Food crisis?

Back in the nineties, in my capacity as director general of a global federation of industry directly involved in the production of food, I had suggested in an article with title “Hungry for an Answer” published by Farm Chemicals International (Edition of Summer 1999):

“How far will desperately hungry people go to feed their children? It is virtually impossible for those of us living in the developed world to answer this question. The plight of the starving and malnourished masses in many developing countries is simply too far away from our own experience for us to be able to imagine what their lives are like……

….Aspirations and expectations in the these countries have been raised through improved global communications. If people in them continue to feel that their needs are being ignored, desperation will set in, with catastrophic results for wildlife and the environment, not to mention political and social implications. How far will hungry people go to feed their children? Surely they will not think twice about chopping down every last three in the rainforest or hunting a species to extinction. It is a concept to alien to the developed countries that it stretches beyond the limits of our imagination.”

It feels as though a century has passed since these lines were written. Environmental movement has matured, some conservation measures are timidly progressing but on a broader front, the pressures of humanity’s unsustainable natural resources consumption continue to increase, towards a catastrophic threshold. Evidence such as rising energy and food prices, the weakening of the dollar and consequently the world economy are just a small number of the symptoms.

Fundamentals listed below and which are responsible for this continuing trend are known for some time. They were simply neglected by the leadership of this world and apathy mixed with desperation of the public, particularly in the developed world, in policies of an ostrich.

The first fundamental factor is Demography. In our children’s lifetime the population of the Globe will be approaching ten billion; an increase of more than 60%. Even larger trends are at work however such as the rise of more than one third of the global population in China and
India alone. Hundreds of millions of people are moving from poverty into the global economy. Their per capita wealth shows a more spectacular growth, a factor compounded with the increase in numbers. Such wealth is inevitably increasing their food and material demands accordingly. These people are now eating twice a day instead of once, and causing rapid urbanization.

Another fundamental is energy availability. Three basic sources of energy exist today, hydroelectric, coal and hydrocarbons. Hydroelectric, although clean is reaching the limits of its capacity. Coal, in ample reserves, has certain serious disadvantages. These include polluting the environment, and contributing to the creation of the greenhouse effect. Hydrocarbons are the most important source of energy on the planet. However, apart from sharing similar disadvantages to coal, our planet only possesses only about 30 years worth of reserves at projected consumption levels. Renewable sources such as wind and solar power are still in early stages of development. The current situation of energy supply is not sustainable and requires a major review and revision. As the infrastructure surrounding the provision of ‘energy’ is a very important element of the world economy, any changes are bound to have serious repercussions. In addition, the political philosophy of a triumphant and sole prevailing capitalism is driving a dramatic wedge between a small minority that controls the use of natural resources and the rest of the population. With perfect human nature this controlling minority projects an image of greed and consumerism causing frustration and anger. The handling of the current financial crisis, the further accumulation of wealth by this minority through the energy and food supply and the emergence of members in this minority with principles against human rights, might prove to be the beginning of serious cracks in social order.

Finally, the environment. Since the early eighties ‘science’, be it in the public domain, in non-profit institutions, or in industry is sounding alarms. The evidence was tenuous at the beginning, but became more and more concrete and worrying as we entered the new century. Many thought that industrial research was a hindering factor. This confusion has a lot to do with the initial political agendas and urge of important NGOs to be recognized as authoritative and influential voices. Responsible industry concerns were never about the need for change to a more sustainable state. It was about the modalities in a fiercely competitive arena and more importantly the speed of that change to avoid the collapse of crucial sectors that service the society. This is not stated to contradict the extremely important role of civil society in raising real issues and fighting public apathy. The further strengthening of civil society’s initiatives in all fundamentals is perhaps the most encouraging aspect. There is also no denying that the controlling minority, through the socioeconomic levers, have played an important role in the current state and negative trends of the planet’s health.

Mankind might be reaching a defining moment of development where important dimensions of man’s true nature might have to give in to ensure longer term co-existence and social order.

This takes us to the issue of food crisis. Is it really a crisis or part of a continuous and deteriorating social disorder pointing to major catastrophic events? The fundamentals suggest the latter. From this further questions might arise. Are there ways to avert catastrophe? Is there time to act? What is missing today?

In order to address the question about ways to avert catastrophe we could look at each of the fundamentals.

The demographic challenge, however complicated by moral issues, is inescapable. There is a need for humanity to address the issue of its size on the planet, the horizon to obtain it, the moral price in reaching it, the resources required and the modalities of implementation by the international community. Current theories about natural stabilization contain a lot of uncertainty. It is a very difficult challenge. And anybody attempting to address it would risk being seen as playing ‘God’. Different societies are based on different value systems. This is particularly true when distinguishing the West from the East; religion plays a dominant role in some, and not in others. But unless this issue is tackled, and assuming no revolutionary changes occur in the way we attempt to maintain sustainable resources, we risk a collapse of the social order by the end of this century, purely as a result of this fundamental.

As far as energy is concerned, a longer term stable situation would have to be based on sources that are renewable. Energy supply should be based on hydrogen and solar technologies. Hydrogen would need to be the primary fuel consumed by new generation power plants as well as for vehicles on land, sea and air/space. Other sources such as wind power would of course have a role to play, but would remain of secondary importance. Given the long term research, planning and implementation required to put such new infrastructure in place, the preparation for the transition of this fundamental into the new era is well behind schedule.

The need for an overhaul of the shape of capitalism to take into account globalization, increasing knowledge density of the public across the globe, communications and socioeconomic evolution is also a challenge. Moving away from rampant individualism and indiscriminate consumerism to more social welfare philosophy, without sacrificing human rights and entrepreneurial spirit would not be easy, but it remains a necessity. Exploring ways to run the global economy on a non material growth pattern with its radical social implications becomes compelling. The widening chasm between a small minority of very rich and the rest is untenable.

As for the environment, it is too easy to accuse parts of the society such as government, industry and even academic research for causing damage to it. Looking back in history one may take a different view. There are many cases where scientific breakthroughs and their industrial implementation have created great relief, particularly in areas of food, medicine and shelter. Without delving into the “Green Revolution” effects, I could only mention one simple example. When DDT appeared as a remedy for malaria, it was seen as a miracle. Millions of people were saved. Nobody knew that the implications of large scale usage could apart of benefits incur damage to the environment. There are many cases like this where our knowledge was limited by the time of the introduction of new discoveries and damage caused was not known to man.

But the state of the environment is clearly worrying. Precaution must prevail, particularly in sensitive sectors such as public health and nutrition. However, one must also be conscious of the fact that the science of the environment is young, the size of forces related to the equilibrium of the planet, and their interactions are beyond our full comprehension. Striving for balance between caution and encouraging research and entrepreneurship is a delicate task.

How much time is there to act? The answer to this question might not be very encouraging. The momentum of all four fundamentals and the evidence of symptoms of serious degradation raise a lot of anxiety. Much of the time to act has been lost as world leadership seems to have developed policies encouraging public apathy. We have undergone two generations of material consumption growth, particularly in the western world, with terrible consequences. The worst part is that the younger generation, apart from certain minorities where anger is boiling inside the kettle, seems to be even more apathetic than the mature population, neglecting their civil responsibilities. They seem blissfully unaware that their attitude may result in severe consequence for themselves and more importantly for their children. There is a desperate need for global leadership to help educate and raise awareness.

And finally addressing the question of what can be done. Humanity today has ample reservoirs of fine quality brains with higher education as well as an accelerating knowledge density of the population. In contrast, there is confusion surrounding the future for the individual as well as for society. What seems to be missing is a clear vision for the future of humanity. This vision will have to provide answers in a language that everyone is able to comprehend, from the intellectual to the layman. It must clearly address and explain how we will all work together to tackle the fundamentals. It will have to describe the role of man’s presence on this planet 50 years from now. Otherwise more and more kettles of anger will burst open.

The way humanity rode through the 20th century was by establishing global institutions such as the UN and the World Bank using the bitter experience of wars and economic catastrophes. These institutions however were designed for their time. They still exist today but show ample signs of being out of touch with the modern reality.

The world has become a small closely knit village and requires global governance through appropriate institutions to deal with the fundamental challenges. We are at the infancy of a process of forming the global government of the future through such institutions. This should be the ‘instrument’ that will debate and deal in a concerted manner with the fundamentals and the resources required in a timely fashion. There is little doubt about the difficulties of creating such effective institutions but without them humanity will remain rudderless heading towards its destruction.

Concluding it is important to re-iterate that current events risk not being a crisis but the beginning of a long decline in humanity’s history. Every responsible citizen has to contribute to the rapid introduction of strong global institutions that will shape this “Vision of Hope” and lead in its implementation.

K. P. Vlahodimos
July 2008

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