World Food Supply Causing Concern

World food supply is shrinking, UN agency warns.

In an "unforeseen and unprecedented" shift, the world food supply is dwindling rapidly and food prices are soaring to historic levels, the United Nations’ top food and agriculture official warns in a New York Times report.

Jacques Diouf, head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, tells the Times that the changes create "a very serious risk that fewer people will be able to get food," particularly in the developing world.

The agency’s food price index rose by more than 40% this year, compared with 9% the year before — a rate that was already unacceptable, Diouf says. New figures show that the total cost of food imported by the neediest countries rose to $107, an increase of 25% in the last year.

At the same time, reserves of cereals are severely depleted, the agency’s records show. World wheat stores declined 11% this year to the lowest level since 1980. That corresponds with 12 weeks of the world’s total consumption, much less than the average of 18 weeks’ consumption, in storage during the 2000-05 period.

There are only 8 weeks of corn left, down from 11 weeks in the same five-year period.

Prices of wheat and oilseeds are at record highs, says Diouf. Wheat prices have risen by $130 a ton, or 52%, since a year ago. U.S. wheat futures broke $10 a bushel for the first time recently, a psychological milestone.

Diouf tells the Times that the crisis is a result of a confluence of recent supply and demand factors that are here to stay.

According to the New York Times report, on the supply side, the early effects of global warming have decreased crop yields in some crucial places. So has a shift away from farming for human consumption to crops for biofuels and cattle feed. Demand for grain is increasing as the world’s population grows and more is diverted to feed cattle as the population of upwardly mobile meat-eaters grows.

"We’re concerned that we are facing the perfect storm for the world’s hungry," says Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program. She adds that her agency’s food procurement costs had gone up 50% in the last 5 years and that some poor people were being "priced out of the food market."

To make matters worse, high oil prices have doubled shipping costs in the last year, putting stress on poor nations that need to import food and the humanitarian agencies that provide it.

Climate specialists say the poor’s vulnerability will only increase, the Times report states.

"If there’s a significant change in climate in one of our high production areas, if there is a disease that affects a major crop, we are in a very risky situation," says S. Mark Howden of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra, Australia. Already "unusual weather events," linked to climate change — like drought, floods and storms — have decreased production in important exporting countries like Australia and Ukraine, Diouf says. In southern Australia, a significant reduction in rainfall in the last few years led some farmers to sell their land and move to Tasmania, where water is more reliable, says Howden, one of the authors of a recent series of papers on climate change and the world food supply, published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"In the U.S., Australia, and Europe, there’s a very substantial capacity to adapt to the effects on food — with money, technology, research, and development. In the developing world, there isn’t," says Sheeran.

In the Times report, Diouf suggests that all countries and international agencies will have to "revisit" agricultural and aid policies they adopted "in a different economic environment." For example, with food and oil prices approaching records, it may not make sense to send food aid to poorer countries, but instead to focus on helping farmers grow food locally.

The food organization plans to start a new initiative that will offer farmers in poor countries vouchers that can be redeemed for seeds and fertilizer and will try to help them adapt to climate change.

(Source: New York Times)

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