Paul Roberts: “The Food Crisis Wasn’t a Blip”

In this USA Today column published last year, journalist Paul Roberts argues that, rather than consider last year’s food crisis as a one-off problem, we should regard it as a harbinger of things to come. The crisis was not a temporary blip, he argues. “If we’re serious about avoiding a repeat of today’s food crisis, we’ll need to significantly boost research in areas such as crop science, water conservation and natural fertilizers. Just as important, we’ll need to recognize today’s food crisis for what it is — not some once-in-a-lifetime perfect storm, but an early, and fairly tame, warning of the challenges ahead.”

You may wish to have a look at Roberts’ book The End of Food, which was published last year, or check out this video clip of a talk he gave early this year. You might also read this New Yorker article by Bee Wilson, which uses The End of Food as a starting point for a discussion of the global food system.

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2 Responses to “Paul Roberts: “The Food Crisis Wasn’t a Blip””


  1. 1 Chan Pui Ki, Kiki 14/10/2009 at 6:14 pm

    I think we are not using the most suitable resources to produce the things we want.

    An example is the use of natural gas to produce synthetic fertilizers. Prices of fossil fuels will only rise given their increasing depletion. Forty per cent of the world’s calories are produced with synthetic fertilizers but these fertilizers will cost two to three times more in five decades’ time. Self-efficiency should be achieved within individual farming systems whenever possible, such as through the use of green manure and compost as organic fertilizers. Organic farming also conserves soil, decelerating the pace of soil erosion and farmland loss. More high-yielding varieties can be invented to balance between sustainability and mass food production.

    Another example is the conversion of farmland to grow biofuels. The intension of using biofuels may not be bad, but any new solution should not be a new problem in itself. The recent world food crisis was partly caused by diverting food crops toward fuel production, a process which the United Nations called “a crime against humanity”. Though non-food crops are also used, food production can still drop because original farmland has its use converted. More next-generation biofuels such as the third-generation algae fuel should be developed.

    Volatile water supply has posed a huge challenge already. We should not add ever increasing links between our vital food production with even more volatility such as the supply of natural gas and the demand for biofuels.

  2. 2 Chow Chui Yin, Kuma 16/10/2009 at 2:19 am

    In the video Paul Roberts mainly mentioned the ills of our present agro-industry. He traced back the historical reasons why there came the use of antibiotics in livestocks and fish(now 2/3 of antibiotics produced by humans are used on our food) and why there came big ranches raising chicken with huge breasts. His concerns are that such streamlined centralised corporate farming pose dangers to our health, he recalled the E-coli cases as evidence.
    He summarized our food problem as one that between 1 billion people of overweight and eating too much and 1 billion people who don’t have enough to eat, we have a problematic mechanism for us to deal with our food supply.
    He mentioned in his video that middle scale farms are to be supported and subsidized and we’re subsidizing the wrong ones–the mega scale ones who are ‘already doing quite well’ on their own, so that we can avoid the adverse impacts of, like E-coli.
    I agree that we have to stop subsidizing mega scale farming, for avoiding health implications and environmental harms.

    ‘The track record of corporate farming is not as good as some government officials would have us believe. Financial clout and lack of local guidelines for land acquisition usually make it possible for big corporations to take over prime land. This leaves the poor farmers with less productive land to meet the food needs of the country and can endanger the long-term food sovereignty of impoverished host nations.

    Corporate farming, driven as it is by profit motives, has in the past shown little regard for environmental concerns and in fact caused irreversible environmental damage to leased land and its environs. With huge funds at their disposal, corporations find it easier to monopolise the water supply and other resources, thus depriving neighbouring farms of their rightful share. These are some of the many factors that can cause social and economic disempowerment of poor farmers who form the backbone of Pakistan’s agrarian system.’
    (http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/18-hunger-pangs-of-a-nation-am-08#)

    It’s alarming that it is exactly by resorting to mega scale farming that developing countries like China and India are trying and will continue to use this method to increase their food supply.

    We seem to have a whole array of food problems and all of these are substantial and will happen again time after time, therefore I do agree to Roberts’ saying the 2008 crisis was not one off, but a harbinger to come. Our food problems include:

    1. Increasing population and increased urbanization and therefore increased consumption of meat, partly due to spreading of Western diet and fast food culture to other parts of the world.

    As known, Chinese and Indian population will continue to expand, the better economies of the two result in the whole nations consuming more meat and growing more cattles, pigs etc will mean less land for growing crops and price of crops for the whole world increases. Environmental issues follow as water usage and green house gases increase due to increased percentage of livestocks.

    2. Degradation of environment for farming, polluted water, changing climate, natural disaster all affected the yields.

    3. Land-grab by foreign companies and laws against seed saving(http://www.vegsource.com/articles2/iraq_seeds.htm) are all endangering food sovereignty, especially in poor countries.

    4. Diverting farmland to grow biofuels keeps driving up the edible food’s price

    5. The whole world, developed countries and developing countries alike is not investing enough on technological advances that will boost crop yield and cut wastage in the farming process. Technology like GM is largely underdeveloped( see Paul Roberts’ article about four barriers to GM food, available on his website) and people are still not quite accepting GM food as the safety of such consumption lacks research and scientific evidence.

    Bottom line: people round the world especially in developed countries have to moderate their meat consumption, to ensure food security for the poor, self subsistent farming should be protected for the poor, land grabs by big companies are to be forbidden so to ensure local farmers have good quality land to farm alongside good water sources; seed saving has to be legal and advanced technology modified seeds have to reach farmers cheaply, states have to sponsor technological research for agriculture and bio-fuel producers should be taxed so that the country can buy enough food for its countrymen in need.


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