As world environmentalists meet during World Water Week (26-31 August), leading analysts and development agencies are predicting that food insecurity will increase during 2012. People in the poorest countries will suffer most, with serious consequences also for the poorest people in developed countries, as the prices of basic foods continue to increase dramatically over the coming months.
The reason is a major drought in the United States Midwest, often called the ‘breadbasket’ of the world, possibly the worst drought in the region for 50 years. At the same time, the lack of rain at the start of the wheat growing season in Russia, light monsoon rains in India and drought in Africa’s Sahel region come together with the potential to create ‘a perfect storm’ of serious global shortages and rising prices.
An additional factor is the growing demand for biofuel ethanol, a plant based fuel. The United Nations (UN) food agency has called on the United States to suspend its production of biofuel ethanol. The director general of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Jose Graziano da Silva, has written that suspension of the quota would allow more of the crop to be diverted for food production in the face of the food supply crisis.
The last sudden increase in food prices in 2008 led to global food riots, resulting in major political upheavals. Some argue the social disruption helped to create the context for the uprisings across north Africa known by some as ‘the Arab Spring’.
The problem is not only about food shortages, according to Da Silva of the FAO, but also about massive waste of food in the world, an issue that needs to be resolved in order better to harness resources. “Up to half of the food we produce never gets eaten,” according to Torgny Holmgren, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute. “A quarter of the water used worldwide was used to produce more than one billion metric tons of food that nobody eats”, he said.
Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex Systems Institute in the USA, told Aljazeera TV: “When people are unable to feed themselves and their families, widespread social disruption occurs”. “We are on the verge of another crisis, the third in five years, and likely to be the worst yet, capable of causing new food riots and turmoil on a par with the Arab Spring.”
“Social workers around the world are frequently in contact with people who suffer food insecurity”, said Rory Truell, IFSW Secretary General. “This may be due to lack of social development and poverty but also because of family turmoil or tragedy, mental health problems or lack of social support. Many social and community workers in southern countries are actively working with poorer communities to help them improve food security.”
“Social workers and their agencies need to plan ahead now”, he continued, “to anticipate these basic human needs and to try to plan alternative sources of the essentials for life”.
The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development, developed by IFSW with its global partners IASSW and ICSW, calls on global, regional and national organisations to recognise the crucial role of social workers in responding to basic human needs, human disasters and environmental challenges. The Agenda specifically refers to the need to build food security and calls for a fairer world economic system which protects the weakest and enables all to achieve their potential. IFSW and its global partners commit themselves to ‘encourage and facilitate research into the social work role in relation to disasters and environmental challenges’.
Media reports and background information on the food price crisis
World Water Week – August 2012
The US, France and Mexico are planning talks to consider whether an emergency meeting is needed to tackle the soaring price of grain, according to the BBC
BBC News – Q&A: World food and fuel prices
What a global food crisis looks like: Oxfam’s food prices map