Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The sky is the limit

Reading is one of life's most simple pleasures but recently a book that verged on greatness let itself down at the final hurdle with a quote straight out of a government propaganda pamphlet. The writer claimed that an example of when good deeds go bad was the agricultural revolution, which the writer stated: "Enabled the population to grow beyond sustainable means, bringing with it famine." 

It cannot be both can it? 

Chart taken from Nature
If the agricultural revolution has enabled the planet to grow more food than at any time in our history, how has this lead to famine? What the writer may have meant is that the industrial revolution and use of fossil fuels signalled an increase in the worlds population, this much is true, but again the fact we have famine is not about the size of the population but about peoples access to resources. 

We are a species that has come to know the price of everything but the value of nothing, in particular the value of a human life. 

None of the people that are suffering hunger are doing so because there is not enough food or clean water; they are suffering because they do not have means to access resources. The fact some commentators claim it is because the world is overpopulated or worse, blame it on the people for having "too many children" is a 

scandalous and dangerous concept. 

We throw away half the food we buy, half the food we grow feeds livestock and yet half the global population is malnourished. 

NNI contacted the Farmers Union, World Bank, IMF, Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs and had the following responses;

Christopher Matthews from Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations said:
"World cereal production in 2012/13 is forecast at 2 302 million tones of which feed use is estimated at 799. 2 million tonnes.
In 2009 (last figures available) UK cereals production was 21.6 million tonnes  and feed use was 10.2 million tonnes."

The Farmers Union said: "The estimates from this suggests that around 6.3 million tonnes of domestic wheat was used as animal feed in 2011/12 and this is forecast to fall in 2012/13 to 5.9m tonnes. The total domestic production in 2011/12 was 15.3 million tonnes and for 2012/13 its 13.3 million tonnes." Adding : "Compound feed production and  usage from Defra points to an increase in compound feed production in the UK in the second half of 2012 as a shortage of quality forage forced farmers to use more bought-in feed for ruminants." 

Article after article on the Internet will support the fact that we waste billions of pounds worth of food every year by throwing it away, often without having even being opened, yet according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2010-2012 868 million people are under nourished, or 1 in 8 people. This is down apparently from 1990-1992 where the figure was 1000 million (or 1 billion). 

The FAO website states the following on the collation of these statistics: 

FAO measures hunger as the number of people who do not consume the minimum daily energy requirement, which is the amount of calories needed for light activity and a minimum acceptable weight for attained height. This varies by sex and age, not surprisingly. To calculate these numbers, FAO collects three sets of data:

1.              Data on production, imports and exports of all food commodities, along with the calorie content of each food. These data are used to calculate total availability of calories in the country.
2.              Data on population structure in terms of age and sex, since different age and sex groups have different minimum caloric requirements. Using these data, one can estimate the total caloric requirements for the entire population as an aggregate. This varies from country to country because of different population structures.
3.              Household survey data. These are used to estimate the country-specific distribution of calories. Some countries may have more equal distributions of calories than other countries, which, other things being equal, would lead to fewer people being undernourished. A log normal distribution of caloric intake is assumed.
From the total calories available, total calories needed for a given population, and the distribution of calories, one can calculate the number of people who are below the minimum energy requirement, and this is the number of undernourished people. This number is then summed for all countries in the world. Thus, no account is taken of protein, vitamin or mineral intake.

The FAO also inform us that, when records began in 1969-1971, 878 million people were recorded as hungry and reported a steady increase in 1995-1997 and 2009, with a large spike occurring in 2009 during the financial and economic crises. This final statistic is quite telling in that the reasons for this are not necessarily linked to agricultural output but by the purchasing power of people.

A spokesperson for Defra supplied documents and figures which can be accessed via a link at the end of this article.

Depending on how people read statistics dictates the explanations that are given and the story spun in the mainstream media always seems to suggest we are over populated. 

One trail of thought might be that despite nearly fifty years of technological advancement and increase in agricultural output, we still have roughly the same amount of people undernourished or going hungry. Another interpretation will be that although the figure remains virtually the same, proportionately the percentage of people today going hungry is less than that in 1969-1971. However we look at it the fact remains that it is unacceptable in this modern age that we have people without access to food and clean water if the only restriction is financial. 

The means for helping these people should not be restricted through monetary means; the resources required to help people are available in abundance, but our instance on slapping a financial ball and chain around their ankles means that they lack access to the help and assistance that they require. 

Vertical farm in Singapore
There are a wide ranging variety of innovative ideas to deal with land issues and extreme weather systems we have witnessed in the past two years. One such example is of course vertical farming. It is thought that a building 12 stories high would be able to accommodate enough space to replace a 400 acre plot of farm land. Dr Dickson Despommier from the Vertical Farming project said: "The concept of vertical farming has grown from a classroom activity to reality in just 10 years
My hope is that the technology will become cheap to replicate, easy to install, and relatively trouble-free. If it does, then anyone will be able to work in them. 
Cities around the world will undoubtedly be trying out some form of vertical farming over the next five to ten years, so I am confident that the technology will develop and mature until it can eventually benefit everyone who wants/needs them. To date, there are enough vertical farms up and running (Japan, Korea, Singapore, Sweden, USA, Canada) to give credence to my hopes and desires in seeing this food production system applied on a large scale."

It would not be complete if I did not mention the horse meat scandal. Of course I am surprised that people are surprised at the depths to which some companies will go to in the name of making a profit. In a world where the margins are becoming ever more narrow it should be of no surprise that bad practice like this would follow. Examples of this kind of bad practice can be found across all industries such as Deepwater Horizon BP incident, Texaco/Chevron vs Ecuador dispute and many others.

There is only one thing we need to remember; when profit rules, honest, health and safety suffer.


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