Globally, we will need to produce more food over the next 50 years than mankind has had to over the past 10,000 years combined. The world’s population is now 6.1bn – an increase of 2bn since 1980 – and it will reach 9bn by the time our children are becoming young men and women.
Producing enough food for 9bn people under ideal conditions would not be a problem – but the conditions are not only not normal, they are becoming more hostile by the month. The rate of land degradation and infertility is galloping. Fisheries are on the point of collapse and the new fashion of growing biofuel crops as an alternative to oil is already causing shortages of food grains.
This stark warning was issued by researchers during one of the largest gatherings of environmental scientists in Iceland last month.
No less than 40% of the world’s agricultural land is seriously degraded. The worst affected region is Central America, where 75% of land is infertile. In Africa, on average, 20% of agricultural land cannot support crops any more. This is a conservative estimate – in parts of the continent land degradation is well over 80%.
But now there is a new danger to the world supply of food. Ironically, it owes its origins to a desire to reduce environmental pollution by searching for an alternative to fossil fuel.
As part of this ‘green rush’ and also because the US wants to reduce its dependency on Middle East oil, US president George Bush challenged American farmers to produce 35bn gallons of non-fossil transport fuel by 2017. The challenge was eagerly accepted as thousands of farmers sent their maize harvests to factories producing ethanol instead of to millers and bakers. As more farmers went into cultivating maize for ethanol, farm land prices escalated, pushing up farming costs all round.
Price of maize doubles
The price of maize has doubled in about two years and since the US is the world’s biggest exporter of maize, the higher prices were passed on to consumers all over the world. The price of food aid destined for Africa and other developing regions has likewise doubled.
Maize is also an important part of animal feed and the rapid increase in price has meant that meat and dairy products, again across the world, have risen sharply.
India wants to plant 140,000sq km with biofuel crops; Brazil already one of the largest producers of soya, has set aside 1.2m sq km and China and Japan, among others, have committed to produce at least 10% alternative transport fuels.
The impact of the higher maize prices has already hit Europe – at mid-September in the UK, the price of bread had gone up 15%, eggs 20% and bacon 16%. Food prices in southern Africa, which imports grains for both human and animal consumption, has gone up by 25% and the rest of the continent will begin to feel the pinch in the near future.
As it is, over the past eight years, the world has been consuming more grain than it has been producing, making up the shortfall by dipping into reserves. There is little relief in sight. “Global grain supplies will drop to their lowest level on record this year,” says the US Department of Agriculture. “Outside of wartime, they have not been this low in a century, perhaps longer.”
To make matters more serious, the vast populations of China and India are using their increasing prosperity to eat more meat-based diets. Producing meat takes more land and requires more feed grain, thus further pushing up global prices.
Africa, with its denuded land, extremes of weather patterns, backward agricultural processes and with the least use of fertilizers compared to any other region, is very far from being able to feed itself and in the grim scenario now being painted, it will fall even further back.
But wait a minute. Jathropha curcas, a tough shrub that can be grown on Africa’s poor land, can be processed into excellent transport fuel. Already some 4m sq km of land in southern Africa has been earmarked for this crop. John Vidal, the environment editor of the UK Guardian newspaper says “southern Africa is being touted as the future Middle East of biofuels”. We have carried several articles about the ease of growing and harvesting Jathropha in the marginal lands in several African countries.
This could be the silver lining in the dark clouds. Palm oil can also be processed as transport fuel – the Malaysians are already busy refining the oil. This could be the signal for Nigeria, Ghana and other West African states to increase acreage under oil palm and look to supply the growing ‘green’ market for biofuels.
But the spectre of diminishing food supplies and increasingly expensive imports will continue to haunt Africa unless the continent can take a united stand to first halt land degradation, second improve land fertility through fertilizer use and third, recycle water for irrigation. GM, drought resistant and higher yield varieties can also be added to the mix.
It is possible, with the technology now available, to slowly but surely reclaim the millions of hectares of otherwise good land and put them under food grain cultivation. If the will is there, Africa has the landmass to eventually become a net exporter of food. At the prices food now fetches, the new oil could well be food.