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Food surpluses in some regions; famines in others




 Food problems







There are estimated to be 600 million who do not have enough to eat. 400 million are actually starving. 2000 million suffer from malnutrition.

Famines are occurring in several parts of Africa. North of the equator the whole Sahel region is at risk but actual famines are taking place in Liberia, Sudan and Somalia. There are three main causes: war; failure of rain; and a breakdown of traditional agricultural practices. Included in the last is the use of land for export crops instead of food.

War causes people to move off their own land and prevents planting; lack of rain is connected with destruction of forests and other climatic changes. Lack of terraces prevents collecting of water; lack of trees prevents rain sinking in.

South of the equator Mozambique is the main location of famine. The cause here is entirely the war which has driven people off their land. Liberia is also facing famine following a civil war which destroyed much of the infrastructure.

Iraq is facing famine following the destruction of power supplies during the Gulf war and a failure to plant crops in land where the Kurds have been driven from their villages.

In the former Soviet Union extreme disorganization of the food distribution and absence of commercial networks may yet lead to famine (but probably not now - 2008 - after some recovery has occurred). There are also worries about China if the communist government there collapses, though privatization of agriculture has already occurred, leading to land being lost to urban building and rice to cash crops. China's import of grains could destabilise the whole world's food markets (some signs of this already in 2007).

In Europe the collapse of the Communist economies produced famine in Albania alleviated by European surpluses. Bosnia has experienced war famine.

The Sahel faces famine during the periodic droughts which may be linked with El Nino events in the Pacific. During 1992 a serious drought developed throughout southern Africa, affecting even countries as far north as Kenya. An estimated 40 million people in this area were facing starvation in September 1992.

The effect of population increase can be shown by the example of Zimbabwe, where a population of 400,000 at the beginning of the 20th century has increased to 11 million. The larger number cannot easily survive the current serious drought - and economic mismanagement.

The Problem of potential famine may be worse as the climate changes. Some areas will probably get less rain than they have been used to. Others may experience more frequent floods. Both reduce food output.

In April 2008 we can see one of the results of the biofuel policy. Food prices are soaring all over the world, partly because of scarcity caused by the diversion of farm production to fuel, partly because oil is the main input into agriculture. This may be the first sign of coming worldwide famine. High prices already cause some people to die because they can't afford to buy. Food riots have broken out in many countries including Egypt and Haiti. Cameroon, Mauretania, Mozambique, Senegal in Africa, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Vietnam, and Bolivia have all seen protests about rising prices.

The Climate events of 2010 show a major reduction in the production of wheat from Russia, caused by the extremely high temperatures, drought and forest fires, after a shift in the Jet Stream that also brought extreme floods to China, Pakistan and Niger in West Africa. The floods in Australia also reduce wheat production.

One poor harvest is enough to produce famine.

In 2011 the main area suffering famine (officially declared by the UN) is the Horn of Africa: Somalia, parts of Ethiopia, northern Kenya and Uganda. In this area the expected rain has failed many times and cattle herders have lost all their animals. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing the land to emergency camps to be supplied by Food Aid from UN stocks that are low already.

A contributory factor is the absence of government in Somalia where some of the fighting groups have forbidden UN and other agencies from delivering food.

The main cause is probably a La Nina event in which the western pacific is warmer than usual.

The Indian Ocean Monsoon in 2012 has been diminished. Notable famine is occurring in Yemen.

A drought across most of the United States in 2012 is causing a crop loss. Details here: Crop loss 2012.



Possible Solutions

The world food economy is unbalanced; some parts are more productive than others. Can the European surpluses be used to feed the starving? Yes and no. Yes, they can be used for emergencies. But, no, if they are habitually sold at a subsidized price they discourage local farmers who cannot compete against the price of cheap imported grain. Therefore it is best to encourage by suitable prices and other means local farmers to feed their own people. Another problem is that if wheat or rice are sent as emergency supplies to areas where these are not the staple foods people may get a taste for them and prefer them to their own foods. This creates a demand for imports. Many African countries import at great expense wheat for bread because they can't grow it. (An alternative is to make flour from Maize, Millet, Sorghum and Cassava).

The long term solution is to face the effects of population growth and learn the lesson well known to people on small islands: that there is a limit to the number of people who can live in any given territory. This is especially true of areas like the Sahel and much of Australia with uncertain rainfall. The whole world is in reality a small island.

Only if a population can produce saleable goods with which to buy food can this rule be ignored, but it would be best to expect such a solution to be temporary. Long term security must bring food production and consumption into balance. At some time the number of consumers must cease to increase.

Some reporters believe the present WTO negotiations may be working against the interests of third world countries by insisting that they abandon subsidies to farmers intended to make them self-sufficient in food. The United States is insisting on other countries giving up export subsidies and importing countries to remove import restrictions. (This although the US subsidizes its own farmers, as much as Europe does and shows no sign of ceasing to do so).

Global debt contributes to malnutrition as in many countries the emphasis on cash export crops is caused by the need to attempt to pay off the debt.

Food Surpluses
For the second half of the 20th century there were food surpluses in the western countries, using industrial farming methods.

Many of the existing policies are the response to past famine, as in Europe in 1944-6. All European peoples faced famine during and immediately after the second world war when imports were impossible. Governments then determined on policies to prevent any future dependence on imports. The result has been food surplus, which ought to be a lesser problem than deficit. However, there is also a question about the quality of such subsidized food: some scientists say that if it is derived from the application of large quantities of nitrogen fertilizers the food quality may be a source of ill health - such as the widespread Obesity experienced in many countries, possibly a result of the lack of trace elements in the soil. It may also be the result of mining soil fertility or the application of non-renewable fertilizer additives. There is a limit to the amount of fertility which can be mined. The soil then ceases to produce. This points to the need to adopt organic methods with perhaps remineralisation. But there would then be a more urgent need to control the number of consumers.

Those countries dependent on the American Corn Belt are at risk if Global Warming causes more frequent droughts similar to that in 1988 when world food stocks fell dangerously and the US consumed more than it produced. Another serious drought has occurred in 2012.

European politicians, such as former Prime Minister Thatcher, who complain about the cost of European food reserves - the "grain mountain" - may be short sighted. As in the story of Joseph in the book of Exodus, it might be wise to be prepared for seven bad years.

But it would also be wise not to turn food into motor fuel as was the policy of the second Bush regime in the US - a potential disaster mainly to provide subsidy for potential rightwing voters.

In India Jatropha plants are being promoted for motor fuel. But in practice they are being planted on land at present used to grow food. That provokes a situation as bad as turning 25% of the US maize production into alcohol. People really must not rely on biofuel for personal transport.

Comment on political causes of famine

Some industrialised countries have been attempting buy land in poorer countries on which they plan to grow food. One scheme was for South Korea to grow its food in Madagascar. This was so unpopular that a popular revolt deposed the president who signed the agreement. Another is for the United Arab Emirates to grow food exclusively in Sudan. They hope there will be no popular uprising there.

Here is an article on this.

Last revised 9/08/12


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