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Oil + Gas - Food = Rank Stupidity

November 02, 2003
By Raffique Shah


THE Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines food security as "a state of affairs where all people at all times have access to safe and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life." A recent study on food security and the growing world population done by the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture adds: "The only pathway to eventual food security is sustainable human development. This means breaking the vicious circle of continuing poverty, environmental deterioration, and acute institutional deficiencies. To aim for a commensurate food production volume within the framework of such a development strategy, adapted to specific local circumstances, is a must."

That's the production and security side of food. I wish to refer to another recent study that found some 40 per cent of Americans to be obese. That means they are significantly overweight-which in turn means they eat too bloody much, and worse, they eat all the wrong foods. Obesity leads to numerous health problems, from diabetes to heart ailments, kidney malfunction to, well untimely death. But before such obese people die (and this is not to deny that very fit people also die-except that these are minority cases), the strain they put on a country's health system is often incalculable. From their first visits to public health institutions, which cost taxpayers who may well be living and eating wisely, to their being laid up in hospitals for months, people who lead unhealthy lifestyles eventually burden a health system that is already under stress.

Another common denominator among most countries in the world with respect to food security-or lack thereof-has to do with the widespread ill effects of human activities on the environment. I alluded to this in my previous two columns on the subject. Besides global warming, deforestation of the planet continues unabated, reducing the capacity of soils and vegetation to absorb and store water. "Soil erosion by water and wind due to inappropriate agricultural techniques (read "slash and burn" in our case!) as well as the overuse of scarce resources, particularly water, make every effort to improve food security an even more difficult task." The Sygenta study suggests that five to ten million hectares of land are being lost annually to severe degradation. In China, for example, some 6.556 million hectares of arable land were lost to various types of construction and other malpractices in five years (1987-92).

I have made out a case for us to sit back a bit, look at our "Vision 2020 and see if, because we focus so heavily on energy related industries to take us there, and on crime, education, health, infrastructure and related issues that keep electors happy, we are sacrificing what little food security we now enjoy on this altar of skewed development. No one can show me a proper agriculture and food policy that will guide us over the next 50 years. I mentioned last week that attention is being paid to selected crops that seem to be doing well on the international market-cocoa, coffee, hot peppers and a few more. But do these form part of the staples we consume? Most definitely not. They are, in the main, export crops, which means we have not advanced much from the old plantation economy in this respect.

Put more simply, we are stuck in the raw sugar mode that brought us the trauma we are currently experiencing with the belated scaling down of the sugar industry. For more than 30 years people who have an interest in food production and who follow world trends had called on successive governments to restructure sugar. They all failed to act. And when, finally, with their backs against the wall, the current government took action, it did so without thought as to what the industry will look like in 2004 an beyond, or what to do with the "freed up" land. In the latter case, bet your bottom dollar they will lease land to ex-sugar workers on an unplanned basis, that most of the agro-ventures will fail (because of poor soil types), and that they will plant concrete and asphalt on the best soil types.

We can, of course, continue to ignore the global warning signs, say we will garner more than adequate revenues from oil and gas to buy our food requirements, and sit back and relax, we, the Sheiks of the Caribbean. But we do this at the peril of future generations. In fact, we may not have to wait that long. Soon, the prices of basic foods will rise as demand outstrips supply, and then we shall see just how far our oil dollars will not carry us. Around the year 1800, Thomas Malthus, peering into the future of mankind, saw a gloomy picture of population growth being more rapid than that of food, and hunger and mass poverty being inevitable. But with technological progress, more so genetically modified (GM) foods, man thought he had found the ultimate weapon to combat world hunger.

Now, even with GM produce being commonplace, with their higher yields and capacity to resist fungi, pests, etc., we remain very unsure about the future. By 2010 there will be an estimated 6.94 billion mouths to feed. With an explosion of urbanisation, especially in developing countries (58 per cent projection for 2025, 41 per cent currently), and given that these people produce no food (where's that backyard garden?), the future looks even gloomier. The Syngenta report says: "Urban populations are not able to feed themselves by subsistence food production .The amount of high-value (foods) in their diets is higher. As incomes rise for some urban professionals_(they consume more livestock products, the production of which requires more grain or absorbs more arable land."

Except that arable lands are shrinking in those very countries. Ours is a classic case, a country that buried most of its Class I soil types under asphalt and concrete. But mercifully for us, if we can work together with countries like Venezuela and Guyana, we may yet stem the threat of starvation or very high food prices. Before that, though, we need to stem the tsunami of fatty, unhealthy fast foods that the developed world has unleashed on us, consigning us to feeding ourselves to obesity and early death. How many parents stop to think of what they are doing to their children by giving them "chicken and chips" money for lunch instead of cheaper, healthier, home-made food? And does the government, any government, really care about whether or not we have some measure of food security twenty, thirty years down the road?

Don't even think about it. There is no food security policy. None.

Pt I | Pt II | Pt III