Were the doomsayers right after all?

SHASHI ON SUNDAY
The future, of course, is never what it used to be. There was a time when predictions of global food shortages were rife in conventional wisdom. Writers like Paul Ehrlich and the “Limits to Growth” school of the 1960s and 1970s kept saying that the world’s population was growing past the point at which the earth could sustain it. The burgeoning new environmentalist movement added their own concerns about the dramatic threats to our fragile ecosystems brought about by heedless development. And the new breed of futurologists spawned by the Cold War — whose ideas were given new currency by the accelerating pace of technological change in the era of man’s first walk on the moon — kept issuing dire warnings that our planet was imminently going to run out of food as the global population grew and the land available for agriculture inevitably proved inadequate. By the early 1980s, the doomsayers began to look silly. They had not anticipated the Green Revolution, beginning in the late 1960s at the very time when their prognostications were at their gloomiest, when agricultural yields grew exponentially thanks to “miracle seeds” and better farming techniques. The global population doubled from 3 billion in the early 1960s to 6 billion by the end of the 20th century, but episodes of mass starvation were the exception rather than the rule, and if people didn’t have enough to eat it was usually because of war, pestilence or other (usually man-made) calamity— not because there simply wasn’t enough food to go around. Alas, the doomsayers are looking a lot less silly today. The global food crisis gripping the planet today was not anticipated even at this time last year, but, as our daily newspaper headlines testify, it is now an inescapable fact of life, and the portents are alarming. Food prices have been soaring almost everywhere, and it really does seem as if all the farmland in the world can’t produce enough to feed the world. The UN’s Rome-based food agency, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), has announced that its food price index rose by 40 per cent last year. In fact the news is worse than that: the index is still rising. What’s going on? Population growth is undeniably part of the problem, but it’s by no means the only important factor. A world that could feed 6.6 billion people last year can’t suddenly find itself unable to feed 6.7 billion this year. Western analysts have been pointing to the dramatic increase in the consumption habits of the “newly-emerging economies”, pointing specifically to India and China. Again, that can only account for a portion of the increased demand: Indians and Chinese are still not consuming remotely as much as people in the developed West. Some technical factors have undoubtedly come in: higher production costs, resulting from various factors — including the astonishing increase in the price of fuel (with oil at $120 a barrel, everything using energy has become more expensive everywhere) — have been matched by shortfalls in agricultural supply. The world’s wheat reserves have fallen from 18 to 12 weeks’ supply, and reserves of corn around the planet have dropped from 11 to eight weeks’ worth. Compounding this has been the understandable reaction of countries like India that actually grow their own grain but have huge domestic markets to nourish. Worried about the impact of possible shortages on their own populations, many wheat and rice-producing countries have banned or sharply curtailed exports. The result is that even if a food-deficient country has the money to buy the food it needs, none is available for sale. Western countries have been critical of decisions by many Asian countries to restrict grain exports; EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, for instance, argues that restrictions on trade mean that global food scarcity will compound existing problems of food shortages within specific countries. But whether the world is really coping with genuine food scarcity or merely uneven distribution of the food that’s actually available, the problem isn’t going to go away. One reason is the development of a new trend that didn’t exist till a few years ago. It’s caused by the most unlikely villain of all: the world’s environmentalists. The Green Revolution in agriculture finds itself trumped by the Green Evolution in the world’s thinking. Recent years of mounting concern about global warming, spurred by Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” and the alarming consensus amongst the globe’s leading scientists that urgent action was needed to prevent catastrophe, led to a new enthusiasm for bio-fuels to replace hothouse-gas-producing fossil fuels. Large swathes of agricultural land, especially in the developed world, were turned over to grow crops that could be processed into ethanol, a less polluting fuel than petrol or diesel. The result has been that land that produced grain for human mouths is now being devoted to crops for car engines. This has finally begun to stir the consciences of the world’s politicians. Finance minister Chidambaram has called environmentally-justified crop-substitution a “crime against humanity”. Outgoing Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi recently declared that “something must be done to ensure [that] both the United States and Europe stop producing fuel in competition with food”. Prodi was blunt about the political motivations for such heartless policies: “People can no longer be allowed to starve to death in Africa simply because some people in the United States or the European Union consider that the votes of farmers or landowners are worth more than the survival of millions of men and women.” So the predictions about the future that emerged from the 1960s have suddenly come back to life in 2008. The doomsayers of that time said we’d run out of food; they said the environment was under threat. They were pooh-poohed on both counts. Now our attempts to solve one problem have made the other prediction come true.

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One response to “Were the doomsayers right after all?

  1. …it could all be solved if we stopped eating so much meat. It is going to have to happen sooner or later unless a good old fashioned plague which halves the population does it a bit sooner. These things have a way of sorting themselvers out,albeit at the cost of a few tens of million lives.
    Happy Days.

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