Briefing: Lessons from past food crises
World leaders gather in Rome Tuesday for a UN food crisis conference. What does history teach about how to handle such shortages?
(Page 2 of 4)
"We have probably close to 4 billion people wanting to move up the food chain, consuming more meat, milk, and maize – and that takes a lot of grain," says Lester Brown, who heads the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. Data from the Australian Central Bank finds that the Chinese ate 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of meat per capita in 1985. Today, it's 54 kilograms (119 pounds) of meat per year (see chart).Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"We have also seen an enormous growth in the last couple years in the use of grain to produce ethanol fuel in the US," Mr. Brown adds. The annual growth in world grain consumption, he says, has shot up from around 20 million tons a year from 1990-2005 to more than 40 million tons in the past two years. He blames much of the rise on a diversion of corn to ethanol distilleries.
"Biofuel demand is the largest source of new demand in decades and a strong factor underpinning the upward shift in agricultural commodity prices," said a report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) this past week.
But US Agriculture Secretary Edward Schafer told reporters Thursday that biofuel production has only pushed up global food prices by 2 or 3 percent. He added that biofuels had cut consumption of oil by a million barrels a day.
What is the impact of this crisis?
Brown argues that the effects of this crisis are very different from the 1970s. Then, he says, the impact was geographical with famine in the African Sahel and Bangladesh. Today, he says, hunger no longer hits just a few specific countries, but hits the lowest income groups around the world.
Still, as incomes rise globally, fewer may actually experience hunger. In many parts of the world, food takes a far smaller percentage of family budgets than it did a generation ago. In rich countries, the FAO says, it has gone from around 30 percent in the 1970s to less than 10 percent of the budget today. In middle-income countries, food costs have also fallen proportionally, though they still take up a sizable chunk of the weekly paycheck (30-40 percent). So the public response this time around has been more anger than hunger.
But in poorer countries, the pinch is felt. "When you look at food as a percentage of the consumer price index in poor countries, it's [still] more than 50 to 60 percent of household spending," says Abdolreza Abbassian, secretary of intergovernmental group on grains for the UN's FAO.
The number of people considered "food insecure" (i.e. who go hungry) is starting to rise back above 850 million, after having fallen consistently for decades to 800 million, according to the FAO.
What can be learned from the resolution to previous crises?
Both the 1930s and 1970s crises generated blue-sky thinking about how to feed the world. The 1970s gave rise to a boost in research and development and the green revolution. "The analogy today would be [to spur research in] GM (genetically modified food)," says Mr. Abbassian. "One of the lessons is to look at research in food technology and whether this has room to improve. People have to look at agriculture from scratch. Research has been neglected for so long."
How much grain to produce one pound of meat?
Chicken = 2.6 pounds of feed
Pork = 6.5 pounds of feed
Beef = 7.0 pounds of feed
Source: USDA Economic Research Service