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More of the same won't solve the food crisis

An intensifying global climate and farming emergency is threatening the security and affordability of food while leading international agencies view the crisis as an investment opportunity.

In the UK, the wettest autumn on record, followed by the coldest spring in 50 years has devastated spring wheat. Normally at this time of year UK farmers would export 2.5m tonnes – this year food processing companies will import a similar amount.

In central Europe, the state of emergency continues in the aftermath of unprecedented flooding wreaking havoc across Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. At least 18 people were killed, and tens of thousands evacuated.

The European Union is struggling to count the cost in lost production, but the areas affected by the floods and heavy rains are amongst some of Europe's key farming areas, including in Italy.

In the United States, wildfires are raging in drought affected south west states of Colorado, New Mexico, California and Oregon.

Every US state west of a line from Minnesota in the north to Mississippi in the south (with the exception of the far north states on the border with Canada) is now entering a second year of drought. Some 80% of US agriculture land was affected in 2012 and there is no sign of any let up.

The US agriculture department is warning consumers of 15% price increases for meat, dairy and cereal products.

Meanwhile the eastern half of the US has been swept by yet another Atlantic storm. The strength and frequency of these is being driven by climate change. A US government study warns that "for each 1°C increase in tropical sea surface temperatures, hurricane surface wind speeds will increase by 1 to 8% and core rainfall rates by 6 to 18%".

As Peter Kendall, president of the UK's National Farmers Union has said:

Climate change scientists have long predicted that agriculture will face major challenges from global warming. However 2012 has starkly demonstrated the cost that extreme weather events can wreak on farmers and the food supply chain.

The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2013-2022 says agricultural production will grow by just 1.5% a year on average over the coming decade, compared with annual growth of 2.1% between 2003 and 2012. That's not even enough to feed the growth in population over the same period.

They go on to warn that a repeat of the drought of 2012 could raise world food prices by between 15-40%.

But they can only offer more of the same market-driven solutions, and in fact present the crisis as an investment opportunity for cash-strapped governments:

Agriculture is an increasingly market-driven sector, as opposed to policy-driven as it was in the past, thus offering developing countries important investment opportunities and economic benefits, given their growing food demand, potential for production expansion and comparative advantages in many global markets.

They do not explain how this approach will feed the world's people, since all the land grabbing and intensive application of chemicals of recent years have totally failed to deliver more food.

There is no room here to set out an alternative agriculture policy, but suffice it to say that growing close to the point of consumption, using organic methods and shifting away from high meat and high processed diets can succeed where industrial farming has failed.

And doesn't that describe pretty accurately the kind of agriculture pursued by those who are currently being driven off their land to make way for the agri-businesses? No profit in there for Monsanto or Walmart though.

The food “plateau” is just another example of how capitalism is incapable of moving forward a single step to meet society's needs, and is actually in reverse. It is time we opted for a very different diet.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
14 June 2013

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