News & CommentaryArchive
Jun 22, 2009
The Food Crisis, Hovering at the Margins,
A year ago the global food crisis was front and center in international circles. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find the phrase appear at all. But the problems so evident last year have not been solved, they’ve mostly just been displaced from their position at the top of the crisis list. Indeed, this week came news that one billion people in the world are hungry, defined as consuming less than 1800 calories a day—a number that is 10% higher than at this point in last year’s food crisis.
Behind the scenes there’s plenty being done, though with quite dubious potential outcomes for food security for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. A few weeks ago, the Economist featured a special report on what it calls “land grabs” in the world’s most productive agricultural regions. South Korea, UAE and Egypt have all taken long-term leases on more than a million acres in Sudan for instance. Saudi Arabia has launched a $100 million long-term program in Ethiopia that includes the right to bring all food grown in the project to Saudi Arabia. If you’re thinking, “Aren’t Sudan and Ethiopia the sites of recent famines?“, you’re right. Troubling, isn’t it?
Meanwhile, the biggest food crisis of all lurks not very far over the horizon. Improbably for such a potentially devastating issue, the re-emergence of wheat stem rust hasn’t gotten a lot of attention. Stem rust, a fungus that typically wipes out 50% to 80% of an affected field, was the scourge of global wheat production until the 1960’s when resistant varieties were developed and introduced around the world. Defeating stem rust was arguably the biggest contributor to the Green Revolution. In 1999 however, a new variety of stem rust emerged in Uganda (and is therefore called Ug99). There is no variety of wheat in the world that is resistant to Ug99, it is especially virulent and it is spreading rapidly. It has already spread across Eastern Africa, jumped the Red Sea and arrived as far East as Iran. Experts say 20% of the world wheat crop is in “imminent danger.“ It is only a matter of time before it reaches India, Pakistan, Russia and China—all of whom are among the top 10 largest wheat producing regions in the world. Time is not on our side—developing varieties resistant to Ug99 using conventional methods would take nine to 12 years; bioengineering could shorten that time, but only if we get lucky. Which means we could be facing a food crisis soon that utterly dwarfs the last two years.