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10. Facing Food Scarcity

Sources: WORLD WATCH, Dates: May/June 1996, Titles: “Facing Food Scarcity,” and “Japanese Government Breaks With World Bank Food Forecast,” Author: Lester R. Brown

The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture released projections in late December 1995 which show a doubling of world grain prices by 2010. The world prices for wheat and rice will exceed 2 times that of the base year of 1992. Around the same time, World Watch published an article, “Facing Food Scarcity,” which supports the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture’s claim, and according to the World Agricultural Outlook Board, the world’s stock of rice, wheat, corn, and other grains have fallen to their lowest level in two decades. These projections differ sharply from that of the World Bank, which has stuck with its projection of continuously declining grain prices over the same period. The Japanese analysis, along with the World Watch article take into account past experience with biological growth in finite environments (examples include soil erosion, increased population, and land dehydration), while the economists who are responsible for projecting supply and demand of agriculture commodities for the World Bank and at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) do not.

As the world population continues to grow, more and more water must be diverted from crop irrigation to cities for direct consumption. This, along with the loss of agricultural land to housing, creates a drastic imbalance between the number of people and the food production necessary to feed them. The economically integrated world of the late nineties is moving into uncharted territory, facing a set of problems quite different in nature from those faced in the past.

The food shortage will become even more acute in light of the conclusions of the recent World Food Summit in November 1996. Convened by the FAO, the first summit in 22 years forecast that poor countries will be increasingly responsible for feeding their own people, without the aid of wealthier nations. While population is soaring, especially in poor nations, food aid to poor countries is dropping by about half, and the number of hungry people will continue to grow (San Francisco Chronicle, November 18, 1996). With the World Bank and FAO continuing to project surplus capacity and declining real prices, it is difficult to mobilize support for continued investment in agriculture or for the kinds of social services such as family planning that could help stabilize population growth.

SSU Censored Researchers: Amy S. Cohen, Jeremy Lewis Stacey Merrick

COMMENTS: Lester Brown, president of the World Watch Institute and author of “Facing Food Scarcity,” says the subject received some coverage in weekly news magazines and major papers around the world because World Watch released the story at an international press briefing. “However,” he says, “considering the global implications of food scarcity, this subject could stand to have a great deal more media attention, especially in-depth coverage by network TV”

When the Japanese government’s food forecast broke with that of the World Bank, Brown wrote an alert in World Watch as “one of several ‘wake-up call’ stories regarding the imbalance between the limits on food production and the demands of an ever-expanding population.” He thinks wider media exposure of this “would lay the groundwork for a broader understanding of the food security issue. It might also force the World Bank and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to redo their projections using not just economists, but hydrologists, biologists, climatologists, botanists, etc. scientists who understand the finite laws of biology and the effects on food production of higher temperatures, declining freshwater supplies, and cropland loss.”

World Watch Institute seeks to effect change by providing information: to alert the general public to the issue of food scarcity, and to the long-term consequences of ignoring the available information.

“The issue of food scarcity is an opportunity to press for many of the changes in environmental and population policies that are needed not only to ensure food security, but to also build an environmentally sustainable global economy,” says Brown. “We see media coverage on the food situation as a way to increase the investment in family planning and associated social needs, such as the education of young females in the developing world; of accelerating the effort to restructure the world energy economy, moving away from a fossil fuels-based economy toward a solar/wind/hydrogen-based economy; of focusing public attention on water scarcity and the steps to deal with it; and of expanding investment in soil conservation, reducing erosion losses to a sustainable level. It is also an opportunity to help people under stand that food scarcity, and the environmental and population trends leading to it, may now pose a greater threat to future political stability than military aggression.”

Brown believes no one benefits from the lack of media coverage in the long run. “In the short run, the World Bank, the FAO, and policy makers in general are served by the limited coverage, as are multinationals. The World Bank and FAO because … they need not change their way of looking at global issues, in this case, food projections looked at through the micro-lens of economics. Policy makers are served because they do not have to make difficult decisions regarding changes in economic policies that would promote a sustainable global economy rather than the short-term interests of business …. Failing to see the full scope of the food issue, they under-invest in family planning and agricultural research. Limited or lack of coverage maintains the status quo, thus change does not happen, and the public is lulled into a false sense of security that their lifestyles, eating and consumption habits, and family planning choices need not change.

“The changes required to reverse the environmental degradation of the planet (using food scarcity as the engine to drive this change) are tremendous. Governments would need to change the way they do business…”

World Watch Institute released a book in September 1996 entitled Tough Choices: Facing the Challenge of Food Scarcity as a follow-up on this subject. Coverage in major papers followed an international press briefing, yet network TV continues to ignore this issue, according to Brown. “We also convened a briefing for the international press in Rome the day before the World Food Summit opened in mid-November in Rome. This briefing attracted over 80 press individuals and 7 television crews (NHK of Japan, Central Television of China, the BBC, and national networks from Germany, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden). Twenty-six English language wire stories were generated from this briefing. The World Food Summit, relying on the overly optimistic scenarios of food projections of the FAO and World Bank, failed to generate a sense of urgency regarding future food scarcity. Thus, countries will fail to take appropriate action to halt population growth and will continue to under-invest in agricultural research, meanwhile maintaining business as usual.”