Vol 6 N° 3 [July–September 2008]



2 Why modern agriculture must change

12 Concern for health of Aral Sea’s residents
13 A global forum takes to the frontlines of climate change
13 Better preparation for storm surges is possible
14 Network gets name-change
14 A fond farewell to a carbonbased biped

16 Andrea Mantesso explains why teeth will help to shape the future of stem cell research

18 A last call to arms
21 A city making the switch to healthy sanitation

24 Diary
24 New releases

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Food for thought

Thanks to persistent increases in yields from modern crop varieties, the world has never produced as much food. Yet global food stocks have just hit a 25-year low. With the implacable logic of economics, these low stocks have pushed up prices: the cereal import bill of the world’s poorest countries is forecast to rise by 56% over last year, according to FAO. Since March last year, soybean and wheat prices have increased by 87% and 130% respectively. Dozens of countries are being rocked by food riots. In March alone, riots were reported in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Madagascar, Morocco, the Philippines and Senegal. In Pakistan and Thailand, army troops were deployed to prevent people from seizing food from fields and warehouses. In Haiti, riots forced the resignation of the Prime Minister.

Among the factors driving up food prices is growing demand, particularly from emerging economies with ever-more mouths to feed. With meat consumption climbing, greater expanses of land are now needed to grow animal feed. But people are not only competing with livestock for food. They are also competing with biofuels, equally land-hungry. Also blamed for the crisis are escalating oil prices pushing up freight costs, financial speculation on international markets and an anomalous climate in many mostly African and Asian countries.

As the FAO food summit highlighted in June when donors pledged US$5 billion in emergency aid, we must resolve the food crisis swiftly and efficiently. But we also owe it to the countries in need to implement the structural adjustments which will prevent such crises from becoming chronic emergencies in future. That means rethinking the way we practice agriculture and trade.

Yet positions remain divided on how to improve food security. Some developing countries are contemplating a return to food self-sufficiency, a move encouraged by French Minister of Agriculture Michel Barnier, who urges Africa and Latin America to emulate Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy by forming regional blocs self-sufficient in food. Others, like US representative to the FAO Gaddi Vasquez, argue that the current mutual reliance on the global market for food is a good thing. There is a consensus that countries will have to grow more food but some seem prepared to sacrifice social well-being and the environment in the process, even though we owe the current predicament largely to this short-sighted approach.

In such a climate, the release of the first global report on the state of agriculture at UNESCO in April could not be more timely. As we shall see overleaf, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development confirms that today’s agricultural and trade practices are failing the poor and failing the environment. If we don’t overhaul the way we practice agriculture, it warns, many countries may find themselves heading for environmental and social collapse.

W. Erdelen
Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences


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