Complicated Stew

First, a roundup of Al Gore news. Why? Because, gentle readers, I wish to remind all of you that I called Gore in 2008 way back in 2000, and I’m loathe to admit fault in my predictions:

1. One more reason to dislike Hillary Clinton: she eats her party’s legacy for personal gain, slamming Gore to get to Obama.

2. Meanwhile, while nonetheless an empty candidate, Obama has the honesty to proclaim Al Gore to have been the Presidential winner in 2000. Since this statement is sure to bring out the wingnuts who will crow on about how Bush won because the Supreme Court said so, yadda yadda, I direct you to this interesting analysis that suggests otherwise.

3. Lastly, a reminder that there still exists a “Plan B” for putting Albert on the ticket, even at this late date.

But today’s real topic is the current global food crisis. I gave a talk to students on Monday on the topic of hunger and global development. Here are some sobering stats from the International Food Policy Research Institute:

The number of hungry people in the world (i.e., not receiving enough calories): 0.9 billion
The number of underweight children: 143 million
The number of people with micronutrent deficiencies (i.e., with diets not diverse enough): >2 billion
The number of obese or overweight people: 2 billion

That leaves the number of people in the world with adequate and appropriate caloric intake as about a third of humanity. In this age of high tech wizardry, a third is pitiful.

We are currently seeing food riots in Haiti, parts of Africa and Asia and elsewhere. I and others predicted this years ago, but I’m surprised to see it so soon. I thought we had another couple of decades before a food crisis became sufficiently felt to warrant rioting.

Also eyeballing from some data from the IFPRI, over the past 18 months, the price of grains and cereals and oils and fats has gone up almost 100%. The price of dairy products has gone up about 50%. The price of meat has ironically stayed the same. Nasty Nicky B. over at Log Base 2 has some pretty graphs of these trends.

To what do we owe these trends?

1. The increasing price of fuel is finally manifesting in the price of food. It takes fuel (oil) to run agricultural machines, factory farming machines, and –most critically– the transports needed to move food from its production centres to everywhere else.

2. The growing middle class in places like China and India is demanding luxuries akin to those enjoyed in the West, among them…. meat. Remember your basic biology? It takes orders of magnitude more investment of food and energy to raise an animal for slaughter than it does to produce plant foods for direct consumption by people. I love my steak, too, but I recognize that large scale meat production is anathema to feeding large numbers of people.

3. The new press for biofuels (ethanol), as a response to increasing costs and decreasing supplies of oil, has raised the value and thus the price of foods like corn, which are now being grown as much for fuel production as much as for consumption. Privately, I feel the conversion of food to fuel to be downright horrific and a crime against humanity. Scientifically, it is neither cheap, sustainable, efficient or even ecologically friendly, since one needs to burn fossil fuels to produce ethanol.

And the bugaboo that runs through all these threads is, of course, Climate Change, which threatens to alter agricultural patterns, insect and bird behaviours, and hydration (rainfall, drought, etc) patterns. Changes are already manifesting.

Another factor is cultural, one for which we should all be ashamed. For the first time in human history, the 20th century saw wide scale development of arable land for industrial purposes. This is also horrific. Previous generations sought to build communities on rock or hillsides, places on which no true farming could be done. This was a recognition of our need to preserve arable land for the purposes of food production.

But suddenly we see cornfields being replaced by stripmalls, rich soil salted and paved over. Increasing population with an increasing apetite and now decreasing arable land equals a recipe for disaster. Again, Climate Change will exacerbate this trend, by flooding rich deltas and other traditional regions of prime agricultural activity.

In the short term, emergency food aid sent to needy areas seems like a good idea, but it, too, is fraught with complications. African economist James Shikwati believes that when the West sends emergency food aid to stricken areas of Africa, it undermines indigenous food production efforts by forcing prices below sustainable levels. Then there’s the trend of local warlords stealing emergency food and selling it on the Black Market for money with which to buy guns.

It’s all a nasty, complicated stew.

In Other News…

For those who like dry, scientific stuff, here’s a link to a recent study on treatments for macular degeneration, sponsored by the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health (CADTH), and for which yours truly served as an external reviewer.

I stole the following video from Dawn’s blog. It’s “An Engineer’s Guide to Cats“:

And because I can’t think of anywhere better to put this…