A TSUNAMI OF HUNGER by Peter Webster

The World Food Programme estimates that there are currently around One Billion undernourished people on Earth.

The Barbados Sugar Industry has reached a major cross-road with growers’ costs being way more than what they are receiving for their product. Sugar Cane farmers are incurring heavy financial losses and many have reached the point where they have no option but to cease cultivation. Furthermore, they realise that such a decision is almost irreversible as the additional costs to restart operations will be prohibitive. Experience throughout the Caribbean and elsewhere is that once sugar cane operations cease they are seldom ever restarted.

This likely cessation of sugar cane production in Barbados along with the concurrent reduction in food crops is occurring at a time when experts around the world are predicting a “storm in food prices” that could generate a “tsunami of hunger”. Food prices that have risen by more than 50% over the last decade could reach exorbitant levels with more and more of the world’s poor being unable to afford food. There is and will still be enough food to feed everybody but it is the high prices and unaffordability of food to the poor that results in hunger.

Food price increases are currently being driven by six causes. These are:

  1. Increased demand through general population growth (the world’s population has more than doubled in the last fifty years) coupled with increasing food consumption which has doubled in the last thirty years;

  2. Reduction in agricultural subsidies in developed countries as a result of pressure from the United Nations Congress of Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). These institutions have claimed that subsidies result in unfair trade in agricultural products (food). Unfortunately, it is not the subsidies themselves that have seriously damaged farmers in developing countries who have no support or protection, but the dumping of surplus food produced by the subsidies on the world market at prices that are below production costs. Cessation of the subsidies will not necessarily stop the dumping and in any case is occurring fifty years too late after agricultural production throughout developing countries has been seriously damaged;

  3. Ongoing development worldwide has short-sightedly taken place mostly on agricultural lands reducing the availability of land for agriculture and ultimately depressing food production. That this has also occurred in other countries should not be a comfort to Barbadians. This reduction in available agricultural land has been balanced by improving technology (improved varieties and pesticides et al) that has resulted in increased yields and production. Unfortunately, this improved technology comes with a price tag that further adds to the production cost and increased prices;

  4. The high cost of energy has inflated production and distribution costs while creating a demand for alternative energy sources which is promoting a switch from food production to bio fuels;

  5. Developing countries’ inability to produce food after being damaged by cheap dumped food prices over the last fifty years is taking longer than expected and cannot be restored overnight. It will take many years for the “culture” and expertise that was formally handed down from generation to generation of farmers is recovered. One of the fallacies in the Caribbean is that almost anyone can be a farmer. In fact, project after project in the Caribbean (including Spring Hall Land Lease and the Land for Landless programme in Barbados) have shown that 80% of those who have tried farming have failed; and

  6. Increasing conflict worldwide is not only hampering food production but more importantly is affecting food distribution. Such conflict is at a higher level than at any time since World War II (1944) and the looming global conflict between the Judean/Christian peoples and Islamists, which is prophesied in the Christian Bible, could prove to be a catastrophe for food distribution. Note: 80% of the Biblical prophecies have come to pass so far and none of the rest has been proven wrong!

Unfortunately, such “doom and gloom” predictions have been with us for a long time and are largely ignored by our leaders (political and economic) who are now immune to what they consider to be emotional arguments. They now need more tangible evidence before they will take action to make preparations to avert the hunger crisis for the poor. In other words the disaster has to actually happen before they will start – too late – to prepare for it.

Peter Webster

Note: Peter Webster is a retired Portfolio Manager of the Caribbean Development Bank and a former Senior Agricultural Officer in the Ministry of Agriculture.

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About Andrew Stoute

Dr. Stoute obtained his PhD in Plant Biology from the University of Reading in 2009 working on photoperiodic control of flowering. He then took Post-Doctoral Researcher position at Rothamsted Research working on the developmental factors around parental regulation of seed size in oilseed rape (canola). He joined the staff of the West Indies Central Sugar Cane Breeding Station in 2011 as the Plant Geneticist, responsible for performing crosses from extensive germplasm collection to provide clients with improved sugarcane varieties. He also develops systems and programs to aid in the selection of the best parental material for those crosses.

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