Friday, September 2, 2011

Can the world still feed itself ?

When Peter Brabeck-Letmathe speaks, you listen. He is the highly respected Chairman of Nestle. In his weekend interview with The Wall Street Journal published here, he speaks of the increasing danger of food insecurity in the world.

Food prices shooting up, the world over, is a serious cause of concern. This blogger has moaned about it here , here and here . The traditional activist response is to bleat about the evils of globalisation. But here is a world leader giving a simple way forward for what should be done.

His prescription is three fold and simple

- Stop using land for growing corn for biofuel
- Do not maniacally oppose technology in food cultivation, especially genetically modified crops
- Let the market price water for industrial use

I had no idea that this year American farmers would harvest more corn for fuel rather than for feed. This is the outcome of a subsidy policy that has encouraged bio fuel use to get away from the human addiction to petroleum. But look at the consequence for food - a perfect example of how policy in one sector can have serious consequences in another. Single issue activists please note - policy making is complex and interwoven and you can often cause more harm than good by manic obsession with a single issue. If you balance food prices with reducing petroleum dependence, it is not an easy choice. But as Brabeck-Letmather says, we should consider using land only to grow food.

The almost religious opposition to genetically modified crops is , in my view, absurd. We have been genetically modifying crops for virtually of all of human existence. It is called plant breeding. Wheat, Rice, etc as we now it, are all genetically modified. It appears that it is OK to genetically modify slowly, but not OK to modify quickly. World over, there are already laws to look after food safety and there are laws for labelling food containing genetically modified cops. So if you oppose it, that is certainly your right and you are free not to consume it. But to insist that nobody else should do so is unacceptable in my view. Again there is a policy choice. Between letting food prices go so high that some people starve or suffer malnutrition and being scared about the gap between reasonable surety and absolute surety on the safety of such crops. That whole argument has been hijacked by ranting against multinationals, globalisation etc, which is another story and beyond the purview of this post.

The third remedy is interesting. Apparently only 1.5% of the world's fresh water consumption is for personal use - washing, bathing, etc, The rest is for agricultural use or industrial use. Brabeck-Letmathe's solution is stunningly simple. Keep water for personal use free. But let the market price water for industrial or agricultural use. That will ensure that water 9100 litres of water are not used to make 1 litre of bio diesel.

A superb interview which I would strongly recommend for anybody interested in food security for the world.