Is the food crisis over?

Is the food crisis over?

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By Sergio Schlesinger

It is true that, as with oil, the prices of a large part of the food traded worldwide fell precisely due to the financial crisis, which forced the withdrawal of speculative capital from the stock markets of export goods and at the same time reduced the demand for food. But what does this reduction in demand mean? Who is consuming less food? The recession or slower growth, rising unemployment, reduced incomes and remittances from migrant workers to their countries of origin all contributed to raising the number of chronically hungry human beings, for the first time, to more than one billion.

In the media, the global financial crisis replaced the space previously occupied by the food crisis. But while the news shows what they present to us as the tragedy of the millionaires, the food crisis continues and its foundations intact.

It is true that, as with oil, the prices of a large part of the food traded worldwide fell precisely due to the financial crisis, which forced the withdrawal of speculative capital from the stock markets of export goods and at the same time reduced the demand for food. But what does this reduction in demand mean? Who is consuming less food?

Many analyzes indicate that the financial crisis solved, or at least postponed, the food crisis. In an interview with Época magazine, Luiz Otávio de Souza Leal, chief economist at Banco abc Brasil, affirms that the world went through this process based on a question of demand:

“A very large growth of the economy and the incorporation of new consumers to the market were expected. That would put pressure on the price of food. The high price of oil would increasingly accelerate the search for alternative fuels, leading to a transfer of agricultural land for energy products. But after the fall of Lehman [1], that debate was postponed. " [2]

According to the Spanish journalist Javier Blas, the reality is very different: “A tsunami was the image to describe the blow of the food crisis last year. The current situation is more reminiscent of the slow and ruthless rise of a tide that gradually draws more and more people into the ranks of the malnourished. ” […] “We have not yet come out of the food crisis,” confirms Josette Sheeran, head of the United Nations World Food Program. [3]

The financial crisis not only pushed the food problem off the news, it also contributed to it. The recession or slower growth, rising unemployment, reduced incomes and remittances from migrant workers to their countries of origin all contributed to raising the number of chronically hungry human beings, for the first time, to more than one billion.

Unlike what happened with oil, prices did not fall significantly after this latest crisis. In April 2008, these were on average 60% higher than 18 months earlier. After a sharp fall, at the height of the financial crisis, the prices of the main agricultural products returned to the levels of mid-2007.

An example is the current price of Thai rice, a world benchmark. Its current price is $ 614 per ton, but it costs more than twice the average of the last ten years ($ 290 per ton). Domestic food prices in many developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, did not fall one bit and, in some cases, are rising again due to the impact of a poor harvest and a lack of credit for imports. Sheeran notes: “Local prices are going up. The price of corn in Malawi rose 100% last year, while wheat prices in Afghanistan are 67% higher than a year ago ”.

Also due to the financial crisis, farmers around the world are planting less. By reducing world production, they contribute to the overall increase in prices, despite lower demand. In the United States, the world's largest exporter of agricultural products, a reduction in planted area of ​​about three million hectares (equivalent to the territory of Belgium) is expected, representing the largest drop in the last twenty years.

In less developed countries, a big problem is the lack of resources to finance production. In them, a drop in productivity is also expected due to the lower use of fertilizers and better quality seeds.

Impacts of climate change

For Javier Blas, the main nightmare scenario for the agriculture and food aid authorities - and for the food sector - is that an “unexpected” wave of bad weather damages the next harvest. With stocks of agricultural export merchandise in decline for many years, this could cause a rise in prices, causing another crisis in addition to the economic one.

But for those who have accompanied agricultural harvests in recent years, the climatic problems do not exactly correspond to this "unexpected wave of bad weather." Droughts in various countries, excessive rainfall in others and climatic problems of all kinds that have been occurring are undoubtedly responsible for the damage to food production. What seems to escape the perception - or the interests - of many people is the constant increase in the frequency of the climatic problems that the world faces and that poses particularly serious obstacles to agricultural production. Little is said about the relationships between the expansion of monoculture and animal husbandry (extensive or intensive) models, deforestation, global warming, and crop failure.

The increase in temperature caused by the high concentration of greenhouse gases will have a negative impact on agriculture on almost the entire planet. Warming will bring some advantages only for crops in high latitude regions. By becoming less cold, these areas will be able to host plants that today do not resist the cold. But the expected damages are far more significant than the benefits. FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) affirms that food security can be impaired in the availability, access and stability of supply.

The melting of the Himalayan glaciers, for example, will damage the water supply to China and India, compromising their agriculture and exacerbating food insecurity in the world's two most populous countries. The same will happen in African countries that depend on rain-irrigated agriculture. In Africa the loss of agricultural production may reach 50% in 2020, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (picc).

For these scientists, with warming the tropics will suffer a reduction in rainfall and arable land. Even a rise in temperature from 1 ° C to 2 ° C can reduce crop productivity, increasing the risk of hunger.

The 2007/2008 Human Development Report of the undp (United Nations Development Program) estimated that, by 2080, there will be 600 million more undernourished people. Already today there is a greater number of lost crops and the death of cattle, highlights the World Bank's 2008 World Development Report. For Latin America, the picc foresees an aridification of the so-called semi-arid region and the “sabanization” of the eastern Amazon. The picc sees a loss of productivity for several crops, with worrying consequences for food security. Some of these projections were confirmed by a study by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Company (Embrapa) and the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) in 2008: most of the Brazilian crops will suffer with the increase in temperature.

The case of Brazil

Groups that have a deep-rooted way of producing, that have done so for 50, 100 years, will be forced to change. That is not easy. It has to change the way of creating grasslands - imported from Europe and the United States, with the model of razing entire areas, without any trees in the pasture. (Eduardo D. Assad, Embrapa)

Global warming may put Brazil's food security at risk for years to come. According to Embrapa and Unicamp, rising temperatures could cause $ 3.7 billion in grain harvest losses by 2020 - a loss that could jump to $ 7 billion by 2070 - and profoundly alter the geography of agricultural production in Brazil.

“The country is vulnerable. If current conditions continue, food production is threatened. Something has to be done, and soon, in political terms ”, warns the agricultural engineer Eduardo Assad, from Embrapa Informática Agropecuaria, who coordinated the study together with Hilton Silveira Pinto, from the Center for Meteorological and Climate Research Applied to Agriculture of Unicamp (Cepagri).

Future scenarios for nine crops (cotton, rice, coffee, sugar cane, beans, sunflower, cassava, corn and soy) were evaluated against the temperature increase predicted by the picc. The projections indicate that, with the exception of sugar cane and cassava, all crops will suffer a decrease in the areas favorable to their plantation. If nothing is done to mitigate the effects of climate changes or to adapt crops to the new situation, there will be a migration of crops to new regions in search of better climatic conditions. Areas that today are the largest grain producers may no longer be suitable for cultivation long before the end of the century. One of the most serious consequences, says Pinto, is that cassava can disappear from the semi-arid region. Although the crop benefits by moving to other parts of Brazil, it will disappear from where it is most necessary for food security today.

The study shows that the areas cultivated with corn, rice, beans, cotton and sunflower will also suffer a strong reduction in the Northeast region, with a significant loss of production. The entire area that corresponds to the northeastern Agreste, which today is responsible for most of the regional corn production, and the northeastern “Cerrados” region —the south of Marañón, the south of Piauí and the west of Bahia— will be the most affected. Coffee will have few survival conditions in the Southeast region.

In the southern region, today more limited in terms of crops adapted to the tropical climate due to the high risk of frost, there will be reductions in these extreme eventualities. The region will become conducive to planting cassava, coffee, and sugar cane, but not soy anymore. This crop will be the most affected by climate change. The study foresees a reduction of up to 41% in the low-risk area for the plantation of this grain throughout the country in 2070, in the worst scenario, generating losses of R $ 3.8 billion. This will be equivalent to half of the losses calculated for Brazilian agriculture sixty years from now as a result of global warming.

Sugarcane will be the biggest beneficiary of climate changes in Brazil. The crop adapts well to heat and will be able to spread over an area at least twice as large as it is today. Sugarcane, which today occupies about 7.8 million hectares, is expected to be able to spread up to 17 million hectares in 2020.

Global warming: another side of the coin. Economic activities directly related to agribusiness are among the main responsible for the emission of greenhouse gases in Brazil, especially deforestation, livestock and agriculture.

Deforestation, in which the Amazon stands out, is the main responsible for Brazilian emissions, with 55% of the total. It is followed by livestock and agriculture with 25% (roughly half of this each). Thus, 80% of current emissions in Brazil come from these three “sectors”.

Studies indicate that, if no measures are adopted, the share of the agricultural sector in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will increase from 25 to 29% between 2005 and 2030. Today the share of livestock is slightly higher, but agricultural activity tends to grow and exceed it. In livestock, methane gas emissions are the biggest problem.

There are other estimates of the share of cattle in GHG emissions in Brazil. According to Paulo Barreto, from the Institute of Man and the Environment of the Amazon (Imazon), there is no exact scientific study on the volume of the gei resulting from deforestation due to the formation of grasslands. “However, it is possible to estimate an approximate magnitude. If 75 to 80% of deforestation in the Amazon is due to the creation of grasslands, then only that process in the Amazon is responsible for 41 to 48% of Brazilian GHG emissions. ”

“Adding to that number the emissions from the cattle activity itself —according to recent studies, around 9% of the country's total emissions— we can conclude that directly or indirectly, beef produces 60% of Brazil's GHG. : more than triple the global average, which fao estimates at 18% 4. "

According to Matheus de Almeida, from the Luiz de Queiroz Higher School of Agriculture (esalq-usp), the national productive sector fears boycotts and tariff barriers since, according to the fao, the average emissions of Brazilian cattle (45 kg of CO2 equivalent ) is much higher than that of European cattle (between 15 and 25 kilograms of carbon) per 1 kilo of meat.

A recent study published by Cepea-esalq (Zen, 2009) indicates that, in addition to the destruction of ecosystems, soil degradation and contamination of water resources, livestock contributes significantly to global warming. “Due to the large number of animals around the world, calculations show that cattle emit about 9% of the total of these gases generated by human action. This participation is greater than that of sectors seen as polluting, such as the transport sector. "

The text of the esalq also points to the quality of livestock feed as responsible for the amount of methane gas emitted. “The first step in trying to reduce the share of livestock in global warming is increasing productivity through better quality food. Despite the increase in daily emissions, this action would decrease the life span of the animals and, according to the researchers, could reduce the methane emission per kilo of meat produced by 10% ”.

ESALQ recommends the adoption of more intensive production systems: improvement of pastures and implementation of the rotary system; semi-confinement and confinement, alternative systems such as tillage-livestock integration and silvipastoral systems (Zen, 2009).

Tillage-livestock integration, in turn, is also advocated by Abiove (Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oil Industries). To increase the income of rural producers requires “development of mechanisms that lead to diversification and the addition of value to grain production. This can be achieved by transforming the producer of grains (soybeans and corn), especially in the Cerrado, into a producer of meat (poultry and pigs) for export. The possibility of adding value to grain production through the production of meats for export would lead to generating the necessary resources to preserve the environment, carrying out conservation through sustainable use ”(Abiove, 2007).

What can we expect? The Ministry of Agriculture also defends this proposal. It states that in the coming years, some 30 million hectares of low-productivity pasture will have to be released for agriculture through the tillage-livestock integration system. In reality, what is proposed is the same integrated production model already in force for the production of chicken, pork, tobacco, soybeans and other agricultural products, through which the aforementioned added value is appropriated by large companies in the agro-industrial sector, in detriment to family farming. (Schlesinger, 2008)

Although the production of agrofuels (like the food crisis), does not frequent the headlines in recent times, it promises to continue growing and disputing the Brazilian territory, either with the production of food, or with its original vegetation. Sugarcane is the crop that should continue to grow more rapidly. Although this happens mostly in degraded areas, as announced by the government, other crops are displaced or reduced. In São Paulo, which already produces almost 60% of the country's sugar cane, this crop has been taking the place of livestock. It can be expected that, if current conditions are maintained, the Amazon will be the preferred region for the expansion of cattle in Brazil.

The Brazilian government has ambitious projects for oil palm. According to Folha de São Paulo, the first stage of the large-scale palm cultivation program, which is now receiving the final touches from the government, should occupy an area almost seven times the city of São Paulo with plantations in the Amazon. [5]

According to Reinhold Stephanes, Minister of Agriculture, the total area planned for the expansion of oil palm in the Amazon rainforest is ten times greater: equivalent to the size of the state of Perna-mbuco. According to him, 10 million hectares may be occupied by the "first cousin of the ama-zonic palm trees." Saying "first cousin" is part of the strategy to achieve the change in the Brazilian Forest Code that would allow the recomposition of deforested areas of the Amazon with species exotic to the jungle, as is the case of the oil palm, native to Africa.

It is estimated that the area planted today is 70 thousand hectares, 7% of the initial goal of the government. “With one million hectares, we can stop importing and guarantee the production of biodiesel up to the B-5 phase (a 5% diesel mix). This is economically, socially and environmentally optimal ”, asserts the minister. It is evident that the expected deforestation would be responsible for a much greater greenhouse gas emission than the reduction obtained with the substitution of diesel.

In terms of monocultures to produce energy, a considerable increase in the area planted with eucalyptus is expected, and not only to expand the production of paper and cellulose. The steel industry's plans include a strong increase in plantations in order to supply its furnaces with charcoal obtained exclusively from eucalyptus.

The executive secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Silas Brasileiro considers: “we have the climate, the soil and the conditions to supply the entire market, mainly the steel industry. If we worry about using degraded areas, especially grasslands, for growing forests, we will have income for the producer and supply for the market without opening new areas ”. All these projects promise to be developed in areas of former degraded grasslands. In international trade negotiations, the government has privileged the elimination of external barriers to agricultural products, especially meat and biofuels, to further increase its exports. If everything happens as the Brazilian government wishes, cattle ranching and monocultures will continue to grow and, with them, the extension of degraded areas. And so (it must be recognized) very soon there will be no lack of degraded areas.

Sergio schlesinger -Spanish version of Alejandro Reyes / Alberto Villarreal

Source: Biodiversity, livelihoods and cultures - Grain


1- Lehman Brothers, an American bank that closed its doors in September 2008.

2- Business Period. “Retrospective 2008 —Crise financeira guideline or day-to-day no world”. 04/13/09.

3- Javier Blas. "Maré impiedosa de fome global reaches 1 bilhão". Financial Times, June 7, 09.

4- Igor Zolnerkevic, "Efeitos globais do bife brasileiro". Scientific American Brasil, no. 82, March 2009.Available at

5- Marta Salomon. "Government will expand dendê na Amazônia." Folha de São Paulo, April 5, 2009.

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