25 September, 2007

Global Warming. Biofuels. More Hunger

A few months ago, the price of wheat - the main staple food here in Yemen - dramatically shot up. Bread became much more expensive, and too pricey for many. Across the world, wheat prices have been rising up, very fast. Italians are paying up to 20 percent more for their daily serving of fettuccine, spaghetti or linguine and across Central Asia the talk has been of bread, and fear. In this region of extreme poverty and fragile political stability, a loaf of bread is becoming too pricey for too many. Some are warning that wheat and other food prices could climb up to 80 percent in the next few years, unless agricultural productivity is improved and Global Warming doesn't create more havoc.

Two factors seem to be the main cause for this sharp rise in food prices: Global Warming and more agricultural land being used for producing Biofuels. Both - Man made. Millions of people (as in Africa now) across the Globe, are now, in one way or the other, being affected by the extreme effects of Climate Change: more frequent droughts, heavy rains and floods, have left millions, not only homeless, but without enough to eat; and the destroyed agricultural lands due to the Climate change, have meant less food and hence - a sharp rise in food prices. Recently, Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, said that surging prices for basic food imports such as wheat, corn and milk has the “potential for social tension, leading to social reactions and eventually even political problems”. And he added too, that food prices would continue to increase because of a mix of strong demand from developing countries; a rising global population, more frequent floods and droughts caused by climate change; and the biofuel industry’s appetite for grains.

Biofuels. It is both a blessing and a curse. Biofuels could have a dual effect on food supplies. On the one hand, crops used to make biofuel could divert land, water and other resources away from food production. On the other hand, by making energy more widely and cheaply available, biofuels may also increase the availability of food. In America, the largest consumer of fuel and the one with the greatest appetite for fuel - more and more land is now being set aside for the production of ethanol. Corn-based ethanol. Which is expensive. And while it can help cut oil imports and provide modest reductions in greenhouse gases compared to conventional gasoline, corn ethanol also carries considerable risks. Even now as Europe and China join the United States in ramping up production, world food prices are rising, threatening misery for the poorest countries. Note: corn prices are up about 50 percent from last year, while soybean prices are projected to rise up to 30 percent in the coming year, as farmers have replaced soy with corn in their fields. The increasing cost of animal feed is raising the prices of dairy and poultry products. And since September of last year, the futures price of wheat has more than doubled!

Poor, developing countries are the ones least prepared for these extreme changes. As for the Arab world: most are dependant on imported food, mainly wheat and rice. Meat and dairy products too, are imported by most countries in the region. Should the increase in food prices continue to rise as dramatically as in the last few months, there could be major social upheavals in the region. The common man, the ordinary man here - doesn't have much knowledge or understanding of Climate Change or biofuels. It is food and the feeding of one's family that matters most. Such upheavals could wake up the Arab world in to planning and focusing more on how to be dependant and self reliant on food.

Better agricultural methods and better use of land resources can be implemented to produce more food. Yemen is self sufficient in vegetables and fruits but still is very dependant on imported food; at the same time - there are still huge tracts of fertile land, left unused. One of the most fertile areas in the region is Wady Hadhramout - probably one of the largest wadys in the Arabian Peninsula and one of the most fertile land in the Arab world, which runs for about 160 km west to east with numerous tributary valleys, such as Wadi Doan, Amd, AlAin, Sark, Bin Ali, and Idm, and an easterly extension into the less fertile Wadi Masila. Though, due to elaborate irrigation systems, the land is covered with green vegetation, groves and trees - huge tracts of fertile land in the Wady (in fact - most of the wadys fertile land area), are still left unused. If Yemen, if the Arab world - wants to prepare itself better for the predicted steep rise in food prices, then more vision and focus, with food in mind - is needed. And much better use of land, such as Wady Hadhramout, and resources can be made. Otherwise, the future for the regions masses, in relation to food - looks bleak. As for the rest of the World: hopefully - the just concluded one-day high-level meeting on Climate Change is truly a turning point in the battle against global warming. Is it a turning point? Time.