We have almost reached a tipping point in human history. If it hasn’t happened already, at some stage in the near future – probably in a developing country – a family will leave their rural life behind and travel to a nearby town or city seeking a brighter future. At that moment, more than half the world’s population (3.3bn) will be living in urban environments. But this ‘moment’ is simply part of a continuum that has been taking place for millennia. Though many long-established urbanites may still have a sense of wanderlust (and accepting that millions still live on the land as subsistence farmers), the fact is the history of humankind is one of ongoing settlement and urbanisation. Year on year, the majority of us are moving further away from a rural, food-producing existence to become urban consumers. On the whole, humanity’s urge and aspiration is to give up on a nomadic lifestyle; to leave behind the land and the vagaries of the changing seasons for the ‘greener [more predictable] grass’ of the urban landscape. People are opting for geographical permanence, desiring to contribute to the development of structures that can protect them from the extremities of the elements, an infrastructure that allows for the practice and flourishing of those peculiarly human inventions: business and commerce.
This tipping point has also coincided with another, not unrelated moment in human history: a global food crisis that is being described by the World Food Programme as ‘the new face of hunger’. For this is not a crisis familiar to those of us who might be considered the Live Aid generation, that has so often witnessed the localised starvation of millions of the world’s rural poor through lack of availability of food owing to drought and crop failure. Rather, this is a global phenomenon generated by what can only be seen as a ‘perfect storm’ of converging economic, political, social and natural systems and events, which have seen millions added to the world’s hungry at a time when, according to the United Nations, there is enough food being grown to meet the needs of everyone. With some exceptions, this crisis is largely about accessibility to food, rather than a lack of it, and it has followed the world’s migrating population into the towns and cities, which earlier this year saw unrest, instability and riots in at least thirty different countries.
Though debate still rages as to the extent of culpability, and the level of contribution each element is making to the current crisis, there is a consensus that several issues are at the heart of the problem we are facing. The usual suspects of climate change and drought have inevitably been factored in to the equation. It is true that recent years have seen poor wheat and grain harvests in some of the world’s key grain-exporting areas, such as Europe and Australia, coinciding with those events we may perceive as more commonplace, such as flooding and cyclones in Asia and drought in Africa devastating vital harvests. But the reality is that the loss of grain to the market from Australia and Europe only accounts for around 4% of global production, and ordinarily this could have been absorbed easily by other exporters, had more significant factors not been at play in the world’s agricultural economy.
More notable, and something set to be a continuing problem, are the record oil and energy prices which have more than doubled, pushing up the cost of food production in several ways. Most obviously, perhaps, modern agricultural machinery requires fuel to function, as does the transport needed to deliver the produce to market. But the fertilisers used by high-intensity farming are also oil-based, and these have seen a cost increase in excess of 100% in some countries. In order to cut costs, farmers have simply planted fewer crops, which has had the affect of hiking prices as supply fails to meet demand.
Another factor, which may not be as obvious as the rise in oil prices, is the love affair the world’s emerging economies such as India and China are having with meat, eggs and dairy products. To those of us living in America and Europe, where the consumption of animal protein is between 80% and 130% higher than countries such as China, and where vegetarianism is a lifestyle choice, it may be hard to grasp the fact that for these countries meat is an aspirational commodity. Yet the fact is that, just 15 years ago, many households in this year’s Olympic city of Beijing would have relied on cabbage to get them through the winter months. Now multinationals such as Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco vie to supply the growing Chinese middle classes with the animal protein they crave. The problem is, this is an incredibly inefficient use of the available farming land, for while you can achieve around 130lbs of organic protein from an acre of land, you can only produce around 20lb of animal protein from the same footprint. What’s more, China has one-fifth of the world’s population, but only 10% of the world’s arable land. So it’s not surprising that within two years it’s estimated that China will be importing $4.5bn worth of meat, and as the world has seen with oil, when China starts importing rather than exporting, global prices begin to rise rapidly.
This trend towards higher meat consumption has been pointed to time and again, largely by Western democracies keen to deflect concern away from what is fast being seen as the real villain of the peace – biofuels. In the last decade, bolstered by government incentives, production of ethanol in the US alone has soared from 1,300m gallons to around 6,500m gallons, taking some 30% of the US corn crop, and this despite the fact that there is growing evidence that biofuels are not the climate-change panacea being lauded by politicians. What’s more, despite US Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer’s suggesting that biofuel production only accounts for ‘2% to 3%’ of the astronomical food price rises we have witnessed, recent reassessments by the IMF and the World Bank suggest the role being played by them is far more significant. Quoted in a recent report by Christian Aid, John Lipsky of the IMF has indicated that ‘biofuel policies in some advanced economies are spilling over to the price of key food items … IMF estimates suggest that increased demand for biofuels accounts for 70% of the increase in corn prices and 40% of the increase in soya-bean prices’. Without the growth in biofuels, the increases would have been far more modest and a lot less crippling, especially for the world’s poor who have suffered most in recent months.