Political risk has returned with a vengeance. The first food revolutions of our Malthusian era have exposed the weak grip of authoritarian regimes in poor countries that import grain, whether in North Africa today or parts of Asia tomorrow.(...) The surge in global food prices since the summer – since Ben Bernanke signalled a fresh dollar blitz, as it happens – is not the underlying cause of Arab revolt, any more than bad harvests in 1788 were the cause of the French Revolution.
Yet they are the trigger, and have set off a vicious circle. Vulnerable governments are scrambling to lock up world supplies of grain while they can. Algeria bought 800,000 tonnes of wheat last week, and Indonesia has ordered 800,000 tonnes of rice, both greatly exceeding their normal pace of purchases. Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Bangladesh, are trying to secure extra grain supplies.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said its global food index has surpassed the all-time high of 2008, both in nominal and real terms. The cereals index has risen 39pc in the last year, the oil and fats index 55pc.
The FAO implored goverments to avoid panic responses that “aggravate the situation”. If you are Hosni Mubarak hanging on in Cairo’s presidential palace, do care about such niceties?(...)
The immediate cause of this food spike was the worst drought in Russia and the Black Sea region for 130 years, lasting long enough to damage winter planting as well as the summer harvest. Russia imposed an export ban on grains. This was compounded by late rains in Canada, Nina disruptions in Argentina, and a series of acreage downgrades in the US. The world’s stocks-to-use ratio for corn is nearing a 30-year low of 12.8pc, according to Rabobank.
The deeper causes are well-known: an annual rise in global population by 73m; the “exhaustion” of the Green Revolution as the gains in crop yields fade, to cite the World Bank; diet shifts in Asia as the rising middle class switch to animal-protein diets, requiring 3-5 kilos of grain feed for every kilo of meat produced; the biofuel mandates that have diverted a third of the US corn crop into ethanol for cars.
Add the loss of farmland to Asia’s urban sprawl, and the depletion of the non-renewable acquivers for irrigation of North China’s plains, and the geopolitics of global food supply starts to look neuralgic.
Can the world head off mass famine? Yes, with leadership. The regions of the ex-Soviet Union farm 30m hectares less today than in the Khrushchev era, and yields are half western levels.
There are tapped hinterlands in Brazil, and in Africa where land titles and access to credit could unleash a great leap forward. The global reservoir of unforested cropland is 445m hectares, compared to 1.5 billion in production. But the low-lying fruit has already gone, and the vast investment needed will not come soon enough to avoid a menacing shift in the terms of trade between the land and the urban poor.
We are on a thinner margin of food security, as North Africa is discovering painfully, and China understands all too well.
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