SECTION 4: FOOD SCARCITY
“Clear waters and lush mountains are as valuable as gold and silver.”
Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China.
Around the world, countries are realizing that instead of the current pandemic, hunger is what is going to annihilate a substantial amount of the world’s population. The world has never faced a hunger emergency like this, and the number of people facing acute hunger could double to 265 million by the end of 2020.
The unnerving interruption in agricultural production and supply routes are now leaving millions stressed over the globe. “Logistical problems in planting, harvesting and transporting food will leave poor countries exposed in the coming months, especially those reliant on imports,” said Johan Swinnen, Director-General of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.
In places like India, the lockdown is fundamentally a request for workers to starve. There, the health crisis has been called an “equalizer” since it affected both the rich and the poor citizens. However, with regards to food, the commonality ends. It is destitute individuals, including enormous portions of more unfortunate countries, who are presently going hungry and confronting the possibility of starvation.
As the world’s population grows and agricultural bases worldwide reach their maximum limit to production, all eyes are turning to Africa for water security, agricultural land, and food security. While colonization in Africa ended in the 20th century, this system of extraction and exploitation was replaced with a new legal system called globalization. Private corporations and investors from other countries are scrambling to purchase extensive sections of its fertile agricultural lands.
African governments had prioritized the sale of the property to foreign investors over the ownership or needs of their people. Billions of dollars had flowed to build infrastructure projects to gain access to the large-scale, modern agricultural zones that serve the needs of foreigners. The locals who had been steamrolled to make room for these projects, at best, were now working on their former land for the new companies, often, in undesirable situations. The land had been and is being leased at bargain-basement rates of $1 USD per hectare per year for as long as 99 years.
This situation had led to incredible opportunities for private foreign corporations, Arab sheiks, foreign governments, Wall Street equity funds, and private investors alike. As Africa struggles to feed its growing population, its most valuable resources for the future are being bought and sold to benefit wealthier nations. With the effects of climate change, water scarcity, food security, and population all on the rise, millions are left with few options for their future: fight or flight.
Grain is an NGO that specializes in helping local farmers in Africa since the 1980s. In a report issued on January 21, 2015, the battles taking place for African land, water, minerals, forests, seeds, oil, and renewable energy sources were all detailed. But it was back on April 13, 2010 that a report was issued, entitled Turning African farmland over to big business warning about the massive land transfers that were taking place: namely, the oil-palm plantation in Liberia, the Japanese-Brazilian soya plantations in Mozambique, and the Korean company Daewoo and Indian company Varun in Madagascar. As climate change affects the world and access to clean water comes into question, all eyes are on Africa.
Unfortunately, these were just the tip of the iceberg. Since then, we witnessed Saudi Arabian, U.S., and many more corporations rushing to secure their interests. Under the guise of providing jobs for the communities and investments in the agricultural industries, which would ultimately boost production, African governments are selling land for years. But when the locals are paid practically a slave wage, working 7 days a week with no overtime pay, along with food exportation, what benefits are left for the locals?
In an article from National Geographic Magazine, by Joel K. Bourne, Jr. on July 7, 2014, we heard the chilling first-hand accounts of globalization in Africa. According to the article, in 2013, Mozambique was the third most impoverished nation in Africa, but only after coal, natural gas, and agricultural deals, Portuguese companies had begun building rails and ports. Meanwhile, Chinese companies invested in a new airport, soccer stadium, and presidential palace. All of which were massive infrastructure projects, financed by massive loans that the local government could probably never repay, done in exchange for their resources.
When Hoyo Hoyo, a Portuguese agricultural company, took over 25,000 acres of farmland, the locals were promised new land, schools, and wells, but none of these materialized. Instead, the local agricultural populations across Africa were pushed off their lands and into crowded cities already strained with resources.
Additionally, Brazil and Japan bought 35 million acres of land in Mozambique, an area the size of North Carolina, for their joint megaproject, ProSavana. A local farmer said, “For us as small farmers, the production of this soy guarantees the family income, even enough for us to send our children to college so they can become engineers or even doctors. Fields are fundamental for us. No fields, no life.” Most African farmers have limited access to education, credit, and fertilizer required to boost production on their own. They turn into slaves on their own land.
On December 24, 2019, there was an article in Africa Renewal Magazine by Leon Usigbe titled Drying Lake Chad Basin, which gives rise to the crisis: Food insecurity, conflicts, terrorism, displacement, and climate change effect compound challenges. Lake Chad used to be one of Africa’s largest freshwater bodies, supporting 30 million people, straddling the North Central African countries of Chad, Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon. “[T]he Lake Chad ‘Basin’ that covers almost 8% of the continent, spreads over seven countries: Algeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Libya, Niger and Nigeria.” The lake has been drying up due to climate change and protectionist policies of water sources leading into the lake.
Since the 1960s, the lake has shrunk by 90%, mostly due to the booming local population, forcing families to look for other places with water. As the humanitarian situation becomes direr, we have seen the radicalization of the area through militant groups such as Boko Haram. These militants terrorize the remaining locals, forcing even more migrations and atrocities.
What is the driving force behind these acquisitions? Over in the U.S., the situation for farmers has been quite dire for a long time. Battling the complex effects of globalization, climate change, water scarcity, and geopolitics, the “golden age” of farming in the U.S. has come to an end.
On January 28, 2020, the U.S. courts revealed that since 2014, bankruptcies in the U.S. agricultural sector have been rising each year. Even though President Donald Trump had issued $28 billion USD in bailouts for this sector, it failed to buck the trend which resulted to 8-year highs, with a lot of the blame being placed on the trade war.
In a report titled Implications of Water Scarcity for Water Productivity and Farm Labor published on January 20, 2020 by James F. Booker and W. Scott Trees, we learned how water scarcity in the U.S. was affecting farmers. By analyzing the relationships between water scarcity, water productivity, farm labor, and crop choices, the researchers were able to highlight the key issues faced by the U.S. agricultural sector.
As U.S. agricultural producers face water scarcity across the U.S., this will increase labor demand, leading to increased costs for producers. Globalization led many producers to specialize in crops for export, with many of them having high-water consumption rates that need to be altered if each sector wishes to continue.
In a report from Carbon Brief by Robert McSweeney on August 6, 2019, desertification was taking place across the globe and had harsh effects upon the agricultural sector. According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), 12 m hectares of productive land that could have been producing 20 metric tons of grains were lost each year due to droughts. Drylands make up 38% of the Earth’s landmass and are home to 2.7 billion people, of which 90% live in developing countries. These areas are experiencing soil degradation and water scarcity, leading to vicious dust storms and air quality issues.
Sebastien Malo of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, in conjunction with The World Economic Forum, issued a research showing that the U.S. would have much less water over time and be forced to make changes. The areas most affected were in the Central and Southern Great Plains, the Central Rocky Mountains, the Southwest, California, and the South and Midwest. These areas have been the breadbasket of the U.S., with a significant part of Canadians relying on them for food growth. Currently, 75% of the water in the U.S. goes towards agriculture, but drastic changes are needed to continue.
According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment issued in 2017, different parts of the U.S. would be affected differently. In the North East, it was expected to see the most significant temperature rises and sea level increases, with urban centers being particularly hard hit. In the South East, an additional 100 warmer days and hotter nights per year could be expected thanks to the “heat island effect.” In the Midwest, temperatures could rise to 60 days a year above 100 degrees Fahrenheit that could cause its residents to migrate to another place, increasing the number of climate refugees.
The Great Plains, where a large percentage of the nation’s meat industries are based, was expected to experience not only drier conditions but also more extreme weather events such as tornadoes. In the Southwest, droughts and megadroughts were expected to become commonplace. The Northwest was expected to see less snow and longer, rainier winters. All these changing weather conditions had drastic impacts on the agricultural sectors, along with food and water security, in the country.
According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nearly 70 % of all drylands are currently in Asia and Africa. Depending on the distribution of drylands across the landmasses of the world, some countries will see net gains while other net losses due to climate change.
China has taken the initiative to fight climate change head-on in their northern regions, and data from satellites are showing progress in these areas. In recent years, to battle desertification, China began building a new “Green Wall” with much smaller initiatives taking place in Mongolia, Turkey, Algeria, and Iran. Under President Xi Jinping, environmental issues have taken precedence over development. China is leading the world in combating climate change, planting over 80 billion trees since 1980, according to a report from Generation Progress.
Previously, almost one-fourth of China was covered in desert. But their State Forestry Administration claimed that they were able to reduce sandstorms by 20% and desertification by 5,000 miles in recent years. These initiatives, along with the saltwater-grown rice from Yangzhou University, offered hope for the future. But there is a long way to go for most countries if they wish to offset the effects of climate change upon the food and water resources.
Across large swaths of Africa and Asia are pests voraciously ravaging the crops from East Africa to India: desert locusts, a type of grasshopper. Some of the swarms are the size of small cities and can travel upwards of 150 kilometers a day, so thick they block out the sun. When these pests descend upon an area, they can consume the crops in as little as 30 seconds.
According to a report from the UN, a swarm of 40 to 80 million locusts can eat “the same amount of food in a day as three million people.” The devastation was so severe that the UN issued a warning of the possible food shortage and famines due to the locust infestation. Pakistan was even forced to declare a state of emergency amid an already tricky agricultural climate due to the wreck this outbreak had cost them. In India, Bhagirath Choudhary, the Director of the New Delhi-based South Asia Biotechnology Centre, said: “We have never, ever seen what we have in the last 6 months in India – never in the history.”
Due to the unpredictable weather patterns this 2020, a desirable situation for this phenomenon was created. Desert locusts only lay eggs in moist soil to keep them from drying out. When heavy rains saturate an otherwise arid climate, it causes the locusts to proliferate. When the eggs hatch, they have plenty of vegetation nearby to consume until they are forced to migrate. This migration causes ruin to farmers thousands of kilometres away and will continue to ravage areas from South America, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent to China.
In a shocking report from the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres warned that the world was on the verge of the worst food crisis ever witnessed since WWII. He believed that more than 50 million people could be pushed into instant poverty. “Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food emergency that could have long term impacts on hundreds of millions of children and adults. We need to act now to avoid the worst impact of our efforts to control the pandemic.” He also warned that the public health crisis, coupled with a global depression, created the perfect environment for extreme poverty and, in turn, sustained social unrest. Even developed countries were at risk of disruptions. He further explained, “Our food systems are failing, and the COVID-19 pandemic is making things worse.”
In the report titled The Impact of COVID-19 on Food Security and Nutrition published in June 2020, the UN detailed the unprecedented threats to global supply chains. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit, Agnes Kalibata pointed out, “It has exposed dangerous deficiencies in our food systems and actively threatens the lives and livelihoods of people around the world, especially the more than 1 billion people who have employment in the various industries in food systems.” These experts warned that this food crisis was quite different from anything we had seen before. Its corresponding consequences would be long-lasting and cut across many socio-economic lines.
The European Commission published a report on its website titled the European Green Deal which plans to combat climate change and effectively eliminate large scale farming from the continent. As part of the deal, Europe sought to be “climate neutral” by 2050 and included a “Farm to Fork” strategy designed to slash crop productivity by half over the next decade with the aim to reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides.
Europe is one of the most productive and modernized agricultural regions in the world which helps provide excellent yields for their populations. However, the new initiatives will make large scale production unprofitable while pushing more small-scale operations and, thus, higher prices upon consumers. This decrease in production will put more pressure on importing more of their food products, which could explain why agricultural land was being purchased overseas like it was on sale (and it was). However, these areas employed less advanced agrarian production methods which, in turn, added more significant weight to climate change. Although Europe is making the shift towards a more sustainable local economy, its method of offloading costs does not help other countries.
As a global community, we are all in this together to find solutions that are in line with nature. Eventually, the higher food costs will lead to greater food insecurity in the continent, with counties depending more on imports to fulfill their needs. As we can see with the current crises, any disruption to the supply chain incurs disastrous effects, making the situation even more fragile.
As the world grapples with the immediate consequences of Covid-19, we are only beginning to understand the long-term implications it brought. In some places, we see food shortage materialize, often in areas that need them the most; while in others, supply disruptions left the shelves empty. Countries that sold their more productive agricultural land to the highest bidders would come to regret their decisions. Social upheavals and migrations will become the norm, with the likelihood of spilling over into the political realm.
Corruption in governments has allowed for the takeover of food production in the developing world, and it is all thanks to globalization. Lack of access to resources has led to increased sectarian violence and radicalization in the local communities. This lack of foresight has, in turn, forced those looking for a better life to migrate to where they can gain access to resources, causing the mass movements of people on unprecedented scales.
As unpredictable weather patterns continue to hamper the hard work of farmers, along with the rising demand for agricultural access, conflicts and social unrest are expected to follow. There is a saying that all the money in the world is meaningless without clean air to breathe, freshwater to drink, and fresh food to eat. Food scarcity will come to play a leading role in the coming years as each nation battles to secure their interests, sometimes, at the expense of others. However, regardless of whether these situations are anthropomorphically or naturally caused, they will result in the same effects: fight or flight.