Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Food Insecurity: A Core Threat to Sustainability

Have you been following the events in the Middle East? The so-called “Arab Spring” that has been a boon for forecasting pundits of various flavors and colors? Well, I am not going to make any predictions here but I’d like to write something informative about the woefully underreported, and possibly the strongest motive force behind the protests: The Arab Food Crisis.

Yes, this whole political eruption has very little to do with Presidents Obama or Bush, is not driven by a desire for democratic secular or Islamic government -- it is driven by hunger, by not being able to look their children in the eye because the money they make is not covering food expenses. Social media didn’t cause it either.

Indeed, contrary to most reporting, the man who burned himself alive and touched off the region's storm of protests was not “an unemployed university graduate”, but a poor food vendor.

Iran has shown that a bunch of discontented university students cannot stage a revolution without considerable help, this is a broader-based political crisis. Iran has sufficient oil-revenue to buy off Iran’s poor, at least for the time-being.

There is an old Russian phrase: Well Fed Horses Do Not Rampage. People are more like horses than they’d sometimes like to admit – their politics get mighty similar when stomachs start growling and when hunger keeps them from sleep.

Certainly there are many underlying problems and grievances that exist in the Arab world -- and in the rest of the world for that matter. The desire to change many of these things is indeed noble. I'm not commenting here on the rightness or wrongness of the social and political structures that are under attack: dictators, corruption, high unemployment, abuse of human rights, etc -- only making the point that these forces by themselves have not been enough to move people to the streets until you add in the difficulty of obtaining enough food. And that even if these other problems are addressed, yet there is still not enough food - no reform can last for long.

What I am trying to point out is that the Arab world is only self-sufficent in energy production, and in much of that world, they aren't even self-sufficent in that. Because they follow traditional practices in areas like Agriculture, they aren't self-sufficient in anything. Yet, people want to protect inefficient practices in the name of "sustainability" when being uncompetitive actually leaves people more vulnerable.

What has caused all this? There’s several factors that I’ve tried to condense for you:

The World Bank reports that Arab countries import over half their food.

Forty million Egyptians live on less than US$2 a day and 30% of Syrians make under US$1.60 per day.

The Arab population has surged ahead in recent decades. The population of Egypt, for example, has more than tripled in the last one hundred years, yet the entire region is entering a water crisis and still engages in very inefficient small holding farm practices, making it the world’s largest wheat importer.

An excellent report to give you more depth on this topic is the UN Development Programme's 2009 Arab Human Development Report. Look at p. 12 for the food insecurity section. Just one quotation of note from the report:

"The [Arab] region’s low self sufficiency rate in staple foods is one of its most serious development gaps"

Meanwhile a totally new threat to Arab security has arisen that is far more dangerous than Israel or al Qaida: the rise in relative wealth in Asian countries, which creates more inelastic demand pressure on commodities’ prices, which in turn, when supply is constrained, creates sharp price increases, price increases that Arabs in the populous countries very often simply cannot afford.

The well-informed power brokers in the region are hardly blind to this problem; there are voices in Washington calling for massive food aid to Egypt while Saudi Arabia is mostly taking care of its own, stockpiling grain and buying up sub-Saharan farmland leases.

Both countries know how explosive this could be; life in the Middle East is tragically cheap, hunger and humiliation makes it cheaper, and millions of people with nothing to lose, well, even bullets cannot control them.

So, why this downer of a blog post? Well, it doesn’t matter if you read the New York Times’ optimism or the far Right’s fears of Islamic take-over, the fundamentals have been woefully underreported.

In a society where many of the thinkers on sustainability care more about whether their salad greens are esoteric-sounding than nutritious and who believe that it is perfectly fine to insist that per acreage yields be sacrificed for food grown with “heirloom” seeds, accidental DNA, accidental chemistry, and little economy of scale ---- while millions more people are getting hungry --- well, people are a lot less informed then they think they are.

Lest you think I am not enough a “Live and Let Live” type of person, believe me when I tell you I would be perfectly happy if the folks who think that feeding their kids cookies with locally grown, organic ingredients as opposed to a carrot is a hallmark of good parenthood would just keep their policies in their own households -- but they don’t. In fact, they’ve done grave harm to the world’s poor people already with their good-intentioned ludditism, and they want to do more.

Much more.

In just one sad example of many: Something amazing happened following the Haitian earthquake. 135 tons of various vegetable seeds were sent to Haitian ports.

Marching Haitians carrying signs with anti GMO slogans on them welcomed the seeds. These marchers were stirred up by non-Haiti based international NGOs. Some readers no doubt are nodding their heads in approval, but consider three things:

  1. The seeds weren’t even GMO, they were Hybrid; farmers have been using hybrid seeds for over 100 years.
  2. 2. Hybrid seeds produce “heirloom” seeds as their progeny. You only have to buy more hybrid seeds if you like them. Hybrid seeds are just heirloom seeds that have been crossed. Just like farmer Fred did in 1870.

    3. These NGOs did not send the desperate people of Haiti any “organic” seeds, or any other kind of seeds for that matter.

This is hardly a fluke incident. I could write an entire post detailing similar irresponsible ideology-driven tomfoolery going on in Africa. If I get time, maybe I will.

Sustainability can't just be about personal preferences. To be truly sustainable, it must address the growing issue of food insecurity in the world and consider the consequences of promoting inefficient production systems as superior to technologically and scientifically based ones.