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Current Biology Vol 20 No 13 R542
Grain drain A new report suggests food costs are set to soar. Nigel Williams reports. After the price hike and panic two years ago when grain prices reached record levels, recent harvests have generally been good and prices have stabilised. But a new report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggests that many challenges lie ahead. Food prices are likely to rise by as much as 40 per cent over the next 10 years amid growing demand from emerging markets and for biofuel production, the new report suggests.
The report predicts that there will be a production boom in emerging markets such as Brazil and China that will help supply keep up with demand, but campaigners are worried that the supply will not reach those in increasing need. There’s a concern that the prospect of rising prices will lead to investors and sovereign wealth funds buying land and threatening traditional local producers. While the report expects grain prices to be 15–40 per cent higher, it believes vegetable oils will be more than 40 per cent higher and dairy produce prices up by 16–45 per cent. Surprisingly, the report concludes that the cost of livestock is likely to be less marked on the whole, in spite of the world demand for meat increasing faster than other farm produce, as people in some
developing markets change their dietary habits. “Sustained economic growth in emerging markets is an important factor underpinning growing demand and higher prices. Continued expansion of biofuel output — often to meet government targets — will also create additional demand for wheat, coarse grains, vegetable oils and sugar. Increasingly, higher production costs add upward pressure on prices, particularly where energy is used intensively.” The report sees global agricultural output growing more slowly over the next decade than in the past 10 years but nevertheless remains on track with previous estimates to meet the 70 per cent increase in world food production required to meet the market demand of estimated population levels in 2050. Brazil is by
Demand: The market for grain is expected to rise sharply, according to a new report. (Photo: Radius Images/Alamy.)
far the fastest growing agricultural producer with output expected to increase by more than 40 per cent between now and 2019. Production growth is also expected to be well above 20 per cent in China, India, the Russian Federation and the Ukraine. But the report warns that increased global food production could still lead to a large section of the global population going hungry. Although the world produces enough food for the population, recent price rises and the economic crisis have contributed to a rise in hunger and food insecurity. “About one billion people are now estimated to be undernourished,” the report says. It argues that agricultural production and productivity will need to be stepped up, while a well-functioning, rule-based trading system will be crucial to fair competition and to ensure that food can be moved from surplus to deficit production areas. Retail food prices initially remained high in many countries after the world commodity prices had fallen in the wake of the price surge in 2007–2008. As commodity prices fell, the contribution of food price increases to inflation fell sharply in 2009 in OECD countries but remained a key factor in some developing and emerging economies. Higher food costs, if sustained, will undermine food security, especially for the poor who spend a significant share of their budgets on food. “The agriculture sector has shown resilience to recent price shocks and the economic downturn. On the whole, this year’s outlook is cautiously more positive than in recent years. But, going forward, governments should implement measures to ensure that farmers have at their disposal better tools to manage future risks, such as production contracts, insurance schemes and futures markets,” the heads of the FAO, Jacques Diouf, and the OECD, Angel Gurria, said. “The role of developing countries in international markets is growing quickly, and as their impact grows, their policies also have an increasing bearing on conditions in global markets,” said Diouf. “Policy discussions must be global in scope, and we need to improve the framework for such exchange of views.”
Future proofing A low carbon future might not be so difficult. Nigel Williams reports. The Gulf oil spill has focused minds on our dependence on oil and the environmental consequences of that demand. While there is much talk about how to reduce our need for fossil fuels, planning for this future is lagging behind. But there is encouraging news in a new report from the Centre for Alternative Technology in the UK, backed by four universities and the Meteorological Office. It claims that, in just two decades, the country can eliminate greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 637 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Ninety per cent of this would be achieved by ending wasteful uses of energy, increasing renewable electricity and heating and transforming land use and farming. The remaining 10 per cent would be offset by capturing the equivalent emissions from the atmosphere by growing willow, ash, pine and oak and other trees on land freed up by the near elimination of animal grazing. The blueprint envisages mass insulation of homes and offices, with smaller, easier to heat rooms; electric or biofuel vehicles; much less flying and driving and more public transport;
generation of a lot more renewable electricity using a range of clean sources, especially offshore wind; and a ‘revolution’ in diets to cut out a huge source of methane from livestock and free land to grow crops and biofuels. Despite setting a more ambitious timetable than demanded by Britain, the pace and scale of the transition are “entirely possible”, said Viki Johnson of the new Economics Foundation, one of the report’s authors. “The solutions exist — what has been missing to date is the political will to implement them.” The report highlights the shifts it believes are needed. Workers from traditional energy-intensive industries, such as steel and cement, need to shift to work on insulating millions of buildings or go back to working on the land. Dinner may be a roast, but it will be poultry or pork because rearing lamb and beef take up too much land and emit too many greenhouse gases, the report says. Mangoes and bananas will become luxuries under proposals to halve food imports. The report sees a radical change in the country’s landscape: instead of green cattle pastures there are millions more hectares devoted to vegetables, grain, and trees for biofuels and building. Cars are electric, and many drivers borrow from car clubs or lease rather than own them. Airlines no longer fly short distances and long-haul trips are a treat or rare necessity, it suggests.
Overhaul: Traditional farming may be history in a low-carbon future. (Photo: Laurie Campbell — http://www.lauriecampbell.com).