Monday, October 23, 2006

WAGGING THE DOG: Economic Growth Leaves Water
Food Supplies and People in the Dust

By Jenna Orkin

October 16th 2006, 2:11PM [PST] - While the world's population grows by 70 million people a year or over a million people a week as the result of economic growth and the attendant ills of urbanization, fuel costs, pollution and those bi-polar symptoms of climate change, drought and floods—our food supply contracts. Poor planning and corruption add fuel of an undesirable kind to the fire.

Citing the venerable Lester Brown, NOW Magazine's Wayne Roberts maintains that a 57 days' supply of food stands between us and famine, the lowest level since 1973 when a similar shortage drove wheat prices up 6-fold1 The idea of such a biblical cataclysm is not mere fantasy. For "reasons ranging from climate to bad economics, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its crop report last month said the current world grain harvest of 1.984 trillion tonnes dropped by 24 million tons [sic] from the 2005 harvest...."Water tables are now falling and wells are going dry in countries that contain half the world's people, including the big three grain producers - China, India, and the United States,' reports the London-based Earth Policy Institute."2

In India, the grain shortfall has led 40% of farmers to say they want to get out of agriculture completely. Thousands of others already have, by committing suicide.

In neighboring Bangladesh, a drought in the middle of the rainy season threatened a third of the country's rice crop.3 And in Afghanistan, the Helmand River has run dry, and drought has created food shortages affecting 2.5 million people. Some crops are down 50%, among them, the country's most important crop, wheat. This may have repercussions for years to come since seeds are also needed to plant next year's harvest.4

While the government lays all the blame for this situation on drought (which is a fact of life in Afghanistan), the population contends that wheat from neighboring countries makes local cultivation unprofitable. Farmers also complain of the lack of financial and material credit, improved seeds, fertilisers and pesticides. As a result more are turning to poppy cultivation.5>

Meanwhile "in China, water shortages have helped lower the wheat harvest from its peak of 123 million tons in 1997 to below 100 million tons in recent years."6 In the southwestern province of Chongqing, as in Bangladesh, 17 million people have also suffered drought during the rainy season.7 6.1 million of them ran out of drinking water completely. Between Chongqing and Szechuan provinces, droughts have caused $1.15 billion loss, many regions producing no harvests at all.8

With growing numbers of affluent citizens consuming more meat, dairy and sweeteners, China, long a corn supplier to South Korea, Japan and Malaysia, has turned importer. Combined with the increased demand for ethanol in the United States, this is making it hard for Japan to get the cheap corn it has come to rely on for animal feed and sweeteners. Compounding the problem is the fact that 2/3 of U.S. corn is now genetically modified which Japanese consumers are understandably leery of.9

In Africa, countries around the Horn are experiencing a drought/flood cycle that has destroyed tens of thousands of square kilometers of farmland.10 Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, supermarkets in the capital city of Harare said on August 15 that they hadn't had deliveries of maize in two weeks. The Grain Marketing Board blamed the shortfall on the severe shortage of fuel necessary to process the maize and bring it to market. (Possibly this was a way of pointing the finger at Equatorial Guinea whose help Zimbabwe has recently sought with respect to its oil needs.)

Despite the difficulties, the government estimated a maize harvest of 1.8 million metric tonnes. However independent sources put the number at less than half that, at 800,000 metric tonnes.11

South Africa's farming, fishing and forestry sector has contracted 33% over the last two quarters12 due in part to last season's over-production of maize which led the producer organization Grain SA to urge farmers to scale back planting this season.

The U.N. Food and Agricultural Association lists the following African countries in crisis mostly for reasons related to food:

AFRICA: Countries in crisis requiring external assistance and main reasons 13
Exceptional shortfall in aggregate food production/supplies

Civil strife, IDPs, returnees and recent dry spells

Drought, IDPs, returnees, high food prices

Multiple year droughts, HIV/AIDS impact

Drought, civil strife

Multiple year droughts, HIV/AIDS impact

Deepening Economic Crisis

Widespread lack of access

Post-conflict recovery period, IDPs

After effects of 2004 drought and locusts

After effects of 2004, avian influenza

Sierra Leone
Post-conflict recovery period, refugees

Severe localized food insecurity

Resettlement of returnees, adverse weather in parts

Burkina Faso
After effects of 2004 drought and locusts, avian influenza

Refugees, insecurity

Central Afr. Rep.
Recent civil strife, insecurity

Congo, Dem. Rep.
Civil strife, IDPs and refugees

Congo Rep. of
IDPs, refugees

Côte d’Ivoire
Civil strife, IDPs, avian influenza

IDPs, low incomes, drought in south-eastern parts

IDPs, refugees, high food prices

Floods in parts

Drought in parts

Drought in parts

After effects of 2004 drought and locusts

Civil strife, returnees, drought in parts

Tanzania, U.R.
Drought in parts

Civil strife, IDPs

In the Americas the generally upbeat U.N. Food and Agricultural Association reports that Cuba is suffering a crisis in the sugar sector that began in 2003. Food aid is being delivered to El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Haiti and in Guatemala to households affected by the hurricanes of 2005.14

Even the fat cat United States is learning that it is not immune to the laws of nature or karma that the rest of the world has traditionally had to bear the brunt of. In the Texas panhandle as well as in Western Oklahoma and Kansas, depletion of the Ogallala aquifer has forced farmers to return to lower-yield dry-land farming. All three breadbasket states have already reported poor wheat harvests15 while the western half of North Dakota has suffered a critical forage shortage16

But the effects of climate change on food have perhaps been felt most dramatically in the Europen Union which is also not accustomed to struggling for the bare necessities. In France, grain prices have gone up 18% and Finland's grain crop is expected to fall 25% below last year's. Grain is ripening early and with kernels that are too small for crops such as malt barley.17 Heat waves and drought have affected farmers in Ireland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Slovenia and the UK. Durum wheat yields in Poland are predicted to fall 13.4% and sugar beet yields in Italy, 25.3%.18 The Association of European Fruit and Vegetable Processing Industries predicted that Poland and Hungary would produce 40 percent lower yields than normal in some crops.19

The good news is, the economy thrives. Like Frankenstein's monster escaped from the lab, it cuts a swath through the global countryside, oblivious to the peasants cowering in its path. Let the world and its peoples collapse by the wayside, the economy will feed on the remains, knowing that its purpose in life is to grow no matter what the cost nor to whom.