The world is on the brink of a food “catastrophe” caused by the worst US drought in 50 years, and misguided government biofuel policy will exacerbate the perilous situation, scientists and activists warn.
When food prices spike and people go hungry, violence soon follows, they say. Riots caused by food shortages – similar to those of 2007-08 in countries like Bangladesh, Haiti, the Philippines and Burkina Faso among others – may be on the horizon, threatening social stability in impoverished nations that rely on US corn imports.
This summer’s devastating drought has scorched much of the mid-western United States – the world’s bread basket.
Crops such as corn, wheat, and soy have been decimated by high temperatures and little rain. Grain prices have skyrocketed and concerns abound the resulting higher food prices will hit the world’s poor the hardest – sparking violent demonstrations.
Early dryness in Russia’s wheat growing season, light monsoon rains in India, and drought in Africa’s Sahel region, combined with America’s lost crop, mean a perfect storm is on the horizon.
Surging food prices could kick off food riots similar to those in 2008 and 2010, Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex Systems Institute, told Al Jazeera.
“Recent droughts in the mid-western United States threaten to cause global catastrophe,” said Bar-Yam, whose institute uses computer models to identify global trends.
Hopes were high in May of a bumper corn crop this year, but sizzling temperatures in June and July scuttled those predictions. US corn yields are now expected to be the lowest in 17 years.
The United States accounted for 39 per cent of global trade in corn in 2011-12. Stockpiles are now down 48 per cent, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Corn prices have shot up 60 per cent since June 15.
Corn is a primary staple in Sub-Saharan Africa, and in much of Central and South America. In South Africa, the cost of maize has increased about 40 per cent in the last year, even before the US drought struck.
Bar-Yam highlighted the food riots of 2007-08 and 2010-11 that were fuelled by sudden and dramatic spikes in food prices. He said his institute recently entered data from the US drought into its computer model, which predicted the outbreak of food-related unrest “in a short period of time”.
“When people are unable to feed themselves and their families, widespread social disruption occurs,” Bar-Yam said. “We are on the verge of another crisis, the third in five years, and likely to be the worst yet, capable of causing new food riots and turmoil on a par with the Arab Spring.”
Fighting for food
While Americans and other Westerners will largely escape the financial pain spawned by the drought, impoverished people around the globe won’t be so fortunate.
People in wealthy industrialised countries spend between 10 to 20 per cent of their income on food. Those in the developing world pay up to 80 per cent. According to Oxfam, a one per cent jump in the price of food results in 16 million more people crashing into poverty.
More than 60 food riots occurred worldwide between 2007 and 2009, when rapidly rising commodity prices wreaked havoc on family budgets.
Are we heading for a global food crisis?
The world is not yet in a food crisis, said David Hallam, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s director of trade and markets.
“We’re a long way from that … Some of the elements that we saw in 2007-08 are very much missing at the moment”, Hallam told Reuters. He said wheat stocks were currently stable, and a bumper rice crop was still expected later this year.
But he added: “We are in a very vulnerable situation in markets, and any further supply-side shocks or any disruptive policy actions that individual countries might take could add further to the problems we have and create turmoil in markets.”
Hallam said wheat production in Russia was a wildcard in the food-crisis equation. Russian wheat crop yields look lower than expected, but just how much lower is the major question, he explained.
Export bans and panicked-buying by governments would only compound the problem, said Hallam.
The International Food Policy Research Institute – a Washington- based organisation that monitors food prices – warned last week a global crisis could “hit us very soon”.
Director-General Shenggen Fan said using corn for ethanol in automobiles needed to be halted. “That actually pushed global food prices higher and many poor people, particularly women and children, have suffered,” Fan told Bloomberg.
The folly of food for fuel
The United States uses about 13 per cent of global corn production for biofuels. About 37 per cent of this year’s corn crop is earmarked for ethanol production.
The biofuels industry says it has helped combat climate change and reduced American reliance on foreign oil, lowering its dependence on imported oil from 60 per cent to 45 per cent since 2007.
Industry group Growth Energy challenged those who “tie biofuel production to alleged increased food prices”. CEO Tom Buis blamed high oil prices and “Mother Nature”.
But many question whether using corn to fuel vehicles is justified with food prices rising. “Given the possibility of price-driven famines, burning corn for cars is unconscionable,” Professor Bar-Yam said.
Robert Bryce, author of Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, agrees, adding ethanol as a fuel is grossly inefficient.
“There should be an immediate, global, prohibition placed on the use of food crops for fuel production,” said Bryce.