INSIGHT: Plant nutrients key to tackling world hunger

05 December 2011 11:20  [Source: ICIS news]

By Frank Zaworski

HOUSTON (ICIS)--When the UN declared in July that a famine was under way in southern Somalia, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homeland for refugee camps in neighbouring states, the world was reminded that for many of the planet’s 7bn inhabitants, starvation and malnutrition are horrendously frequent companions.

For the past three decades, since the global food crises of the 1980s, it appeared that increased agricultural productivity was keeping the spectre of famine at bay and out of the headlines, allowing us the luxury of worrying about other things besides food.

In 2011, however, renewed famine and malnutrition in the Horn of Africa are causing suffering in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya while spiralling food inflation has caused riots and revolution from Bahrain, Yemen and Syria in the Middle East to Egypt, Libya and Tunisia in North Africa.

In the developed world, where the availability of food is not generally an everyday life-or-death concern, some critics have pointed an accusing finger at the emerging biofuels industry for taking grain from the mouths of infants and using it to feed ethanol plants instead.

Certainly, higher energy needs have increased the use of biofuels such as ethanol, resulting in tighter supplies of corn. This is proving to be a double-edged sword, providing profits for some while limiting grain to the poor. But the world’s food problems are far more complex.

In his new book Endless Appetites: How the Commodities Casino Creates Hunger and Unrest (Bloomberg Press/Wiley, October 2011), agricultural journalist Alan Bjerga explores global hunger and how to solve the current food crisis.

Bjerga postulates that starvation and hunger are unnecessary today and that each person on the planet can be fed with existing agricultural production.

He suggests that people threatened by famine today could even feed themselves in the future. But to make famine a memory, he writes, we must first stop forgetting about it and explore the ties that bind the fortunate to the famished.

If peoples in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world are to produce enough food to feed themselves, they need access to adequate amounts of plant nutrients.

“It’s crucial that governments establish and maintain fair and honest systems for the distribution of plant nutrients. And not only do nutrients need to be distributed fairly, they need to be accompanied by extension education systems to allow for proper use,” Bjerga said.

“As Howard Buffett has stated, sub-Saharan Africa requires a ‘Brown Revolution.’

“Soil quality and productivity need to be enhanced for a potential breadbasket to develop. That means the right nutrients have to get to the places where they make the most sense, and then be applied properly so the investment is effective.

“As it is, political considerations in some places can interfere with distribution, and poorly constructed subsidies can ensure that the wrong farmers buy the wrong things.

“It’s clear that fertilizers can be a big part of the solution to food security in the regions that suffer from insecurity most,” said Bjerga.

“But it’s not simply a matter of making them available. They have to be the right products in the right hands, used the right way. That’s the key to progress.”

Among the topics in Endless Appetites, Bjerga looks at more promising means of eradicating world hunger through better food security, the role played by more-developed farm economies, how governments contribute to higher, more volatile agricultural commodity prices, and how commodity exchanges have become hotbeds for speculators whose actions reverberate across the global economy in what he calls the commodity casino.

“The commodities casino is the result of a bunch of things that have come together at once to make world food prices swing up and down in ways that have hurt everyone and the world’s poorest people most,” Bjerga said in a recent interview.

“Tighter food inventories, more volatile weather, big changes in oil prices that are a significant part of food costs, and the ability of commodity buyers and sellers to shift billions of dollars into and out of crop futures all have the potential to drive markets in directions that make it hard for consumers and farmers to buy and grow nutritious food,” said Bjerga.

Bjerga said there are many reasons for the volatility of food prices over the past five years.

“A lot of it has to do with smaller surpluses reacting to unpredictable weather – when you have less food available, markets get jumpier when there is bad news,” he said.

There are many reasons for smaller surpluses, such as rising demand in countries that are growing quickly, governments moving away from stockpiling grains and more crops being used as energy sources.

Bjerga said these things take away much of the buffer we used to have. Add to that new ways to buy and sell crop futures, and prices can start to move pretty fast.

Looking ahead, Bjerga said he would not be surprised to see food prices fall again.

“Farmers have an amazing ability to meet whatever needs are put upon them, and will overshoot those needs if given the chance,” he said.

“It is entirely possible that we could be talking about a food glut in the next 5-10 years, and we will hear how the food crisis has been solved.

“But that’s the problem. People outside agriculture see a good harvest and think that food problems are over, and they aren’t. Attention isn’t sustained, and then a bad harvest hits a key region, prices go up, countries become unstable, and people suffer.”

That is the world we are living in, Bjerga said, and the only way to smooth it out is to have more reliable supplies from more places.

“That doesn’t make the US, or Brazil or Russia any less important,” he said, “but everyone would be better off if we had more places to go for food and had more farmers plugged into markets where people could benefit from their production.”

Bjerga writes that the good news is that cooperation to prevent future food-price spikes is rising.

Long-standing battle lines drawn between what is called production agriculture – industrial-scale farming heavily dependent on the latest technology – and sustainable agriculture on often-smaller farms where environmental stewardship becomes an organising theme are starting to blur, Bjerga said.

“As production agriculture grows more sustainable, with more attention to soil and water improvement, sustainable agriculture is becoming more productive.”

For more on fertilizers visit ICIS pricing fertilizers

By: Frank Zaworski
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