Saturday, 3 September 2011

Can the world still feed itself ?

When Peter Brabeck-Letmathe speaks, you listen. He is the highly respected Chairman of Nestle. In his weekend interview with The Wall Street Journal published here, he speaks of the increasing danger of food insecurity in the world.

Food prices shooting up, the world over, is a serious cause of concern. This blogger has moaned about it here , here and here . The traditional activist response is to bleat about the evils of globalisation. But here is a world leader giving a simple way forward for what should be done.

His prescription is three fold and simple

- Stop using land for growing corn for biofuel
- Do not maniacally oppose technology in food cultivation, especially genetically modified crops
- Let the market price water for industrial use

I had no idea that this year American farmers would harvest more corn for fuel rather than for feed. This is the outcome of a subsidy policy that has encouraged bio fuel use to get away from the human addiction to petroleum. But look at the consequence for food - a perfect example of how policy in one sector can have serious consequences in another. Single issue activists please note - policy making is complex and interwoven and you can often cause more harm than good by manic obsession with a single issue. If you balance food prices with reducing petroleum dependence, it is not an easy choice. But as Brabeck-Letmather says, we should consider using land only to grow food.

The almost religious opposition to genetically modified crops is , in my view, absurd. We have been genetically modifying crops for virtually of all of human existence. It is called plant breeding. Wheat, Rice, etc as we now it, are all genetically modified. It appears that it is OK to genetically modify slowly, but not OK to modify quickly. World over, there are already laws to look after food safety and there are laws for labelling food containing genetically modified cops. So if you oppose it, that is certainly your right and you are free not to consume it. But to insist that nobody else should do so is unacceptable in my view. Again there is a policy choice. Between letting food prices go so high that some people starve or suffer malnutrition and being scared about the gap between reasonable surety and absolute surety on the safety of such crops. That whole argument has been hijacked by ranting against multinationals, globalisation etc, which is another story and beyond the purview of this post.

The third remedy is interesting. Apparently only 1.5% of the world's fresh water consumption is for personal use - washing, bathing, etc, The rest is for agricultural use or industrial use. Brabeck-Letmathe's solution is stunningly simple. Keep water for personal use free. But let the market price water for industrial or agricultural use. That will ensure that water 9100 litres of water are not used to make 1 litre of bio diesel.

A superb interview which I would strongly recommend for anybody interested in food security for the world.


kiwibloke said...

Hmm. Interesting blog and an equally engrossing interview. I guess in some years from now we will have water riots and water wars! I can see signs of desparation for water not in Sudan and Somalia but in Bangalore and Chennai. Rice which we devour is one of the worst crops in terms of water input and the calorific output. Successive governments in the south of India have led to serious health issues by replacing nutritously balanced diet comprising of various millets and other grains (which are less water intensive) in local populations with cheap 1 rupee Rice schemes. Get rid of rice cultivation, you will save over 80% of agricultural water requirements AND will produce nutritiously better balanced crops!

Venkat.. said...

Till a minute before i am person not in favour of genitically modifying crops, now u made me think about it, i have to read more to agree or disagree. anything when happens in robust speed the effect of it will also be in the same speed, so when we modify the crops in speedy manner we forget to notice the loss.

On recent days how many youngsters in world have taken agriculture or food products as career?? this one big problem and how much % of cultivation land is lossed in the name of development?? we never bothered converting non-agricultural land suitable for cultivation but reduced the % of available cultivation land. this is the common constraint for all countries in food production.

Some day if i start writing my first topic will be on this only. right now my boss is calling for meeting so bye..

gils said...

come to think of it..konja naal munnaadi thaan was reading an article about how water is being projected as an investment option..on par with gold. ithey reason thaan. just a little percentage of fresh water available for serving a world full of people. now this article makes an even interesting case point. hmmm

Ramesh said...

@kiwi - Right. Growing rice in Punjab - can't be more crazy than that. Yes, water wars are likely to be inevitable.

@Venkat - Think about it. There are many sides to the Genetically Modified Crops debate. Interesting point you raise about converting non agricultural land for crop growing - certainly something to seriously consider.

@Gils - Water is certainly likely to be short, but as an investment its a dud. We are not pricing water economically.

Sandhya Sriram said...

amazing interview and an amazing perspective.

every thing comes with a price.

If you read it here

you really feel, wish i had an alternative

and even though you laugh it out here

it is true that any initiative which takes any step towards reducing oil dependency, is a true step.

But now, I am reading the other perspective.

of course we cant let the shieks build more Burj Al Arab at the cost of all our hard earned money but we cant die of hunger either.

they say knowledge is bliss. but part knowledge of every thing makes one quickly form opinions. so every thing is linked to the flavour of the day. so if it is nuclear times, the topic of the day is whether we should build reactors or not. now every one has forgotten about it. today's flavour is inflation, so every one is talking about it and every one has views on it.

end of the day, the one at the helm cannot go with the flavour of the day but with what is right in the long term. its a very very tough decision to make, but alas, no one is actually in that tough spot and neither is he bothered about it. as long as he can keep seasoning the flavour he is home.

Ramesh said...

@Sandhya - Your comment perfectly highlights why I have so much against single issue activists. Issues and solutions are messy. They are never perfect. One thing you do in one place has ramifications elsewhere. A considered on balance solution can always be criticised. Thats why we have flavour of the months.

J said...

There is also the issue of food wastage. I was recently listening to some mind boggling statistics on the radio. In the US the EPA apparently did a study of local municipal waste and concluded that Americans waste about 1400 calories of food per person, each day! There are many ways of addressing the world food shortage and may be a little bit of everything is the practical way to go about it.

Ramesh said...

@J - Indeed. There are many ways of addressing the food problem and as you say a bit of everything is probably needed.

Prats said...

Quite insightful article.

Vishal said...

An eye-opening post, Ramesh and equally engrossing comments!

The water piece of this post inevitably catches my attention. Though CGWA is doing work to ensure conservation of ground water, but I find it too slow and too traditional in nature. One study conducted somewhere at some point of time is still a premise for pricing decisions. The regulation of water prices for industrial use seems to be far from effective. Indeed, a very important step for food security!

Ramesh said...

@Prats - Thanks Prats

@Vishal - Yes, I knew you would have a point of view on water considering you know more about it than I do. Not sure where the problem is on pricing water for industrial use. Consumers might object to pricing, but surely governments can force it on industries.

Vishal said...

Oh Ramesh - You are too far kind.. not that I could know more than you do :) To reflect on your point, I think the problem is more about understanding the crisis that is attached with excessive usage (read wastage) of water. And add to it little regulation by the central govt. and pervasive bureaucracy - emerges a problem which does not seem solvable. Being a subject matter of state, every state has its own way of dealing with pricing issues thus not looking at the entire picture holistically. Though we are giving it back close to 100%, what worries me is how they plan to conserve the water that resides inside or that goes inside..

Ramesh said...

@Vsiahl - Oh I see. State subjects always lead to multiplicity of laws. One example of good conservation practice I know is Chennai where rain water harvesting was made mandatory and implemented well (you couldn't avoid it by bribing somebody). The city which was notorious for water shortages has now become OK for the last few years.

Anonymous said...

This is agonizing. The war of the calories.
Using 10000 lts of water for producing 1 lt of fuel??
The power of incentivies is intimidating!
Pricing water for agricultural use seems to be a great suggestion.

Ramesh said...

@hema - What chance pricing water for agriculture when Indian state governments want to supply even power free to lift the water. Alas.

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