Climate Change, Biofuels Threaten Food Security: FAO
Author: Svetlana Kovalyova and Deepa Babington
A farmer rests as others load paddy into a truck in Ayutthaya province, 80 km (50 miles) north of Bangkok, February 20, 2010.
Photo: Reuters/Sukree Sukplang
High and volatile food prices are a growing global concern, partly fuelling the protests that toppled the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt this year. The aftershocks have been seen across North Africa and the Middle East from Algeria to Yemen.
Periods of price volatility are not new to agriculture, but recent price shocks triggered by extreme weather and increasing use of grains to produce energy have caused great concern, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization said.
"There are fears that price volatility may be increasing," the FAO said in its State of Food and Agriculture report.
The growing influence of commodities markets and "counter-productive 'beggar-thy-neighbor' policy responses (to high prices)...may exacerbate international market volatility and jeopardize global food security," it said.
The Rome-based FAO has already warned food-producing countries against introducing export curbs to protect local markets as world food prices push further above the levels that triggered deadly riots in 2007/2008.
A declining stock to utilisation ratio for major grain stocks like wheat and maize is a concern, said Kostas Stamoulis, director of Agricultural Development at FAO's economics unit.
"We worry about this," Stamoulis told Reuters on the sidelines of the presentation of the report.
"As prices increase, governments and others are trying to reduce their stocks to soften the impact of decreased supplies. This is one of the factors causing high prices ... If there is another supply shock very soon, like in China for example, then the shock will happen amidst low stocks."
Global food prices hit a record high in February, and the FAO said last week that further oil price spikes and stockpiling by importers keen to head off unrest would hit already volatile cereal markets.
Food prices are projected to rise over the next decade and stay at levels on average above those of the past decade, the agency said on Monday.
Urgent coordinated international action was needed to ensure security of food supplies, including improvement of market regulation and transparency as well as of statistics on food commodity markets, establishment of emergency stocks and provision of safety nets, the FAO said.
NUMBER OF UNDERNOURISHED UNACCEPTABLY HIGH
The number of undernourished people in the world has fallen to 925 million people last year from an estimated 2009 peak of 1.023 billion, but it remained unacceptably high, the FAO said.
In 2010, 16 percent of developing countries' populations were undernourished, down from 18 percent in 2009 but still well above the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goal to halve to 10 percent the share of the hungry between 1990 and 2015, it said.
The number of hungry people could fall by 100-150 million people if women farmers were given the same access to production and financial resources as men, the agency said.
The yield gap between men and women farmers averages around 20-30 percent, mostly due to differences in resource use, the report said, citing industry studies.
Farm output in developing countries could rise by 2.5-4.0 percent if yields on the land farmed by women increased to the levels achieved by men. That in turn would reduce the global number of undernourished people by 12-17 percent, it said.
"We must eliminate all forms of discrimination against women under the law, ensure that access to resources is more equal ... and make women's voices heard in decision-making at all levels," FAO's Director General Jacques Diouf said in the report.
"Women must be seen as equal partners in sustainable development," he said.
(Editing by Anthony Barker)
UN Links Uprisings To Soaring Food Prices
The UN is warning that a global food shortage is fuelling unrest across North Africa and the Middle East.
Since 1990, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has been tracking the global cost of a basket of food staples, and calculates it has reached an all-time high after increasing for eight consecutive months.There are several reasons behind the tightening food supply.
Firstly, rising oil prices are making it more expensive to process and transport food, and petroleum by-products are also used to make fertiliser and pesticides.
Then there is the effect of climate change which scientists believe may have played a part in wrecking wheat and corn crops across the world: those include storms in Canada, a drought in China and devastating fires in Russia.
There is also the use of corn in fuel. Increasingly, ethanol is being added to the mix at petrol pumps, which restricts supply still further.
Economists also believe a burgeoning middle class across the developing world is creating an even greater bottleneck by demanding a more varied diet, including meat from cattle fed by crops.
The overall effect is being felt keenly by those struggling to make ends meet, even in the world's wealthiest country.
At the Maryland food bank, from where food donations are distributed to some of the 460,000 people living below the state poverty line, they are feeling the pinch.
"People who are living on the fringe get tipped over very easily," explains chief executive Deborah Flateman.
"They are making choices between buying food or buying clothes for their children.
"All of these things have a huge impact on fragile budgets that sends more people into our system."
Stable countries can absorb those effects more readily than countries with a fractured political landscape.
Massod Ahmed, the director of the International Monetary Fund's Middle East and Central Asia Department, believes we are witnessing the effect in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
"The increases in food prices have certainly been an important trigger, a spark if you like, to these demonstrations," he says.
"What the IMF has been recommending is that governments should move towards putting in place permanent safety nets that are targeted to the most vulnerable people in society."
The US government has made it clear it considers a global hunger crisis a national security issue so it has earmarked $3.5bn (£2.15bn) in agricultural development aid.
As food prices continue to soar, and popular resentment finds its voice across the North Africa and the Middle East, a recipe to alleviate food stress must be on the menu.