Food riots are not only the language of the unheard but today also the language of the hungry. It is not only that human footprint has far outgrown the resource footprint needed to sustain it, but more importantly that the resource footprint of sustainable food supplies has shrunk. In the case of Africa, alone it is estimated that by 2025 the continent’s available food resources will sustain only 25% of the population. More than 40% degradation of arable land has taken place over the past few decades, during which a combination of droughts, soil contamination and mismanagement has led to a structural crisis separate from the food crisis. Lately, some people are suggesting that alternate bio-fuel production is also competing for grains as a source of supply in the age of rocketing oil prices. Together, all these factors pushed wheat prices up 58% and soybean prices up 32% in the past year alone.
Adding to this quagmire of problems is the impact of political and military conflict in some regions that have seriously devastated food production, to the point where sustainable recovery of arable land is highly unlikely. In Iraq, for example, the turmoil has left large tracts of farmland mismanaged or unmanaged; farm production has plummeted. In Gaza and Palestine the turmoil from civil and military strife, both internal and from Israeli incursions, has also meant a deepening crisis and shortages or absence of food for the people. The food price explosion has been seething at the bottom of this mess for some time, and while the oil price hikes have created the impetus for this crisis, there is no doubt that this was a problem waiting to happen.
While the 1980s saw famines in Africa, the fallout of those crises were far less political than what is likely to happen today. This is also because the urbanization of populations in countries like Egypt, Pakistan, India, and China has not only meant a large population shift from rural areas to cities, but also that the new urban populations have given up farming to try a city life where food deprivation is a serious prospect. However, urbanization has also meant a great politicization of these populations, meaning that these people are more likely to protest than be a dispersed population in the rural areas. While the Gulf States of the Middle East are seen as the land of the plentiful given their financial wealth, and while they may be able to afford the higher food prices, they will also have to make the choice, as will the affluent of Europe and America to help the poor of the world. It would be ignorant of them to think that this is not a crisis that affects them. In a global world, irrespective of who created the problem, its effect will be felt by all.
What can be done about it? This is the question that perhaps the earth's six billions people will want to know. But the solutions are not simple, as a major initiative is needed to get food production back on track, bring more land under cultivation, better manage water resources and address urgent waste disposal issues. A change in the political climate will be helpful,l as will the use of more green technologies, without necessarily taking grain from the poor to make ethanol to run expensive cars. This is perhaps the one crisis that can ruin humanity as we know it.
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