David's Blog on SOM3 Beijing - Post 2

August 14, 2014

Food Security Issues in APEC

Note: This is a big week for Food Security issues in APEC, with an array of meetings from Thursday. But I am unable to attend them because of meeting conflicts. Instead, here are some thoughts on the issue that I contributed to the South China Morning Post today (August 14):
What do Mount Tambora and MH17 have in common? Since you probably don’t know anything about Mount Tambora, the question is a cruel one, but the answer is simple: they both offer big lessons on food security.

And food security is much on my mind at present, because of big APEC meetings on the subject up in Beijing this week, and some pretty serious anxieties on how business can engage most effectively to keep us on track to achieve food security in the region by 2020 – APEC’s declared aim since leaders met in Vladivostok two years ago.
So what about Mt Tambora, on Sumbawa island east of java, which in April 1815 almost exactly 200 years ago provided the hugest volcanic eruption in recorded human history? Not Krakatoa, or Vesuvius, or Mt St Helens in 1980, or Mt Pinatubo in 1991, or that unpronounceable Icelandic volcano – Eyjafjallajokull - that erupted in 2010, provided us with our hugest volcanic eruption.
And before dozens of pedants start emailing, let me emphasise we are talking here about recorded human history. If you want the biggest daddy of them all, predating recorded human history, you have to go back to Lake Toba 74,000 years ago, the biggest explosion in 25 million years. Lake Toba blasted up into the stratosphere around 2,800 cubic kilometers of “ejecta” – compared with just 1 million from Mt St Helens.

Since Lake Toba, the meanest, and most damaging explosion has been Mt Tambora, which threw up about 160 cubic kilometers of “stuff”. The result: virtual volcanic winter for the entire globe for at least three years. Like most people, I had never heard of it. Until recently, few people had been able to join up the dots between Mt Tambora and climatic calamities across the globe. Now we know it caused catastrophic crop failures across China, the United States and Europe. It stalled monsoon rains for three years in India, bringing three years of crop failures and ravaging millions with cholera. In Yunnan, millions starved. In Ireland, millions starved. In Switzerland, they talked of glacier “tsunamis” surging down farming valleys. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein under the gloomy influence of those awful non-summers between 1815 and 1819.
And how does this link to this week’s debate on APEC food security? The main lesson of Tambora is that many parts of the world needed food stocks amounting to three years of farm output if they were going to escape famine. Today, we talk of food security not in terms of three years of reserves, but in terms of three months. Last year, a bumper farm production year, we had cereal stocks worldwide amounting to three months of consumption, and rice stocks amounting to about 4 months.
And then there is the downing of MH17 in Ukraine, and the ominous stand-off it has triggered between Russia and Nato. As governments struggle to avoid a slippery slope into military conflict and perhaps world war, so they have resorted to sanctions and food embargos. Suddenly the free trade in food products that is supposed to provide us with food stability worldwide is looking rather fragile.
Whether we look at Mt Tambora, or Putin’s food embargoes, it seems clear our assumption that food security is achievable by 2020, even after two years of bumper harvests worldwide, is looking a tad complacent.
It will be intriguing in Beijing this week to discover whether discussions on food security have been reframed in any way by Russia’s assault on free trade in food. One suspects they will not be reframed. If global food markets are any guide, with prices for most farm products looking steady almost everywhere except in sugar and cocoa, our governments seem complacently unconcerned.
Surely this is a mistake. While food production is looking steady, and food consumption in the rich western economies is stable, China’s fast-rising appetite for more meat protein and processed foods is pushing global demand inexorably upwards. China’s wheat imports have jumped 50-fold since 1980, while pork consumption has jumped five-fold to 50m tonnes a year – half of world consumption, and six times more per capita than Americans consume.
The flip side of marvelous success in cutting the world’s under-nourished from over a billion to 840 million is that food consumption is rising sharply in the poor developing parts of the world. Along with this, land and water resources are under increasing stress, and environmental damage is immense.
The fact that APEC officials are dedicating serious attention to food security is commendable. But the fact that they have after two years still refused to define what they mean by “food security” is a source of concern. We are hoping there will not be another Mt Tambora, nor three volcanic winters, any time soon. But even without such a catastrophe, the challenges we face in providing the world’s 7 billion people with food security are more acute than many presume.

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