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Global Food Supply Near the Breaking Point

BROOKLIN, Canada, (IPS) - The world is now eating more food than farmers grow, pushing global grain stocks to their lowest level in 30 years.

Rising population, water shortages, climate change, and the growing costs of fossil fuel-based fertilisers point to a calamitous shortfall in the world's grain supplies in the near future, according to Canada's National Farmers Union (NFU).

Thirty years ago, the oceans were teeming with fish, but today more people rely on farmers to produce their food than ever before, says Stewart Wells, NFU's president.

In five of the last six years, global population ate significantly more grains than farmers produced.

And with the world's farmers unable to increase food production, policymakers must address the "massive challenges to the ability of humanity to continue to feed its growing numbers", Wells said in a statement.

There isn't much land left on the planet that can be converted into new food-producing areas, notes Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington-based non-governmental organisation. And what is left is of generally poor quality or likely to turn into dust bowls if heavily exploited, Brown told IPS.

Unlike the Green Revolution in the 1960s, when improved strains of wheat, rice, maize and other cereals dramatically boosted global food production, there are no technological magic bullets waiting in the wings.

"Biotechnology has made little difference so far," he said.

Even if the long-promised biotech advances in drought, cold, and disease-resistance come about in the next decade, they will boost yields little more than five percent globally, Brown said.

"There's not nearly enough discussion about how people will be fed 20 years from now," he said.

Hunger is already a stark and painful reality for more than 850 million people, including 300 million children. How can the number of hungry not explode when one, two and possibly three billion more people are added to the global population?

The global food system needs fixing and fast, says Darrin Qualman, NFU's research director.

"Many Canadian and U.S. farmers are going out of business because crop prices are at their lowest in nearly 100 years," Qualman said in an interview. "Farmers are told overproduction is to blame for the low prices they've been forced to accept in recent years."

However, most North American agribusiness corporations posted record profits in 2004. With only five major companies controlling the global grain market, there is a massive imbalance of power, he said.

"The food production system is designed to generate profits, not produce food or nutrition for people," Qualman told IPS.

He says there are enormous amounts of food stored in central Canada's farming heartland, but thousands of people there, including some farm families, are forced to rely on food banks.

"It's a system that's perfectly happy to leave hundreds of millions of people unfed," he said.

Inequity and poverty are at the heart of the hunger problem, according to experts, including the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Economic inequity is becoming more widespread, with hunger and malnutrition a chronic problem for the poor in both the South and the North, says Brown.

And the present situation is likely to worsen with climate change.

An estimated 184 million people in Africa alone could die from floods, famine, drought and conflict resulting from climate change before the end of the century, according to a new report by Christian Aid, a British-based charity.

Millions more in other parts of the world will also perish, and recent gains in reducing poverty could be thrown into reverse in coming decades, said the report, "Climate of Poverty: Facts, Fears and Hopes".

"This is a grave crisis for global society and we need global solutions," said Andrew Pendleton, climate and development analyst at Christian Aid.

In the "Hope" section of the report, the group envisions poor regions using renewable energy to power a new, and clean, era of prosperity.

Another vision is already making a difference in villages in 10 African countries. With some money to buy better seeds, fertiliser, a share in a protected water source, and a bed net to fend off malarial mosquitoes, hundreds of thousands of villagers in the Millennium Villages project are now able to grow enough food and sell the surplus.

Developed by Jeffrey Sachs and others at Columbia University's Earth Institute and the U.N. Millennium Project, each project is led by local community members using proven, practical, low-cost technologies.

Making a substantial difference in Africa's food security and poverty issues means development assistance to spread the project to the more than 100,000 villages in Africa, organisers have said.

That kind of frontal assault on poverty, along with population stabilisation and sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change, top Brown's list of what needs to be done immediately.

Shifting from a global food production system to local food for local people would go a long way towards addressing inequity, Qualman believes.

"The 100-mile diet, where people obtain their food from within a 100-mile radius of their homes, makes good sense for most of the world," he said.

The whole fabric of the food production system needs to change, or hunger and malnutrition will only get much worse.

"North America's industrial-style agricultural system is a really bad idea and maybe the worst on the planet," Qualman concluded.