Bolivian authorities say at least 30 people have been injured in a fight between 2 communities over land for growing quinoa, the Andean"supergrain" whose popularity with worldwide foodies has caused its price to soar. Oruro statepolice chief Ramon Sepulveda says combatants used rocks & dynamite against each other last week. A government commission was dispatched to the 2 high plains communities south of La Paz. Farmland in the region is owned not by individuals but communities. Authorities say the dispute is related to climate change because quinoa can now be cultivated in areas previously subject to frequents frosts. Bolivia produces 46% of the world's quinoa, which has nearly tripled in price in the past 5 years & has effected eating habits in Bolivia as domestic consumption of the nutritious grain has fallen by more than a 3rd, prompting fears of an obesity epidemic as Bolivians switch to rice & white bread. (Read More at Foreign Policy)
PEACEMEAL - the philosophy that world food unites us all. Recipes, Reflections, Remembrances.
By John Feffer
Come October, Atlas won't be shrugging, he'll be groaning as global population passes the 7 billion mark. Until very recently, demographers predicted that these numbers would peak in 2050 at just over 9 billion and then start to decline. The latest research, however, suggests that despite declining fertility across much of the world, population will continue to rise through this century to over 10 billionpeople.
With famine spreading in Somalia, another food crisis gripping North Korea,global food prices near a record high, and climate change threatening to reduce future harvests, the question continues to nag: are we outstripping our capacity to feed ourselves?
The good news is that the harvests this year promise to be bountiful. The bad news is that this increased grain production may still not be enough. The worse news is that millions more mouths to feed, over the long term, will increase pressure on the world's farmers to squeeze more and more food from less and less arable land.
In 2010, the world dipped into food reserves to make up for a 60-million-ton shortfall in grain production. This year, predicts the Earth Policy Institute's Lester Brown, farmers will have to produce 100 million additional tons to meet last year's needs plus the increased demand. Based on a number of factors – better harvests in Russia versus droughts in China and the U.S. Midwest – Brown expects only an increase of about 80 million tons for 2011. The bottom line: food prices will continue to rise.
But that's just the short term. Most estimates of grain needs in 2050 suggest that production will have to increase by 70 percent. That means somehow conjuring a billion-plus tons of grain from the already strained resource base of Mother Earth.
There are basically four schools of thought on how to feed the world. The biotech crowd believes that genetic modification will eventually spur another Green Revolution that will dramatically boost yield per acre. The organics faction believes that industrial farming techniques have drained the aquifers and robbed the topsoil of nutrients, among other ecological ills, and only natural farming techniques can restore soil fertility and produce sustainable yields. Somewhere in the middle is the status-quo-plus gang, which believes that improvement of current practices can meet the needs of a growing world. And the fourth school is…well, I'll get to that in a moment.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which now make up the vast majority of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States, have not lived up to the claimsof their most fervent cheerleaders. The main problem with GMOs, as far as I'm concerned, is their tendency to intensify industrial agriculture, which relies on heavy inputs of energy, fertilizer, pesticides, and water. I would not rule out the possibility of a next-generation GMO someday proving useful in a sustainable way, for instance in conjunction with no-till agriculture. But this particular brand of biotech is certainly no magic bullet.
The argument that organic farming can feed the world has gotten a boost from several recent studies, including one at the University of Michigan that showed that organic yields can be three times that of conventional yields in developing countries, and research at Cornell on how organic and local farming can cut energy inputs into agriculture by 50 percent. But organic farming is not a magic bullet either. As the sector gets larger, particularly here in the United States, it has come to resemble its hated industrial rival by adopting pesticides and monocropping and all the other trappings of Farming, Inc. Yes, small-scale organic farming has garnered considerable success in the developing world, for instance in the Philippines. But traditional, less intensive farming has also failed us in the past. As Jason Clay writes in his magisterial World Agriculture and the Environment, "Some of these less intensive farming systems have failed, and often population densities have pushed cultivation levels beyond what is sustainable. There is ample evidence that parts of the Andes, Mesoamerica, North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, South and Southeast Asia, New England and even the Great Plains (to name but a few) were overfarmed to the point of degradation or collapse using 'traditional' forms of agricultural production."
The third path, status-quo plus, basically tweaks the existing approach to farming in the developing world and makes it a good deal more productive. One increasingly famous example comes from Malawi, the small African country of 15 million people that juts into Mozambique. About five years ago, President Bingu wa Mutharika began a subsidy program so that farmers could buy seeds and fertilizer at below-market rates. "Despite concerns from the World Bank and the UN, President Mutharika promoted Malawi’s agriculture sector and decreased poverty from 52 percent to 40 percent while turning Malawi into a food basket not only for its people but also for export," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Simone D'Abreu in Malawi Makes, Africa Takes. This "Malawi model" also relies on improving infrastructure, providing training for farmers, bringing more arable land under cultivation, and building up soil health through agro-forestry. The Malawi model challenges the conventional wisdom of the World Bank on the need for privatization, not state agricultural subsidies, but its approach to farming is relatively conventional. Using more fertilizer, after all, was a Green Revolution innovation more than 40 years ago.
Mutharika, who has been in the news recently for violently suppressing his political opposition, wants to apply the Malawi Model to the continent as a whole. This African Food Basket initiative aims to make Africa food-secure within five years. That’s unrealistic, perhaps, but there's no denying the urgency. Malawi's population, for instance, is expected to increase more than eight-fold by the end of the century, with the population of Africa as a whole likely to triple from 1 billion to 3.6 billion.
For the most part, these three approaches of biotech, organic, and status-quo plus focus on boosting production. But there's a fourth way to address the upcoming supply-demand crunch. Let's call it the Waste Not, Want Not approach.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, we waste or lose about one-third of all food produced for human consumption. That's about 1.3 billion tons of food. Everyone is implicated in this tragedy: consumers who throw out food, institutions that let food spoil, processors that "sort out" huge amounts of produce deemed unsatisfactory, facilities that expose their stocks to rodents through improper storage, transporters who lose food along the way, and growers who leave food behind in the field.
Remember your mother shaming you into eating all the food on your plate because of all the starving people in the world? Now multiply those uneaten Brussels sprouts more than a trillion times.
On the topic of eating all the food on your plate, well, that's a problem, too. Obesity has assumed near-epidemic proportions. In the United States, less than 10 percent of the population was obese in 1985, but that figure has now risen to nearly one-third. It's not just the global north. In the developing world, you can find obesity rates nearing 40 percent in countries like Brazil and Colombia.
A related issue is meat consumption. Imagine eating 16 pounds of grain in one sitting. That's what you do, essentially, when you consume a 16-ounce steak, since it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef (as well as 2,500 gallons of water). Eating meat, in other words, is a fancy way of over-consuming resources. And this over-consumption is just getting more over the top. Global production of meat is expected to double by 2050 to meet the growing demand, particularly in the developing world.
Perhaps the ultimate in "waste not" would be to shift over to eating insects and turn our exterminators into hunter-gatherers. Fried grasshoppers, according to a fascinating article by Dana Goodyear in The New Yorker, have three times as much protein as their equivalent weight in beef. Insects already provide an important source of food for many people. Indeed, in certain parts of the world, increased pesticide use as part of industrial agriculture has killed off or poisoned the grasshoppers that provided essential protein, especially for children. Talk about monocropping destroying diverse local eating habits.
For now, at least, insects are definitely a "want not" rather than a "waste not" for most Americans. Still, even if we don't embrace bedbug burgers any time soon, we have to take the lead in transforming our appetites. According to World Watch, if you divide the population of the earth by the amount of biologically productive land, every human today gets about 1.9 hectares to supply their resource needs. The average American, however, lays claim to 9.7 hectares. Boosting food production won't mean anything if the lion's share continues to go to the gluttonous. If we're going to feed the world, we're going to have to feed ourselves a lot less extravagantly.
This article was originally published by Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
As I was sipping my morning coffee today, I was nudged by a small epiphany that everything we do has the ripple effect that can touch the lives of people halfway around the world. The thought was spawned by the sugar that I stirred into my cup, and it took me through a whirlwind thought of supply-and-demand, island living, field workers in developing countries, dictatorships and revolutions, capitalist greed and living on the earth in a cyclically sustainable manner.
Maybe I was thinking about all these things because I recently finished reading a great book by an amazing Dominican-American author, Junot Diaz called, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." The novel provides a fascinating look into the Dominican Republic under the Trujillo dictatorship (the era ended with Rafael Trujillo’s assassination in 1961) and describes some intense sugar cane scenes where you can practically hear the reeds clacking against each other.
My native island of Trinidad produces (but stopped exporting about two years ago) the white, refined sugar we dissolve into our morning coffee or tea. Sugar’s by-product, molasses, is often used in the fermentation of distilled liquors, such as rum (producing that gold or dark color). Molasses is also sometimes added to pipe tobacco and shishah in the Middle East as a flavoring agent, and it is even used as a nutritional additive. (Believe it or not, molasses is a source of calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron, which is why it is not only used as a source of minerals is human foods, but also for livestock feed.)
The production of sugar is not just an island phenomenon, it is a major money-maker for some of the world’s largest and most-heavily populated countries. In 2008, Brazil, India and China were the top three producers of sugar cane, producing more than a billion metric tons of sugar valued at more than $22 billion. (see chart)
The smell of refining sugar cane is unique and shared by developing countries around the world. Floating over the warm salty breeze from the day, you can detect the smoke. It is a sweet, light smoke that meanders and sticks in your nostrils. Flowing beneath the island breezes are the dark undercurrents of molasses and burnt caramel.
Sugar Fuels Machines and Big Business
Born on a small Caribbean island and having lived on the small Pacific island of Maui (see my commentary on the taro root), where I speak a little of what I learned during my time there, I have come to associate that smell with island life and island living. While the smell of sugar cane production brings sweet memories to me, it probably floats black snow on the backs of those who toil behind the scenes—those who were imported as debt-slaves to work the land.
That island burning smell? The billows of smoke along the horizon? That’s the smell of big money—much bigger than the cash made on the world food market. The non-culinary potential of sugar cane is almost more fascinating. Because molasses can be fermented to produce ethanol, which can power motor vehicles, the business potential for growing sugar cane just got sweeter. (Imagine no more deep drilling to get to crude oil.)
Unfortunately, with heightened capital opportunity comes increased opportunism, accompanied by human rights abuses. Many of these countries continue to struggle with human rights issues, including debt-slavery among agrarian workers, child labor, and even the eviction of Cambodian landowners to make way for foreign-owned sugar plantations seeing big money in biofuels.
My thoughts drifted this morning to the field hands who would work alongside Maui’s Pu`unene highway. I don’t know if they were subject to human rights abuses, but I do hope that their hand in helping produce biofuels translated to lower energy costs in their homes—or some other direct benefit to them and their families.
Next time you sprinkle granulated sugar on your funnel cake, just think that there’s more than sweetness in that carnival bite, there’s history, national identity, whole i