Worldwide crisis: The geopolitics of food scarcity

Der Spiegel | 11 February 2009

By Lester Brown

In some countries social order has already begun to break down in the face of soaring food prices and spreading hunger. Could the worldwide food crisis portend the collapse of global civilization?

One of the toughest things for us to do is to anticipate discontinuity. Whether on a personal level or on a global economic level, we typically project the future by extrapolating from the past. Most of the time this works well, but occasionally we experience a discontinuity that we failed to anticipate. The collapse of civilization is such a case. It is no surprise that many past civilizations failed to grasp the forces and recognize signs that heralded their undoing. More than once it was shrinking food supplies that brought about their downfall.

Does our civilization face a similar fate? Until recently it did not seem possible, but our failure to deal with the environmental trends that are undermining the world food economy -- most importantly falling water tables, eroding soils, and rising temperatures -- forces the conclusion that such a collapse is possible.

These trends are taking a significant toll on food production: In six of the last eight years world grain production has fallen short of consumption, forcing a steady drawdown in stocks. World carryover stocks of grain (the amount remaining from the previous harvest when the new harvest begins) have dropped to only 60 days of consumption, a near record low. Meanwhile, in 2008 world grain prices have climbed to the highest level ever.

The current record food price inflation puts another severe stress on governments around the world, adding to the other factors that can lead to state failure. Even before the 2008 climb in grain prices, the list of failing states was growing. Now even more governments in many more low and middle-income countries that import grain are in danger of failing as food prices soar. With rising food costs straining already beleaguered states, is it not difficult to imagine how the food crisis could portend the failure of global civilization itself.

Today we are witnessing the emergence of a dangerous politics of food scarcity, one in which individual countries act in their narrowly defined self-interest and subsequently accelerate the deterioration of global equilibrium. This began in 2007 when leading wheat-exporting countries such as Russia and Argentina limited or banned exports in an attempt to counter domestic food price rises. Vietnam, the world's second-largest rice exporter after Thailand, banned exports for several months for the same reason. While these moves may reassure those living in exporting countries, they create panic in the scores of countries that import grain.

In response to restrictions by these and other grain exporters, grain-importing countries are trying to nail down long-term bilateral trade agreements in order to secure future food supplies. The Philippines, no longer able to count on rice from the world market when it needs it, negotiated a three-year deal with Vietnam for a guaranteed 1.5 million tons of rice each year. Other importers are seeking similar arrangements.

Food import anxiety is also spawning an entirely new genre of trade agreements as food-importing countries seek to buy or lease large blocks of land to farm in other countries. Libya, which imports close to 90 percent of its grain and is understandably anxious about access to supplies, has leased 250,000 acres of land in Ukraine to grow wheat for its own people in exchange for access to one of its oil fields. Egypt is seeking similar land acquisition in Ukraine in exchange for access to its natural gas. China has the most ambitious "farming abroad" goals of all: In 2007 the country signed a memorandum of understanding to farm 2.5 million acres in the Philippines, an area equal to roughly 10 percent of that country's farmland. But this agreement, quietly entered into by government officials, was later abandoned by Manila as rice supplies tightened and as local farmers voiced concern. China is now looking for long-term leases of land in other countries, including Australia, Russia, and Brazil.

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