Hello.

 

I usually shy away from pasting articles into discussion groups like this, but this article seems particularly important context to our local food work... after the Russian grain harvest catastrophe and the impact of Queensland floods etc.. THe Guardian also covered this with a big feature yesterday:

 

http://www.smh.com.au/business/when-china-goes-hungry-the-world-sha...

When China goes hungry, the world shakes

Keith Bradsher

February 12, 2011 .

A SEVERE drought is threatening the wheat crop in China, the world's largest wheat producer, resulting in shortages of drinking water for people and livestock.

China has been essentially self-sufficient in grain for decades, for national security reasons. Any move by China to import large quantities of food in response to the drought could drive international prices even higher than the record levels recently reached.

''China's grain situation is critical to the rest of the world - if they are forced to go out on the market to procure adequate supplies for their population, it could send huge shockwaves through the world's grain markets,'' said Robert Zeigler, the director-general of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, Philippines.

The state-run media in China warned this week that the country's major agricultural regions were facing their worst drought in 60 years. On Tuesday, the state news agency Xinhua said that Shandong province, a cornerstone of Chinese grain production, was bracing for its worst drought in 200 years unless substantial precipitation came by the end of this month.

World wheat prices are already surging and have been widely cited as one reason for protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. A separate UN report last week said global food export prices had reached record levels in January.

The impact of China's drought on global food prices and supplies could create serious problems for less-affluent countries that rely on imported food. With $2.85 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, China has ample buying power to prevent any serious food shortages.

''They can buy whatever they need to buy, and they can outbid anyone,'' Mr Zeigler said. China's self-sufficiency in grain prevented world food prices from moving even higher when they spiked three years ago, he said.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said on Tuesday that 5.2 million hectares of China's 14.2 million hectares of wheat fields had been affected by the drought. It said that 2.6 million people and 2.8 million head of livestock faced shortages of drinking water.

Chinese state media are describing the drought in increasingly dire terms.

''Minimal rainfall or snow this winter has crippled China's major agricultural regions, leaving many of them parched,'' Xinhua reported. ''Crop production has fallen sharply, as the worst drought in six decades shows no sign of letting up.''

Xinhua said that Shandong province, in the heart of the Chinese wheat belt, had received only 1.2 centimetres of rain since September.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation, in its ''special alert'', said the drought's effects had been somewhat tempered by government irrigation projects and relatively few days of sub-zero temperatures. The agency went on to caution that extreme cold, with temperatures of minus 18 degrees, could have ''devastating'' effects.

Kisan Gunjal, the organisation's food emergency officer in Rome who handles Asia alerts, said that if rain came soon and temperatures warmed up, then the wheat crop could still be saved and a bumper crop might even be possible.

Typically, world food reports barely mention China, partly because many details of the country's agriculture production and reserves are state secrets. But China, in fact, is enormously important to the world's food supply, especially if something goes wrong.

The heat wave in Russia last summer, combined with floods in Australia in recent months, has drawn worldwide attention to the international wheat market, because Russia and Australia have historically been big exporters.

But China's wheat industry has existed in almost total isolation, with virtually no exports or imports, until last year, when modest imports began. Yet it is huge, accounting for one-sixth of global wheat output.

The database of the UN's food agency shows that in 2009, the last year available, China produced about twice as much wheat as the US or Russia and more than five times as much as Australia.

Currently the ground in the country is so dry from Beijing south through the provinces of Hebei, Henan and Shandong to Jiangsu province, just north of Shanghai, that trees and houses are coated with topsoil that has blown off parched fields.

China's national obsession with self-sufficiency in food includes corn. Little known outside of China, the country's corn industry grows one-fifth of the world's corn, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation's statistics. China's corn crop is mostly in the country's northern provinces, where the drought is worst now.

Gunjal said the success or failure of the corn crop, as well as the rice crop, would depend mostly on rainfall this spring and summer, not the shortage of rain this winter.


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and another...
http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2011-02-16/world-one-poor-har...

by Lester Brown

In early January, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that its Food Price Index had reached an all-time high in December, exceeding the previous record set during the 2007-08 price surge. Even more alarming, on February 3rd, the FAO announced that the December record had been broken in January as prices climbed an additional 3 percent.
Will this rise in food prices continue in the months ahead? In all likelihood we will see further rises that will take the world into uncharted territory in the relationship between food prices and political stability.

Everything now depends on this year’s harvest. Lowering food prices to a more comfortable level will require a bumper grain harvest, one much larger than the record harvest of 2008 that combined with the economic recession to end the 2007-08 grain price climb.

If the world has a poor harvest this year, food prices will rise to previously unimaginable levels. Food riots will multiply, political unrest will spread and governments will fall. The world is now one poor harvest away from chaos in world grain markets.

Over the longer term, expanding food production rapidly is becoming more difficult as food bubbles based on the overpumping of underground water burst, shrinking grain harvests in many countries. Meanwhile, increasing climate volatility, including more frequent, more extreme weather events, will make the expansion of production more erratic.

Some 18 countries have inflated their food production in recent decades by overpumping aquifers to irrigate their crops. Among these are China, India, and the United States, the big three grain producers.

When water-based food bubbles burst in some countries, they will dramatically reduce production. In others, they may only slow production growth. In Saudi Arabia, which was wheat self-sufficient for more than 20 years, the wheat harvest is collapsing and will likely disappear entirely within a year or so as the country’s fossil (nonreplenishable) aquifer, is depleted.

In Syria and Iraq, grain harvests are slowly shrinking as irrigation wells dry up. Yemen is a hydrological basket case, where water tables are falling throughout the country and wells are going dry. These bursting food bubbles make the Arab Middle East the first geographic region where aquifer depletion is shrinking the grain harvest.

While these Middle East declines are dramatic, the largest water-based food bubbles are in India and China. A World Bank study indicates that 175 million people in India are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping is feeding 130 million people. Spreading water shortages in both of these population giants are making it more difficult to expand their food supplies.

Beyond irrigation wells going dry, farmers must contend with climate change. Crop ecologists have a rule of thumb that for each 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature during the growing season, grain yields drop 10 percent. Thus it was no surprise that searing temperatures in western Russia last summer shrank the grain harvest by 40 percent.

On the demand side of the food equation, there are now three sources of growth. First is population growth. There will be 219,000 people at the dinner table tonight who were not there last night, many of them with empty plates. Second is rising affluence. Some three billion people are now trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive meat, milk, and eggs. And third, massive amounts of grain are being converted into oil, i.e. ethanol, to fuel cars. Roughly 120 million tons of the 400-million-ton 2010 U.S. grain harvest are going to ethanol distilleries.

Encouragingly, President Sarkozy of France vowed to use his term as president of the G-20 in 2011 to stabilize world food prices. Thus far the talk has been about such measures as regulating export restrictions and speculation, but if the G-20 ends up treating the symptoms and not the causes of rising food prices, the effort will be of little avail.

What is needed now is a worldwide effort to raise water productivity, similar to the one launched by the international community a half century ago to raise cropland productivity. This earlier effort tripled the world grain yield per acre between 1950 and 2010.

On the climate front, the goal of cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050—the widely accepted goal by governments—is not sufficient. The challenge now is to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020 with a World War II-type mobilization to raise energy efficiency and to shift from fossil fuels to wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

On the demand side, we need to accelerate the shift to smaller families. There are 215 million women in the world who want to plan their families, but who lack access to family planning services. They and their families represent over a billion of the world’s poorest people. While filling the family planning gap, we need to simultaneously launch an all-out effort to eradicate poverty. Once under way, these two trends reinforce each other.

And in an increasingly hungry world, converting grain into fuel for cars is not the way to go. It is time to remove subsidies for converting grain and other crops into automotive fuel. If President Sarkozy can get the G-20 to focus on the causes of rising food prices, and not just the symptoms, then food prices can be stabilized at a more comfortable level.

Lester R. Brown is the president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.

Copyright © 2011 Earth Policy Institute

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