Wed, May 07, 2008 - Page 8 News List

Surviving the imminent food crisis

By Du Yu 杜宇

Not only has the price of wheat, soybeans, pork and edible oil risen recently, the price of rice has doubled in only three months. Considering the state of food security in our country, it’s troubling that global rice exporters are not only not decreasing their exports, but are adding to the problem by increasing their export fees.

The availability of food is reflected in the national economy, standard of living, social stability and national security. Its importance cannot be underestimated. Global food exports influence Taiwan’s food security. How should the nation handle this coming wave of global scarcity?

Statistics from the Bank of America show that food prices in developing countries are rising 11 percent annually, considerably higher than the 4.5 percent increase of 2006. This inflation is leading to worries about a financial crisis and prompting fears that poor people might riot.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN is predicting that the prices of rice, corn, sugar and soybeans will continue to rise for several more years.

The UK’s Financial Times recently said that the shortage in agricultural products directly following the subprime crisis might cause more financial problems.

One of the main causes of rising food prices is that demand from newly developing countries like China and India has greatly increased.

In 1985, the Chinese consumed an average of 20kg of pork per person annually. By 2006, this had increased to 50kg per person per year. It takes 8kg of fodder to producing 1kg of pork, so the increased demand for meat in these countries will trigger an increase in demand for all foods.

Also, bad weather has caused a decrease in the exports of big food-producers like Australia.

In addition, many rice farmers have switched to producing bioenergy crops, which have a higher rate of return, causing rice production to shrink. Urbanization and desertification have decreased the amount of available farmland as the world’s population continues to grow, and the problem is compounded by international capital speculation.

The recent scare of raising food prices appears to be a structural crisis — not, as in the past, a problem caused by short-term factors like bad weather. This makes the problem even more difficult.

In the past, most considerations about food security were limited to rice and grains. But with changes in eating habits and lifestyle, food demand has expanded and come to include other products as well.

The old concept of storing food for security should be expanded to include not just rice, grains and meat, but also seafood.

Taiwan’s food self-sufficiency rate is based mostly on rice and grains. But in the past 10 years the rate has fallen steadily from 55 percent down to 44.5 percent, and the rate for wheat and corn is less than 10 percent.

Although the self-sufficiency rate for meat is 72 percent, the rate for pork and beef is less than 10 percent, showing that food supply depends for a large part on imports, making it very susceptible to the global food crisis.

Faced with global food shortages and the long-term rise in prices, Taiwan should make a plan for putting some of its more than 220,000 hectares of unused farmland back into agricultural use. Also, it should use biotechnology to develop genetically modified crops that suit the country’s soil and climate in order to achieve a large-scale increase of crop production and reduce its dependency on imported food.

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