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November 04, 2007 07:04PM
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/nov/03/food.climatechange

Global food crisis looms as climate change and fuel shortages bite

Soaring crop prices and demand for biofuels raise fears of political instability

Empty shelves in Caracas. Food riots in West Bengal and Mexico. Warnings of hunger in Jamaica, Nepal, the Philippines and sub-Saharan Africa. Soaring prices for basic foods are beginning to lead to political instability, with governments being forced to step in to artificially control the cost of bread, maize, rice and dairy products.

Record world prices for most staple foods have led to 18% food price inflation in China, 13% in Indonesia and Pakistan, and 10% or more in Latin America, Russia and India, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). Wheat has doubled in price, maize is nearly 50% higher than a year ago and rice is 20% more expensive, says the UN..............

............... "If you combine the increase of the oil prices and the increase of food prices then you have the elements of a very serious [social] crisis in the future," said Jacques Diouf, head of the FAO, in London last week.

The price rises are a result of record oil prices, US farmers switching out of cereals to grow biofuel crops, extreme weather and growing demand from countries India and China, the UN said yesterday.

"There is no one cause but a lot of things are coming together to lead to this. It's hard to separate out the factors," said Ali Gurkan, head of the FAO's Food Outlook programme, yesterday.

He said cereal stocks had been declining for more than a decade but now stood at around 57 days, which made global food supplies vulnerable to an international crisis or big natural disaster such as a drought or flood.

"Any unforeseen flood or crisis can make prices rise very quickly. I do not think we should panic but we should be very careful about what may happen," he warned.

Lester Brown, president of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute thinktank, said: "The competition for grain between the world's 800 million motorists, who want to maintain their mobility, and its 2 billion poorest people, who are simply trying to survive, is emerging as an epic issue."

Last year, he said, US farmers distorted the world market for cereals by growing 14m tonnes, or 20% of the whole maize crop, for ethanol for vehicles. This took millions of hectares of land out of food production and nearly doubled the price of maize. Mr Bush this year called for steep rises in ethanol production as part of plans to reduce petrol demand by 20% by 2017.

Maize is a staple food in many countries which import from the US, including Japan, Egypt, and Mexico. US exports are 70% of the world total, and are used widely for animal feed. The shortages have disrupted livestock and poultry industries worldwide.

"The use of food as a source of fuel may have serious implications for the demand for food if the expansion of biofuels continues," said a spokesman for the International Monetary Fund last week...............

.............. The food crisis is being compounded by growing populations, extreme weather and ecological stress, according to a number of recent reports. This week the UN Environment Programme said the planet's water, land, air, plants, animals and fish stocks were all in "inexorable decline". According to the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) 57 countries, including 29 in Africa, 19 in Asia and nine in Latin America, have been hit by catastrophic floods. Harvests have been affected by drought and heatwaves in south Asia, Europe, China, Sudan, Mozambique and Uruguay.

This week the Australian government said drought had slashed predictions of winter harvests by nearly 40%, or 4m tonnes. "It is likely to be even smaller than the disastrous drought-ravaged 2006-07 harvest and the worst in more than a decade," said the Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

According to Josette Sheeran, director of the WFP, "There are 854 million hungry people in the world and 4 million more join their ranks every year. We are facing the tightest food supplies in recent history. For the world's most vulnerable, food is simply being priced out of their reach."............
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