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The Geopolitics of Food

by Ilmas Futehally

A year ago the world experienced food riots on a global scale. After being on the decline for decades, food prices increased exponentially between 2006 and 2008. Rice prices rose by 217%, wheat by 136%, maize by 125% and soybeans by over 100%. Last year, there was much talk about food security and how to ensure it, along with the reasons for the crisis. These included higher land usage for bio-fuels, combined with the failure of wheat crop in Canada and drought in Australia.

To what extent one can blame global warming for last year's food crisis is unclear. However what is clear is that even though the food crisis has abated for the moment due to temporary trends, the future of food, agriculture and food security is very closely tied in with global warming. Things are only going to get worse unless a global collaborative solution is found.

With changes in the temperature, agriculture in the tropics is expected to be most affected. Changes in the growing period of crops are already being experienced in countries like India, Ethiopia and Latin America. Cultivation of crops that are sensitive to temperature rise are expected to shift towards the temperate zones or to higher altitudes. This has been experienced with the apple crop in northern India and coffee in Uganda. It is not just a matter of shifting to other areas. Experiments have shown that global warming could lead to a 10 percent drop in the production of maize in developing countries over the next 50 years.

Following the crisis last year major rice exporters such as India, China, Brazil, Indonesia, Cambodia and Egypt cut back on exports of rice. Others such as Argentina, Ukraine, Russia, and Serbia either imposed high tariffs or blocked wheat exports driving up prices still further for food importing nations.

Another interesting development was the setting up of the Organization of Rice Exporting Countries (OREC) consisting of a small group of South-East Asian countries including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. It is unclear whether OREC is modeled on OPEC to form a rice price fixing cartel. The organization has been denounced by many countries including the Philippines, a major rice exporting nation, as well as the Asian Development Bank.

The food crisis led to new kinds of trade agreements being signed, as food-importing countries sought to buy or lease large blocks of land to farm in other countries. Libya, which imports close to 90 percent of its grain, leased 250,000 acres of land in Ukraine to grow wheat for its people in exchange for access to one of its oil fields. Egypt is seeking land acquisition in Ukraine in exchange for access to its natural gas. China is currently looking out for long-term leases of land in other countries, including Australia, Russia, and Brazil.

Qatar has plans to lease 40,000 hectares of agricultural land along Kenya's coast to grow fruit and vegetables, in return for building a 2.4 billion port close to the Indian Ocean tourist island of Lamu.

In February 2009, Madagascar was all set to sign a 99 year agreement to lease 1.3 million hectares of land to South Korea's Daewoo Logistics Corporation to plant maize and palm oil for export. This has however been put on hold after major protests by the Madagascar people about fears of becoming a colony of South Korea.

Yet another aspect of global warming on food is depletion of fish stocks in the ocean due to rising sea temperatures and greater acidification due to increased rate of carbon dioxide absorption. This is expected to kill corals, affecting the habitat of smaller fish, on which larger fish are dependant.

Thus global warming is expected to have a critical impact on our food security. From the land to the seas, the food we depend on is going to be affected, changing not only our future menu but also the politics of the world.

Ilmas Futehally is the Vice President of Strategic Foresight Group, a think tank based in Mumbai, India.



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