Cheap as chips? Not any more, warns the UN

The UN has issued a warning about poverty, malnutrition and the rising cost of food. What’s pushing up the prices? And can we avoid a global disaster?

It may not have made many headlines, but a little-noticed UN report could end up being very big news.
The UN has released its yearly forecast on the world’s food supply and the future is looking grim. In ten years, said the report, the prices of grain and other key foods could be 40% higher than they are today. Food prices will also be very volatile, with quick fluctuations turning planning into a nightmare for struggling farmers.
For the billion people in the world who are already undernourished, this is a serious problem. We saw some of the consequences in 2008, when food prices peaked sharply. Many were pushed into poverty and malnutrition. There was rioting in the streets from Bangladesh to Haiti.
Although prices have fallen since 2008, it doesn’t look like they’ll stay low. As developing countries get richer their demand for food increases. And Western countries are converting more and more grain into biofuel, which reduces the food supply for poorer countries.
There’s a more fundamental problem. The world’s population is already nearly 7 billion, and it’s predicted to rise to 9 billion by 2050. Some say that’s more than the earth can support, as key resources are stretched increasingly thin.

Energy, crucial for making fertilizer and driving farm machinery, is getting more expensive as supplies dwindle. Water reserves for crop irrigation are drying up. And in many places, food production is at the limit of what the land can sustain.

Feeding the 9 billion

So how are we going to keep everyone fed? One argument is that we need to focus on producing more food. Scientific advances like genetic modification of crops, can deliver bigger harvests. In places like Africa, India and Brazil, “intensive agriculture” could make the land produce much more food.
But critics say that this approach is not sustainable. Genetic modification is dangerous, they argue. Energy supplies will run out, leaving farm technology useless. And anyway, there’s always been more than enough food to go around. The problem is that it’s not being shared fairly. Although a billion people in poor countries are undernourished, another billion in rich countries are overweight or obese. Instead of producing more, they say, the rich need to consume less.

You Decide

  1. Would you be willing to eat less yourself – for example by giving up meat – if you knew that it meant that hungry people in far away countries would get more?
  2. As the population grows, should we focus on consuming fewer of the Earth’s resources, or on learning to make the Earth produce more? Would you want to hang on to your TV if it meant more oil drilling, for example?

Activities

  1. ‘Intensive agriculture’ could make the land produce more food. Find out more about this approach to farming and prepare a powerpoint presentation to show in a whole school assembly.

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