A new chapter in food security

Unprecedented food scarcity is beginning to dictate the rules of a new political order where individual countries are scrambling to secure their own food supplies with little concern for the rest of the world, the founder of the Earth Policy Institute said on Tuesday. Recent manifestations of national food insecurity like export restrictions imposed by some grain-producing countries are the troublesome portents of an “entirely new chapter in the book of food security,” Lester Brown told foreign correspondents in Beijing. “We are in the midst of the most severe food crisis in the world’s history,” Brown said. “This is not your mother’s food shortage... but a chronically tight food situation, a serious and long-term problem.’’

Politicians have been meeting in Rome to find global solutions to soaring food prices and civil unrest caused by food shortages, but in reality many countries are already acting unilaterally to secure supplies for the future. From Africa to Asia, countries are scrambling to buy or lease land overseas to grow crops and feed their people. China, which has to feed the wo-rld’s largest population, has taken the lead by contracting land in Tanzania, Laos, Kazakhstan, Brazil and others. India has set its eyes on Uruguay and Paraguay, while South Korea is looking for farming deals in Sudan and Siberia. Libya and Egypt for their part have been negotiating deals to lease land in Ukraine. The worry here, according to Brown, is that “the more influential countries would be able to secure food supplies, leaving a number of low-income, less influential countries with no food to import”.

“This could create a lot of desperate countries,” he says. The UN says soaring prices of basic foods such as rice and other cereals could affect around 100 million of the world’s poorest people. In Asia, rice prices have almost tripled this year alone, leading many governments to fear the consequences if the poor cannot afford to buy their staple food. To protect their domestic consumers, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and China have all taken steps to restrict exports. This year has seen China’s first grain trade deficit in decades. It has scrapped export rebates for wheat, rice, paddy, maize and soybeans, and it will start imposing export duties of five to 25%.

As the current food crisis unfolded, China’s role as the world’s largest grain producer and consumer has come in for increasing scrutiny. Politicians around the globe are looking at China, which has to feed 1.3 billion people, with apprehension, worrying that any change in the country’s long-held policy of self-sufficiency could have a tremendous effect on the global grain markets. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has said China’s main priority is to feed its own population and that this would be the country’s “biggest contribution to the world”.

The impact of Asia’s export curbs has already provoked riots in Africa and Haiti, places that depend on cheap food imports. The US department of agriculture predicts that high prices and export restrictions will cut the volume of rice traded internationally by 9% in 2008, which will drive prices even higher. At the ongoing food summit in Rome UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon pressed nations around the world to ease a wide range of export bans and import tariffs to help millions of poor cope with the highest food prices in 30 years. — IPS