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The coming famine: The global food crisis and what we can do about it

The coming famine

By Julian Cribb
Published by University of California Press
Website: www.ucpress.edu
2010, 248pp, ISBN 978 0 52026 071 9(Hb), US$26

While debate continues on the imminence, causes and likely impacts of global warming, and some sceptics continue to doubt the prospect absolutely, a more immediate global crisis confronts mankind - famine on a scale not previously experienced. The coming famine presents a tragedy unfolding over a mere generation, and its author presents sobering data that cannot lightly be brushed aside. Moreover, as Julian Cribb writes, "This will not be a single event affecting all peoples equally at all times, but in one way or another it will leave no person in the world untouched."

To meet growing demand, FAO estimates that food production will have to increase 70 per cent by 2050. Yet currently, demand for food is rising two per cent per year - a combination of continuing population growth and increasing demand by growing middle class appetites for livestock products - while food production lags at one per cent p.a.

However, with expanding megacities and industries demanding much increased share of water, with oil production past its peak, and cities and leisure facilities expanding over fertile land, farmers are faced with producing more with less. The promise of further scientific advances through genetic modification have yet to be fulfilled, and will have to offer (and quickly) plants that grow with less water, on less fertile soils, and cope with rising temperatures that compromise seed-setting in rice and other cereals.

To address the question of how the coming famine might be mitigated or avoided, Julian Cribb points to three decades of complacency by aid donors and governments that have believed the problems of feeding the world largely solved. "The powerhouses of agricultural knowledge have turned away from agri-science to pursue other technological El Dorados," he writes. "Between 1980 and 2006 the proportion of the world's aid budget spent on agriculture dwindled from 17 to 3 per cent."

Cribb also highlights wasteful use of irrigation water and of fertilisers, and he questions how society can profess food shortages when up to a half of all food grown is never consumed, but lost to pests, is discarded by graders who accept only the most blemish-free for supermarket sale, and that disposed of by consumers who buy and bin more than they need.

At a time of financial constraints, Cribb warns of the stark consequences of continued lack of investment in agriculture since food insecurity invariably leads to social instability, terrorism and even to war: "By neglecting or reducing support for basic food production - as many have during the past 25 years - in order to spread aid across equally deserving causes, the world's donors may unintentionally have laid the foundations for future government failure and conflict." In the words of a Spanish proverb quoted by Cribb, "Civilization and anarchy are only seven meals apart." Admirable though it is to invest in health and education, Cribb infers, such investment is forfeit if inadequate nutrition undermines health, intellectual capacity and social stability.

The coming famine calls for urgent action on a number of fronts, not least in research and the better communication of knowledge to producers, processors and consumers. "For the twenty-first century we need a new model that invests a dollar in knowledge sharing for every dollar in knowledge generation," Cribb insists. And he proposes: "Those who profit most from food - the manufacturers and supermarkets - should volunteer, or be required, to devote a slice of their profits to the agricultural science and communication necessary to secure the future of food supply. The sum required - US$145 billion for research and its communication - is less than one-tenth of the annual global weapons budget."

Policymakers at the highest levels have the responsibility to take the decisions that will see the world either fed or in hunger and turmoil in very few years. This book is for them, for those who advise them, and for all concerned with feeding the world.

Date published: September 2010

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The theme of this book clearly gives a warning to government... (posted by: Maurice Ikaal)

 

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