Thursday, April 30, 2009

Food crisis

Africa looks on lazily as food shortages surge

We missed on gunpowder, we shouldn’t miss on crop biotechnology

By Asuman Bisiika

Local and international media has constantly reported food shortages and riots over higher food prices. Although the media have blamed it on bad governance in developing countries, food shortages are now like a thread cutting across the entire strata of the development pecking order. However, it is acceptable that Africa’s culture of bad governance and lack of strategic planning compounds food shortages.

That is why there are fears that the now-incessant food shortages could lead to civil unrest; for is it not said that a hungry man is an angry man. Poor masses struggling with food costs driven (whether caused by global oil prices, weather and speculators trading in local market places) is not a good proposition for Africa’s pseudo-democrats.

Over 300 people were arrested in February 2008 in some of the worst violence for years in normally calm, landlocked Burkina, prompting the government to suspend custom duties on staple food imports for three months. But union leaders threatened to call a general strike in April unless prices fall further.

In Cameroon, what started as a taxi drivers' strike over rising fuel costs, metamorphosed into angry riots over the cost of food, high unemployment and plans by President Paul Biya to change the constitution to extend his 25-year rule. Although government said between 25 and 40 people were killed, a human rights group put the toll at over 100.

Famines like the famous Ethiopian one of the 1980s not envisaged. But there is the risk of inflation that threatens the relative economic stability in Africa. Although some governments have introduced price control measure like export caps reduction of custom duties to appease the masses, the people seems to want more than mere tactical responses to what seems to have grown to crisis levels.

Poor food production techniques, coupled with the fact that majority of her people survive on less than $2 a day, Africa is the most vulnerable in this global shortage of food. For Africa, even a small rise food prices is a big because food is the main expenditure in families. It is therefore not surprising that increasing food costs have spawned a rash of violent unrest across Africa. Egypt, Mauritania, Cameron, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mozambique have seen riots over for food costs.

Yet this seems to be a global crisis. A global rice shortage that has seen prices of one of the world's most important staple foods increase by 50% is triggering an international crisis; with countries banning export and threatening serious punishment for hoarders.

Here is a list of some of the recent media reportages on food shortages, rising food prices.

Measures to Curb Asia's Spiraling Food Prices
Governments across Asia have introduced subsidies and have limited sales of staple commodities such as rice, wheat, pork and cooking oil to combat soaring food prices that are pinching consumers at the tills. From India to Indonesia, governments across Asia are scrambling for solutions as it dawns on them that sky-high food prices might not fall any time soon ( Jan 20, 2008.

Over 1 Million Afghans Face Food Shortage Due to Rising Prices
More than 1 million people in rural Afghanistan are at risk of food shortages due to an increase in prices for staples such as wheat flour and vegetable oil, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said today. ( Jan 14, 2008

Soaring Soyabean Price Stirs Anger Among Poor
On Monday, 10,000 Indonesians demonstrated outside the presidential palace in Jakarta after Soybean prices soared more than 50 per cent in the past month and 125 per cent over the past year, leaving huge shortages in markets. ( Jan 18, 2008

Bread Price Sparks South African Protest
The Congress of SA Trade Unions in the Western Cape is to stage a protest against the price of bread outside Parliament later on Sunday. ( Jan 20, 2008

FAO Sees Record World Food Prices Staying
Record food prices are unlikely to ease in the foreseeable future, as high grain demand and low stocks mean the world remains vulnerable to possible food shocks, a United Nations expert said on Monday. ( Jan 21, 2008

‘Either the price drops or the people will rise’
The government faces a popular uprising, similar to the French Revolution, unless it puts the brakes on the soaring bread price. ( Jan 19, 2008

With rice stocks said to be at their lowest for 30 years, prices of the grain have increased by more than 10 per cent to record highs and are expected to soar further. Already China, India, Egypt, Vietnam and Cambodia have imposed tariffs or export bans, as it has become clear that world production of rice this year will decline in real terms by 3.5 per cent.

The impact will be felt most keenly by the world's poorest populations (a greater percentage of whom live in Africa) who have become increasingly dependent on the crop as the prices of other grains have become too costly.

Rice is the staple food for more than half the world's population. This is the second year running in which production, which is said to have increased in real terms last year, has failed to keep pace with population growth. The harvest has also been hit by drought, particularly in China and Australia, forcing producers to hoard their crops to satisfy local markets. With over eight billion people relying on rice, the impact of a prolonged rice crisis for the world's poor, threatens to be devastating. The consequences are visible across the globe.

In Bangladesh, government-run outlets that sell subsidised rice are besieged by queues comprised largely of the country's middle classes, who will queue for hours to purchase five kilograms of rice sold at 30 per cent cheaper than on the open market.

In Thailand, where the price for lower-quality rice alone has risen by between $70 and $100 per tonne, Deputy Prime Minister Mingkwan Sangsuwan convened a meeting of key officials and traders to discuss imposing minimum export prices to control export volumes and measures to punish hoarders. The meeting follows moves by some larger supermarkets in Thailand to limit purchases of rice by customers.

In the Philippines, activists have warned of the risk of food riots and the National Bureau of Investigation has been called in to raid traders suspected of hoarding rice to push up the prices. Fear is so deep that the country's agricultural secretary, Arthur Yap, asked fast-food restaurants including McDonald's and KFC (which supply a cup of rice with their meals in Asian branches) to halve the amount of rice supplied, so that none would be wasted. In addition, traders who try to stockpile rice have been warned that they face a charge of 'economic sabotage', which in the Philippines carries a life sentence.

The shortage has afflicted India, too: The government banned the export of non-basmati rice and also raised the price of basmati rice that can be exported. Although China has said it is secure in its supplies of rice, the fact that the government has offered to pay farmers more to produce more rice and wheat suggests otherwise.

Fears over the potential impact of the rice crisis have been heightened by estimates by both the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, which has predicted the 3.5 per cent shortfall, and comments from the World Bank president, Robert Zoellick, estimating that ‘33 countries around the world face potential social unrest because of the acute hike in food and energy prices’.

There is now a real fear that poor food production and the consequent effect of rising prices is soon to reach level that demands a strategic response. So, what is the strategic response to this potential crisis?

In Uganda, the Parliamentary Caucus of the ruling National Resistance Movement party requested the government to make deliberate pro-active actions to address the ever increasing food cost and its attendant inflationary aspect. The caucus specifically requested the government to waive Value Added Tax on food production.

In Burkina Faso, the government temporarily suspended custom duties on staple food imports. In Egypt, government sought the intervention of the army to help in the supply of subsidised supplies.

In sum, Africa’s response to the world’s food crisis is merely tactical and lacks a long term strategic element of looking beyond the horizon. Which is why, governments should seriously look at the prospect of adopting genetic engineering technology for crop husbandry.

With global haphazard climatic changes, the future seems to lie in genetically modified crops. African political leaders can no longer afford to view biotechnology as a Frankenstein sci-fi fantasy of Western scientists.

The advantages of genetically modified (GM) crops are in themselves a realistic response to the challenges of food production the world over. Biotec crops have improved plant breeding, increased and stabilised yields, improved plant resistance to pests and diseases, enhancement of nutritional content and they can survive abiotic stresses such as drought and cold.

Each year, global population grows by more than 70 million; agriculture is required to produce more food with limited land and water resources. Scientists believe biotechnology holds great potential to help farmers produce more food with fewer resources.

What is holding the mass adoption of GM (biotec is the more acceptable word now) crops back is merely fear of the unknown namely that the long term effects on humans and the environment is unknown.
But after 12 years of use on more than 1.7 billion acres (690.9 million hectares) worldwide without any safety scare, African leaders need to change their attitude about biotec crops.

A 12-year history of safe use should assure leaders that the regulatory regime has been successful. Experts estimate more than 1 trillion meals containing ingredients from biotech crops have been consumed with no reliable documentation of any food safety issues for people or animals. And with a full-blown food crisis on our hands, disadvantages like reduced nutritional value and a difference in taste (which can be improved using the same technology by the way) from naturally grown foods can be ignored.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotec Applications (ISAAA), farmers in 23 countries on six continents are using plant biotechnology to solve difficult crop production challenges and conserve the environment. Over the past decade, they’ve increased the area under biotec crops by more than 10 percent each year, increased their farm income by more than US$34 billion, and achieved economic, environmental and social benefits in crops such as soybeans, canola, corn and cotton.

GM crops are among the most studied and reviewed foods in the world. Using well-established, internationally accepted standards of risk assessment, regulatory authorities worldwide have reviewed all biotech crops now on the market and determined that they pose no more risk than crops produced through traditional breeding methods.

Numerous international organisations also have endorsed the health and environmental safety of biotech crops, including the Royal Society (UK), National Academy of Sciences (USA), the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the European Commission, the French Academy of Medicine, and the American Medical Association.

Over the next decade, biotechnology promises to deliver products that address land and resource limitations, such as improved drought tolerance, saline tolerance and increased yields. The research also will deliver products with direct consumer benefits such as enhanced nutrition, convenience and taste.

Anecdote: On March 28, a report on the global status of commercialised Biotec/GM Crops was launched in Kampala. During the launch, the scientists revealed that scientists at the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) were genetically engineering bananas (Uganda’s staple food).

In support of biotech crop production, Dr. Tilahun Zeweldu, the Ethiopian director of BIOPSTRA International threw a challenge to the audience: we Africans missed on industrial revolution, ICT revolution, nuclear technology, space avionics and many others. Shall allow ourselves to miss on biotechnology? We all laughed.

Yet Dr. Tilahun had touched a raw nerve on African history of misses. The most critical technology that Africa missed was gunpowder; with which contemporary world history is written. This is the reason why the African continent has been on the receiving end on almost every aspect of social, cultural, political and economic life.

The 2007 report on the global status of the genetically modified (GM) crops revealed that South Africa is the only African country with commercial-level acreage under genetically modified crops. The trend of global climatic changes and the population growth points to a future where the world may fail to feed its people. With that scenario, Dr. Charles Mugoya told their audience that that an escape route lies in the development and usage of technology (biotechnology or otherwise).

Like any new technology, the fears of the negative aspects of the biotec are legitimate and should be addressed. However, a failure on the part of the African leaders to provide a strategic response to the incessant famines and food shortages in Africa is unacceptable.

From 1996 when the genetically modified crops went commercial, farmers have continued to pant more biotec crops every year. In 2007, the global area of biotec crops has increased to a 12.3 million hectares (30 million acres) representing a double-digit growth rate of 12%.

In 2007, the number of countries planting biotec crops increased to 23. In their order of acreage strength, they are: US, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, China, Paraguay and South Africa, Urugay, The Philippines, Australia, Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, France, Honduras, Czec Republic and Portugal, Germany, Slovakia, Romania and Poland.

Incidentally the number of developing countries in the biotec cluib now exceeds that of developed countries. Will this give African leaders some confidence to adopt GM foods? Otherwise we may miss on the use of yet another critical technology like gunpowder. ENDS

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