating supply, or both."

 Farming for fuel.

 ActionAid in 2013 concluded that the G8 countries consumed annually enough biofuel, mainly ethanol, to feed 441 million people. If measured today that figure would undoubtedly be much greater. The 'green' case for bio-fuels has been increasingly challenged and determined to be market-driven by vested interest lobbying than for making a meaningful contribution to lowering levels of greenhouse gases.

Food for Profit

 Bangladesh has one of the highest population densities in the world, a population of 160 million resides in an area the size of New York state and one of the highest poverty and food insecurity rates. However, although wheat yields are about half that of winter season rice in Bangladeshi conditions, the market price of wheat is higher and the input costs are much lower.  Bangladeshi farmers therefore grow wheat on 415,000 hectares. Such farmers are chasing markets not nutrition.

The most glaring instance of chasing high prices and high profits is the meat industry. Historically, much meat and dairy production took advantage of marginal land that was less suited or unsuited to growing crops. Increasingly, however, especially in many “developed” countries, prime arable land is devoted to animal feed. Even the most efficient converters of non-vegetarian food (fish and chickens) yield a worse caloric return per hectare than the least nutritious vegetable, while the least efficient (beef) yields approximately fourfold less again. Thus it has been estimated that beef, in a feedlot system, has a feed conversion efficiency, measured in calories, of 3% (compared to chicken with 12%).  35% of the US corn crop goes to animal feed.  One estimate is that 4 billion additional people could be fed if animals were absent from the global food chain.

In 2002, OECD countries spend $318 billion annually on agricultural subsidies, overwhelmingly going to support either meat or biofuels ). Virtually none of it goes to subsidizing fruits and vegetables.

Better Farming Methods

the growing use of mixed cropping, agroecological production systems, and conservation agriculture further increase yields beyond the monoculture. The yield potential of rice is standardly estimated at 8–10t per hectare. Such high yields are assumed to occur only under agronomic conditions of very high fertilizer and chemical inputs and with ideal soil and watering regimes. Yet the world record for rice production is 22.4 t per hectare. This record was achieved with few inputs by a farmer using a method called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI.)  Yields achieved by SRI are sustainable with productivity exceeding comparative global models by several multiples. SRI methods have also been applied to other crops, again giving significant yield improvements. Since rice is the staple of half the globe (3.5 billion people) it can be readily appreciated that a tripling of yields, especially since SRI is a more sustainable method, represents the potential to feed perhaps a further 7 billion people,

Food Reserves

 Agricultural production exceeds consumption at the global or local scale. If we take cereals (wheat, rice, barley, millet, sorghum, and oats) as an example, excess production occurs even in densely populated countries such as India and China. In 2017, FAO estimated global stores of cereals at 762 million tons. These stocks represent an insurance against calamity. However, this 762 million tons also represents an excess of supply over global demand. Depending on the climate, the quality of storage, and the crop species, they may rot or be eaten by pests.  If stocks are not growing, crops may still be entering them at a high rate. The second relevant property of stocks is that, if there are multiple harvests per annum, quantities of lost stocks may represent multiples of the steady-state amount of an annualized store. For example, if 33% of each rice crop is lost in storage and there are three rice storage periods, corresponding to three harvests, then 100% of the annual total stock is, in effect, lost each year.  Even if stored well, stocks eventually degrade. In China, wheat stocks are considered by analysts to last maximally 3–4 years and an average of 2 years. For this reason, China, which is one of the biggest stock holders of rice and wheat, began a biofuel policy to consume excess stocks of wheat. This has steadily grown and now generates 845 million gallons of ethanol per year . Despite this program, Chinese wheat stocks are still growing.

How much of the global grain supply is lost in storage?  FAO estimates that postharvest losses in low–middle-income countries are approximately 6.4% for cereals. Most cereal and pulse loss estimates are much higher, but also highly variable and they acknowledge much uncertainty . Estimates include 20%–30% for maize in Africa (Tefera et al., 2011); 12% and 44% for maize in the West Cameroonian highlands during the first 6 months of storage ; 11%–17% for rice in India, without counting storage ; and 35% for rice in India. Some reports estimate very high levels, for example, 59% after 90 days in sub-Saharan Africa.  FAO’s figures for postharvest losses are very much at the low end.  This is not to say that stocks and reserves are undesirable or unnecessary it potentially meets the cereal needs of perhaps 1–2 billion people, even without counting the losses of more perishable (noncereal) crops.

To sum up, the world can provide food for an extra 12.5 billion people above its present population and that is a very modest estimate.

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