The United Nations and its affiliate body, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), have warned that this past year saw the world consume more food than it grew.
This will be the sixth time in the past 11 years that it has done so. This has started to become an alarming trend. Each time there is a grain deficit in the world, the world’s standby supplies are reduced. Today, the global food stocks are at about the same level they were in 2002. Unfortunately, the number of humans and their appetite for food have not stood still. The FAO’s figures show that the stock-to-disappearance ratio for major exporters — a key measure of global food security — will fall from over 19 in 2009-10 to 16.3 in 2011-12.
It would only be a mild exaggeration to say that the world is only a few major droughts away from crisis. This would entail local shortages that could translate into terrible famines and spiking prices everywhere, even surplus nations. The stagnation in stocks can be blamed on a number of factors. Environmentalists have pointed to climate change. Energy experts point to the conversion of farmland from edible crops to the raw material for biofuels. Rising prices may have diverted farms to more profitable but less nutritionally efficient activities like meat production. Demographers point to an equation of a rising global population and an inability to find more land to put to the tiller. It is possible that these all contribute in some way. Reversing this trend will not be easy: the best solutions are long-term and multilateral, and governments tend to be short-term and self-interested.
India, sitting on 50 million tonnes of grain stocks, feels safe enough to contemplate a Food Security Bill that would require the distribution of some 40 million tonnes of grain a year. This should be reviewed carefully in the context of the fragility of the world agricultural situation. Today, a nation’s grain stocks should be treated more akin to a country’s foreign exchange and gold reserves. In other words, kept in readiness for the sort of emergency that is no longer inconceivable. There are other means to ease malnourishment in the country. Better food supply-train management to reduce losses. Better storage facilities so less grain ends up with rats. And medical solutions to curbing infantile diarrhoea — a disease that ensures most poor children receive no nutrition from the food they receive. Experience shows that even temporary grain shortages in the global market result in hoarding by surplus countries. Stocks are important because even in the 21st century, when it comes to food, it’s each country for itself.