According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation global food prices have risen by an average of 83% overall in the last decade.
That’s just one statistic from this week’s crop of news reports on climate change, global warming and food production.
Here’s another: global greenhouse gas emissions since the 1850s would have been a third greater without the 1960s Green Revolution, according to the researchers in the US.
Neither of these findings is likely to bring much comfort to the millions of people currently struggling with the effects of this year’s unprecedented rainfall in Pakistan and China, which has displaced at least 20 million people in the two countries, flooded out of their homes, their work and all they own, including crops, seeds and livestock.
Nor will it be of comfort to the Russians, facing their hottest ever summer, with wild fires circling Moscow and risking the loss of at least a third, possibly more, of the country’s wheat crop – due for harvest in September and October but already triggering price speculation on the commodities markets because Russia is the world’s third largest supplier of wheat.
In addition 16 countries have recorded record temperatures this year (2010) and there are severe droughts, leading to starvation in Niger and parts of the Sahel region of Africa.
At the same time US researchers have also found that rice yields are declining in the six main Asian rice producing countries, which they ascribe to global warming and the resulting rise in night-time temperatures. Yields have dropped between 10% and 20% over the last 25 years in some places.
In the face of all this it is hard to tolerate the persistent wrangling between countries in the ongoing discussions ahead of the next meeting in Cancun, Mexico, due in November. Following the disappointing outcome of the last summit in Copenhagen, it’s now being said that the talks have in fact gone backwards.
Even without the mounting evidence of the devastating effects of climate change on weather patterns, and by extension agricultural production, a vast increase in food production is going to be needed to supply the projected global population growth and make some inroads into the scandal that a billion people on the planet are malnourished if not starving.
So what happened in the last “green” revolution and what chance is there of another one?
The 1960s green revolution increased crop yields and cut hunger dramatically in places like South Asia and Latin America by putting more land into cultivation and by using higher yielding varieties of rice, maize and other crops. The result for India, for example, was transformation from a food importer in need of emergency help from time to time to a major food exporter.
Twice as much land as is currently used would have been needed to feed the growing global population at current levels, according to the US researchers. The green revolution used a combination of intensive farming techniques and chemical fertilisers as well as the higher-yield varieties to avoid that.
However, as we now know, there were longer term implications to this method of farming – in the effects of chemical fertilisers on the soil, the environment, insects, plants, animals and sometimes human health.
Lessons have been learned and at least the language has changed. The talk now is all about sustainable farming, natural, healthier foods and a new range of low-chem agricultural products, including biopesticides, biofungicides and yield enhancers, coming from the Biopesticides Researchers that do less harm to the land.
These low-chem products are only part of the mix. There is also the technique of genetic modification although there are many people who are very wary of the unknown pandora’s box this might open.
Changing diet patterns towards eating more meat as the BRIC countries become more prosperous and develop a larger, urban middle class are another factor. Meat production is generally regarded as an inefficient use of land and water, so persuading people to eat less of it, while it would have an effect on the emission of greenhouse gases, might be a tall order in some parts of the world.
Plainly there’s a limited amount of land available for agricultural expansion, not to mention the production of biofuels. Increasingly extreme weather won’t help.
In addition therefore reaching global agreement on efforts to curb emissions in a way that is accepted as fair by all countries is another key to achieving some kind of sense on global warming, climate change and food production. It’s to be hoped that the pessimistic predictions for Mexico in November prove not to be true, since all our futures depend on it.
Copyright (c) 2010 Alison Withers