“Those who live in the United States, where 9 percent of income goes for food, are insulated from these price shifts, but how do those who live on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder cope? They were already spending 50 percent to 70 percent of their income on food. Many were down to one meal a day already before the recent price rises. What happens with the next price surge?” Brown says.
Oxfam said last week it expected the price of key food staples, including wheat and rice, to double again in the next 20 years, threatening disastrous consequences for the poor.
However, the surest sign, Brown says, that food supplies are precarious is seen in the amount of surplus food that countries hold in reserve, or “carry over” from one year to the next.
“Ever since agriculture began, carry-over stocks of grain have been the most basic indicator of food security. From 1986 to 2001 the annual world carry-over stocks of grain averaged 107 days of consumption. After that, world consumption exceeded production and from 2002 to 2011 they averaged just 74 days of consumption,” Brown says.
Last week the UN estimated US maize reserves to be at a historic low, only 6.3 percent below estimated consumption and the equivalent of a three-week supply. Global carry-over reserves last week stood at 20 percent, compared to long term averages of well above 30 percent.
Although there is still — theoretically — enough food for everyone to eat, global supplies have fallen this year by 2.6 percent with grains such as wheat declining 5.2 percent and only rice holding level, the UN says.
There is no guarantee, Brown says, that the world can continue to increase production as it has done for many years.
“Yields are plateauing in many countries and new better seeds have failed to increase yields very much for some years,” he says.
Evan Fraser, author of Empires of Food and a geography lecturer at Guelph University in Ontario, Canada, says: “For six of the last 11 years the world has consumed more food than it has grown. We do not have any buffer and are running down reserves. Our stocks are very low and if we have a dry winter and a poor rice harvest we could see a major food crisis across the board.”
“Even if things do not boil over this year, by next summer we’ll have used up this buffer and consumers in the poorer parts of the world will once again be exposed to the effects of anything that hurts production,” Fraser says.
Brown says: “An unprecedented period of world food security has come to an end. The world has lost its safety cushions and is living from year to year. This is the new politics of food scarcity. We are moving into a new food era, one in which it is every country for itself.”
What in the past would have been a relatively simple question of developing better seeds, or opening up new land to grow more food, cannot work now because the challenge of growing food without destroying the environment is deepening.
“New trends like falling water tables, plateauing grain yields and rising temperatures join soil erosion and climate change to make it difficult, if not impossible, to expand production fast enough,” Brown says.