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Is a Global Food Crisis Brewing?

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Is a Global Food Crisis Brewing?

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Food. It's something many of us have long taken for granted—given that we've been able to go down to any grocery store or restaurant and buy basically whatever we want to eat and that we've had a seemingly endless variety of foods in unlimited quantities to choose from.

But that may be changing. Just take a look at your grocery bill. Many of us simply cannot afford to buy whatever we want, or as much as we want. Food costs are skyrocketing! Prices for fruits and vegetables, milk, coffee, sugar and beef have all reached record highs.

The Wall Street Journal reports: "Food prices are rising faster than overall inflation. The consumer price index for all items minus food and energy rose 0.8% over the year to September, the lowest 12-month increase since March 1961, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said. The food index rose 1.4%, however" (Julie Jargon and Ilan Brat, "Food Sellers Grit Teeth, Raise Prices," Nov. 4, 2010, emphasis added throughout).

Food inflation hits families hard

Many believe the food inflation rate will be even higher this coming year. In November, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a report predicting food prices will soar 10 to 20 percent in 2011 and warning the world to be prepared for "harder times ahead" unless production of major food crops increases significantly.

The FAO report indicates that world grain reserves slumped 7.2 percent in 2010, with barley plunging 35 percent, maize (corn) 12 percent, and wheat 10 percent. The decline is due to dismal fall harvests. Most disappointing was the Russian wheat crop, which was a third smaller than expected and caused Russia—the world's fourth largest wheat exporter—to impose an export ban on wheat. These supply shortfalls have sent grain prices soaring.

With escalating grain costs, several food manufacturers, including Kraft Foods, Sara Lee and General Mills, recently announced or implemented price hikes on their product lines. Several U.S. supermarket and fast-food chains, including Safeway, Kroger and McDonald's, announced that they plan to pass these higher costs on to consumers.

Yet not only is food becoming more expensive, but in recent years many Americans have experienced shortages of certain types of foods for the first time in their lives. For instance, for most of 2010 it was almost impossible to find canned pumpkin for sale in the United States due to the heavy rainfall and flooding that rotted the pumpkin crop of the nation's largest supplier.

Rice was in short supply in 2008, prompting large retailers like Walmart and Costco to ration the bags of rice sold to consumers. Also in 2008, major retailers in New York were limiting purchases of flour, sugar and cooking oil, as demand was outstripping supply. Many agriculture experts believe these shortages are precursors of much more serious food shortfalls in the years ahead.

Chronic hunger plagues many

Of course, throughout much of the world food has never been taken for granted. According to the FAO, more than 1 billion people, or 15 percent of the world's population, suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition—either because they cannot afford to eat a healthy diet or the food is simply not available where they live. The number of those who are hungry in the world has been steadily increasing in recent years, up from 825 million in the mid-1990s, and continues to edge upward.

Nearly all of the world's undernourished live in developing nations. The FAO and World Food Programme estimate 642 million people in Asia and the Pacific to be chronically hungry, 265 million in sub-Saharan Africa, 53 million in Latin America and the Caribbean, 42 million in the Near East and northern Africa, and 15 million in developed countries.

Rising food costs worldwide, while challenging to people in industrialized nations, are particularly tough for those in poor countries.

"When food prices shoot up, the low-income people of the developing world are the most vulnerable, as the share of food in their total expenditures is much higher than that of wealthier populations," notes Dan Gustafson, Ph.D., director of the FAO's Liaison Office in Washington, D.C.

Food represents about 10 to 20 percent of consumer spending in industrialized nations, but as much as 60 to 80 percent in developing countries, according to the FAO. For example, when the price of a bag of rice goes up 20 percent, that extra cost will take up a much larger portion of household income for a family in Bangladesh than it will for a family in Canada.

Ominously, the situation does not look like it's going to improve in the immediate future. "We're not growing enough food, and too many of our crops are failing or having disappointing yields, so we're not able to put as much food into reserves," warns Gustafson. "Yet, at the same time, demand for food is increasing."

Concerns intensify when looking at the long-term picture. With a world population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, demand for food will rise by 110 percent, according to Julian Cribb, professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, and author of the 2010 book The Coming Famine.

He believes severe food shortages are inevitable, particularly in developing nations and the large "megacities" where most of the population growth is occurring. Wealthy nations will primarily be impacted with food shortages and higher costs (food scarcity causes inflation in food prices). In poor nations, however, it will cause greater numbers of people to starve.

But even if certain regions are not directly affected by famine, hunger will still be a worldwide problem, according to Professor Cribb. That's because of secondary issues that will arise. "Shortages of food, land and water will spawn wars, political unrest, and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions," he writes.
"Even places that are physically remote may face refugee tides in the millions or tens of millions, threatening profound change to society. Governments in many countries may collapse under the onrush of people fleeing regional sustenance disasters. Every nation will face heavier aid and tax burdens and soaring food prices as a result" (The Coming Famine, p. 147).

Biblical prophecies of famine

Certainly mankind has faced food shortages throughout history. But most were relatively short-lived and had a definite end in sight. The food crisis we're facing now, however, is different. Never before have more than a billion people been threatened with hunger and malnutrition. Never before have food shortages been a concern for the entire world.

In His major prophecy of the end time given shortly before His death and resurrection, Jesus told His followers that famines would be one of several signs of the end of this age (Matthew 24:7). Food shortages, along with warfare, disease epidemics and various natural disasters, would escalate prior to His second coming. This warning is repeated in Mark 13:8 and Luke 21:11.

Perhaps many of the wars during this time will be over food supplies, and diseases will spread due in part to malnutrition. It's also probable that the prophesied natural disasters may bring on agricultural shortfalls.

Of course, famines arise not just from natural causes but also from wrong government policies. In the past century, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's attempt to seize Ukrainian farmland resulted in some 4 million peasants starving to death (The Sunday Times, Nov. 13, 2009). And according to Scripture, things will be even worse in the years to come.

Famine is among the terrible end-time occurrences personified by the infamous four horsemen of the Apocalypse, which are described in Revelation 6. The third horse and its rider, described in verses 5-6, represent famine and severe economic conditions: "When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, 'Come and see.' So I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, 'A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine.'"

At the time this was written, a denarius was the average pay a laborer would receive for a full day's work. The Expositor's Bible Commentary says the following about this passage: "This amount [of money] suggests food prices about twelve times higher than normal . . . and implies inflation and famine conditions . . . A quart of wheat would supply an average person one day's sustenance. Barley was used by the poor to mix with the wheat." The instruction to not harm the oil or wine implies that they also would be in short supply.

This prophecy foretells a time when people will be able to afford only the barest of necessities—just to survive. It will be a period of severe famine unlike anything in the past and global in its impact.

How close we are to this ultimate, end-time famine is uncertain. We may be witnessing the beginnings of a growing food shortfall right now. At the very least, we are seeing food shortages increase in severity, as Jesus long ago foretold in this prophecy.

Major threats to the world food supply

Not only do we have Bible prophecies relating to food shortages, but we can also see various factors at play in the world around us, each driving this trend of global food scarcity. It should be pointed out that some of these factors arise from governments and polices that interfere with production and distribution, distorting markets and denying people the economic liberties that could prevent or alleviate some of these problems. With that kept in mind, some of the biggest threats to the world food supply are:

Overpopulation. In recent years, the world population has been growing by 1.3 percent a year. That is a slower rate from the peak that occurred a few decades ago (2.1 percent per year in 1965-1970). However, since this growth rate acts on a much larger population base, the absolute number of new people per year (90 million) is at an all-time high, according to World Bank statistics. The vast majority of the world's population growth—roughly 90 percent—is in poorer developing countries.

In The Coming Famine, Cribb quotes agricultural scientist Derek Tribe: "If allowed to continue unchecked, exponential growth—albeit at a declining rate—will ultimately spell disaster for planet Earth. Finite resources such as water, soil, plants, forests, animals, energy and minerals, upon which all human life depends, will inexorably be destroyed, degraded, exterminated or used up" (p. 154).

Many scientists are echoing the same warning—that our earth will not be able to sustain an infinitely growing population of people, especially on Western-style diets. And while markets free of government interference would allow for the better accommodation of a considerably larger population, that is not the way of the world. 

Consumer demand. Meat consumption is soaring globally, particularly in the emerging economies of China, India and Brazil. "Their incomes have grown, and they can now afford a 'Western diet,' meaning a lot more meat," Gustafson notes.

In the last 30 years, China's annual intake of meat has quadrupled to 109 pounds per person, while Brazil's per capita meat consumption has doubled to 197 pounds a year. Per capita consumption of meat has also been rising in the United States, from 234 pounds a year in 1980 to 273 pounds today, according to the USDA.

"This dietary shift requires much larger quantities of grain to feed the livestock and poultry, compared to the more traditional grain-based diet they were eating before," Gustafson explains. By some estimates, it takes 8 to 10 pounds of wheat to produce a pound of beef, and 3 pounds of corn to produce a pound of chicken. This, in turn, puts a lot more demands on world grain supplies.

Overfishing. The world's fish stocks are dwindling, devastated by modern factory fishing techniques that use cutting-edge technology to target and harvest large populations of fish. "The demand for fish has become so high in some parts of the world, that fish are being taken from the oceans faster than they can reproduce," Gustafson says.

Globally, per-capita fish consumption has increased from 23 to 36 pounds per year over the last three decades, according to a report by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. At the same time, fish stocks have declined in all oceans to the point that they are "near or exceeding their maximum sustainable level of exploitation," the report says.

The FAO issued a similar warning in 2008, stating that "the maximum wild capture fishery potential" for the world's oceans as well as freshwater lakes and rivers, has probably been reached.

The international ocean conservation organization, Oceana, warns that ocean fish catches could collapse by the 2040s due to overfishing of wild stocks. This would be at a time when food production needs to double. If the billions of people who are used to getting their protein from fish can no longer get it, they will need to get it from the land—putting more demands on the livestock and poultry industry.

Water shortages. In many farming regions, usable water is scarce and likely to get scarcer in the years ahead, says David Molden, deputy director general for research at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). The grain-growing regions of northern China, India and Australia's Murray-Darling Basin, as well as farming areas in the western United States, Mexico and Pakistan, face "really tight" water situations, he warns.

Presently, farmers use about 70 percent of the world's freshwater to grow food. Crops are irrigated from rivers, lakes, reservoirs and aquifers, which are starting to be pumped dry in some areas.

By 2030, as cities expand in area and population and demand for water increases, the IWMI figures farmers will have about half as much freshwater available to grow their crops—paradoxically at a time when the world's food needs will have increased by 50 percent.

"Agriculture and irrigation methods must change for the world to produce enough food," Molden says. As much as 70 percent of water used by farmers never gets to crops and is lost through leaky irrigation channels. More precise water delivery systems would make irrigation more efficient.

Of course, the reality is that there is no shortage of water on earth. The atmosphere and oceans are filled with water. The issue of making use of this water is one of cost. A truly free market under a proper rule of law would enable the cost to come down, making more usable water available to those in need. But that is not the world we live in.

Loss of arable farmland. Many countries are running out of agriculturally useful land, severely limiting food production. The FAO warns that almost a quarter of the world's farmland is affected by serious degradation, up from 15 percent two decades ago.

The Futurist ran an article that explains the seriousness of the situation: "Soil erosion is currently lowering the inherent productivity of some 30% of the world's cropland. In some countries, it has reduced grain production by half or more over the last three decades.

"Vast dust storms coming out of sub-Saharan Africa, northern China, western Mongolia, and Central Asia remind us that the loss of topsoil is not only continuing but expanding. Advancing deserts in China—the result of overgrazing, overplowing, and deforestation—have forced the complete or partial abandonment of some 24,000 villages and the cropland surrounding them" (Lester Brown, "How to Feed 8 Billion People," January-February 2010).

At the same time, the world's cities are sprawling, gobbling up some of the earth's best farmland. In The Coming Famine Cribb notes: "In all, it is estimated, between 20,000 and 40,000 square kilometers (77-154 square miles) of good arable country is turned into 'concrete jungle' every year" (p. 58).

The result is a decrease in the amount of land, per person, in which to grow food. Cribb lists the findings of a study done by Rabobank, stating that "the area of food production has declined from 0.45 hectare (1.1 acres) per person in the 1960s to 0.23 hectare (0.6 acre) currently and will keep on falling as population rises, to around 0.18 hectare (0.4 acre) in 2050" (p. 48).

Cribb sums up the farmland crisis with a very astute observation: "Modern cities, which once supplied quite a lot of their own food, especially in the form of fresh fruit, vegetables and poultry—notably in Asia—have lately been planned and developed in ways that expel agriculture from within the urban perimeter. This is a piece of extraordinary blindness on the part of today's urban planners . . . which could well turn some of these giant cities into death traps in the event of serious future disruptions to food supplies" (p. 59).

Fertilizer crisis. Since the 1960s, farms around the world have been dependent on the use of chemical fertilizers, which many credit for the tripling of food production in the last 50 years. But now fertilizer is in short supply, and its cost is escalating, further driving up the price of food.

The problem is, the rise in demand for crop production has increased the price of fertilizer as nations hoard supplies for themselves. Adding to concerns is that one of the primary ingredients in fertilizer, phosphorus, is becoming scarce. Some have predicted that as early as 2035, the demand for phosphorus will outpace the supply.

Writes Cribb: "The world's main food crops are estimated to take up around 12 million tonnes (13.2 million U.S. tons) of phosphorus every year, whereas only 4 million tonnes of phosphorus are generated from natural weathering of rock or atmospheric deposition. This highlights civilization's critical dependency on the supply of artificial fertilizers, and our increasing vulnerability to any shortfall or disruption in supply . . . Worldwide, farmers today use seven times more fertilizer than they did a half century ago" (pp. 71-73).

Cribb and other agriculture experts worry there may not be enough fertilizer to go around in the future.

Biofuel production. Following the 2005 surge in U.S. gas prices, grain has been increasingly used to produce biofuels rather than food due to intrusive government policy. Many, like David Pimentel, an agricultural scientist with Cornell University, are concerned that the move toward such fuels is taking useful farmland out of food production in the United States. "Devoting land to growing biofuels exacerbates the problem of malnourishment worldwide by turning much-needed food grain into biofuel," he warns.

Not only has this resulted in less grain available for consumption, it has also caused an increase in food prices. "Using corn for ethanol increases the price of U.S. beef, chicken, eggs, breads, cereals and milk by 20 to 30 percent," Pimentel says.

Any food that has grain or even corn syrup as an ingredient is going up in cost. That includes meat, since grains are used as livestock and poultry feed. The whole situation seems to many to be a catch-22—we need fuel for our vehicles, but we also need food to live. However, as long as petroleum costs remain high, it is doubtful biofuel production will cease anytime soon.

Underinvestment in agricultural science. The rate of growth of agricultural research spending has been steadily declining since the end of the 1970s. National and regional governments, donors and investors, and academic institutions have all slashed funds for this kind of research.

Writes Cribb: "The powerhouses of agricultural knowledge—the United States, Germany, France, Japan, Canada and Australia—have turned away from agri-science in pursuit of other technological El Dorados. A report by Alex Evans for Britain's Royal Institute for International Affairs says that between 1980 and 2006 the proportion of the world's aid budget devoted to raising food output fell from 17 to just 3 percent" (p. 104).

Adds Gustafson: "The lag between research and increases in agricultural production is up to 35 years, which is why in some cases we are just starting to see evidence of this decline in R&D spending through falling productivity." This means farmers will have far less new technology to help them between now and 2030—at a time when we really need it.

Changes in climate and weather patterns. It's important to remember that some factors farmers are dependent on to grow their crops and raise livestock are beyond human control—namely adequate levels of rainfall, sunshine and temperate weather. With increasing occurrence, these factors seem less reliable. "Weather patterns have been changing, and are becoming more extreme and more unpredictable," observes Gustafson.

This past year, record-breaking heat and drought, often leading to wildfires, have plagued agricultural areas throughout the United States, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, India and Brazil, decimating crops. Heavy rain, monsoons or hurricanes have flooded farmland in Pakistan, China, Niger, the United Kingdom, Europe and much of the United States this past summer, literally washing away fields or causing crops to rot. Other countries have lost crops to late frost, unseasonably frigid weather, hail and cyclones.

Sub-Saharan Africa, the world's poorest area and one heavily dependent on subsistence farming, is the region of the world most threatened by changes in weather patterns, according to the FAO. About 95 percent of the region's cropland is rain-fed, making it particularly vulnerable to drought, which has been an intensifying problem for many decades.

Emerging agricultural diseases. With increased international travel and transport, changes in farming systems and weather patterns, and the clearing of previously untouched forests, many new agricultural pests and diseases have emerged in recent decades. The list includes mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease, rinderpest, African swine fever, avian influenza, Newcastle disease, and Rift Valley fever—all of which have wreaked havoc for livestock and poultry farmers, causing huge losses in production.

As far as crop diseases go, a huge concern right now is UG99, a rust fungus that attacks wheat and other grains, killing 90 to 100 percent of crops that become infected. UG99 produces red pustules on wheat stems, which can burst and spread countless spores on the wind.

The Southeast Farm Press reports: "UG99 was first detected in Uganda in 1999—hence the name—in eastern Africa. It has since spread to other African countries and was recently found in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan . . . Virginia Tech plant pathologist Erik Stromberg notes getting UG99 in the U.S. is likely more a matter of when, not if. 'With all the military personnel we have circulating through the Middle East, it's going to be difficult, if not impossible, to prevent the disease-causing spores from coming back to the U.S on equipment or clothing,' Stromberg says" (Roy Roberson, "UG99 a Future Threat to U.S. Wheat Growers," July 7, 2010).

It is estimated that 85 percent of the world's wheat varieties are susceptible to the disease. There is no known cure.

Spiritual causes. Ultimately, what's behind our modern-day food crisis is spiritual in nature. Mankind as a whole has rejected God, and He is not blessing the nations with the conditions needed for bountiful harvests and healthy livestock.

This is nothing new. Thousands of years ago, when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses told the people that if they obeyed the laws of God, they would be blessed with "rain in due season" and plentiful agricultural yields. However, if they rebelled against God, their crops would suffer and disease epidemics would afflict their flocks and herds (Leviticus 26:14-22; Deuteronomy 28:18).

God also warned that, because of disobedience, "you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it," and He further warned that He would "cut off your supply of bread" (Leviticus 26:16, 26).

As society's morals, values and behavior deteriorate at the end of this age, food shortages—due to bad weather, natural disasters, agricultural diseases, etc.—are once again a tool God will use to get humanity's attention.

A world of plenty is coming!

The world definitely faces enormous food-related hurdles. Cribb succinctly sums up the challenge this way: Worldwide food output needs to double in the next 40 years, using far less water, land, energy and fertilizer, and with less new technology available.

In the next 20 years, experts project a 33 percent growth in worldwide population. "Combined with increased consumption of meat as the global middle class grows larger, [this] means that food production must grow by at least 50 percent in that same period," Cribb warns. Put another way, world population and consumer demand are together rising at about 2 percent a year. Yet food output is only growing at about 1 percent a year.

Some agricultural research is now underway, but "not nearly enough," Gustafson says. Crop researchers are breeding new varieties of wheat in the hopes of finding some that are immune to the UG99 fungus. Livestock scientists are working on ways to produce meat with less feed. Researchers are trying to develop biofuels that use less corn. Genetic engineers are trying to develop new kinds of high-yield and pest- and drought-resistant crops. (Of course, even if they are successful, there is still a great deal of opposition to genetically modified crops in much of the world.)

Scientists may be able to make some improvements in the global food supply before we see the fulfillment of Revelation 6. Ultimately, though, science can't save us. Only God can provide the true solution to food crises and famines. And He will.

Someday in the future, Jesus Christ will return to set up God's benevolent government on earth. It will be a rescue mission to save humanity from itself (Matthew 24:21-22). Christ will rule the earth for 1,000 years with His Spirit-transformed saints, who will teach humanity about God's way of life (Revelation 20:4-6). This includes principles of true liberty—including economic liberty.

The nations will be blessed with good weather, abundant crops and productive farms. Amos 9:13 tells us, "'Behold, the days are coming,' says the Lord, 'when the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed; the mountains shall drip with sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.'" Even the deserts will become fertile and blossom like a rose (Isaiah 35:1-2, 6-7). It will be an age of peace, prosperity and abundance. Hunger and famine will be a thing of the past.

Certainly the news related to agriculture today is not terribly pleasant and can even be downright frightening. Yet we don't need to fear food shortages or any of the other serious problems this world faces. God is in charge. He is well aware of the problems on earth and will intervene when the time is right.

We always need to remember that. A new world is coming in which God will change the curses to blessings. What a wonderful time to be able to look forward to! GN

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