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[Juan L. Mercado] ‘Perfect storm’ threatens global food system

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Published : 2014-03-13 20:23
Updated : 2014-03-13 20:23

“Filipinos share one common item in our everyday existence: rice,” National Scientist Gelia Castillo wrote in her book on a cereal that makes or breaks presidents. “Rice In Our Life” reviewed three decades of studies into rice that was sown between B.C. 6,000 and A.D. 400, in the Philippines ― from Ifugao to Lucena.

Rice self-sufficiency has been an upward moving target, “always out of reach, even as we calculate we are only three percent short,” she wrote. “Seared deep in the psyche of Filipino politicians are crises when we could not find rice, even if we had the money to buy it.”

Unseasonal storms, meanwhile, ripped up the old rice calculus. Tropical storm “Sendong” tore into Cagayan de Oro and Iligan in 2011, leaving 1,080 corpses. Typhoon “Pablo” later clobbered Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental.

This shattered the historical pattern of one typhoon cutting through Mindanao’s breadbasket every 18 years. Then, the Bohol earthquake in October and supertyphoon “Yolanda” in November last year savaged farms.

“Only 97 percent sufficiency was attainable for 2013,” the Department of Agriculture conceded. National Food Authority opened the applications for imports ― for use and as buffer stock. Ayaw magsaligan ring tiyan, sa ana’t ibang taegsan, an Aklan proverb says. “Don’t count on someone else’s rice bin for what you eat.”

The immediate, however, can blur the long-term threats. The number of crop species that now feed more people than half a century ago is shrinking. Rice, wheat, sugar and potatoes form a new “globalized diet.”

“Over the past 50 years, diets around the world have become more similar,” notes Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture’s Colin Khoury. Today’s diet includes staples that were not important half a century ago, particularly oil crops like soybean.

Other crops however declined, including sweet potatoes, cassava, yams and millets. “This narrowing base raises concerns about the global food system’s resilience.”

Another danger is, “a more homogeneous global food basket makes agriculture more vulnerable to drought, insect pests and diseases,” Luigi Guarino, from Global Crop Diversity, told BBC’s environment reporter Mark Kinver. Diversity of cultivated crops, in fact, declined by 75 percent during the 20th century, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates. If this slide persists, “a third of today’s diversity could disappear by 2050.”

Seepage of crop diversity also jacks up the number of people exposed to harvest failures. And climate change compounds the risk.

“Warmer temperatures are causing malaria to spread to higher altitudes and once disease-free regions in Asia, South America and Africa,” says the Science journal. “A one-degree Celsius rise in temperature could lead to an additional 3 million cases” in a year, cautions University of Michigan’s Mercedes Pascual.

The Philippines targets nationwide malaria elimination by 2020. But it still lacks a long-term domestic program even as international funding dwindles.

“A perfect storm of growing populations, climate change and diminishing resources for food production” confronts the world, warns the new “Foresight Report on Food and Farming Futures.”

Commissioned by the United Kingdom, the two-year study involved 400 experts from 35 countries.

Do “we have 20 years to arguably deliver 40 percent more food; 30 percent more fresh water and double energy output?” asks U.K.’s chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington. “The current system must be radically redesigned to produce more food sustainably. We can’t wait ...”

“There is an urgency in taking what may be very difficult policy decisions,” he adds. “The food system is working for the better-off ... But those at risk of hunger have least influence on decision-making.” The U.K. recommends that the most resource-intensive types of food be curbed. Waste in food production has to be radically curbed.

Yearly, the Philippines loses a million metric tons of already-harvested rice for various reasons ― from slipshod processing to shabby storage. Cabbage spoilage mars a third of harvests, UP Los Baos studies found. Fish losses crest at 40 percent.

Consumers in rich countries junk as much food as sub-Saharan Africa produces. Wasting food is “stealing from the tables of the poor,” Pope Francis told a U.N. World Environment Day audience, noting that a culture of waste is despicable when many suffer from hunger. “Our grandparents were very careful not to throw leftover food.”

“Our so-called food surpluses are a mirage,” former FAO agricultural economist Ti Teow Choo stressed. “Increase purchasing power of today’s poor even marginally. Then, those impressive stockpiles would be bought out overnight by people who needed the food but could not afford it.”

Government is trying to whittle down the poverty rate from 25 percent in 2012 to 16 percent by 2016. When President Aquino steps down, he hopes there’ll be fuller rice bins.

What if Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla funneled their pork chunks to curbing post-harvest rice losses and to reducing fish and vegetable spoilage? They would have had the blessing promised to those who gave the hungry to eat.

Instead, they chose to sow the wind with fake NGOs. Ironically, they don’t have a clue why they’re reaping the whirlwind of what is a “perfect storm.”

By Juan L. Mercado

Juan L. Mercado is a columnist for Philippine Daily Inquirer. ― Ed.

(Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network)

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