Farm technology is driven by lucrative markets, not by hunger
The wave of demonstrations rippling across the Middle East has been partly driven by escalating food prices.
Millions live on the edge of poverty and just seeing what happened in Egypt and Tunisia shows how those on the brink can get motivate in a hurry to demand change. In Cairo they shouted, “Bread, Liberty and Dignity.”
It’s not that the world is producing less food; the irony is that technology has boosted yields. But eating habits have shifted and that’s stoking global instability. As living standards rise in the developing world, people want more meat and quality food, which takes more land and energy resources per calorie to produce.
“We are before a catastrophe; wars over water and food,” says Haim Aloush chief executive officer, Agro-Mashov. “The world population has grown over the past 70 years from two billion to seven billion people. More than 60% of the world is modifying their diets to eat food made from livestock and that requires five times as much farm land and water than food from crops.”
The latest international survey on food prices says 44 million people have been forced to the brink of poverty due to soaring food prices. Earlier in March, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned that a food crisis was eminent as prices have risen to their highest levels in 20 years.
The FAO’s director-general, Jacques Diouf, said countries in North Africa and the Middle East have made large grain purchases to head off unrest, which has toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and threatened Yemen and Libya. He added that South Korea and Mexico, too, had started major stockpiles of grain and corn.
Ironically, as the world grows hungrier, people in the world’s wealthiest countries are growing fatter and their demands for higher-protein foods is driving farmers to devote resources to cater to them at the expense of social and political instability in poorer countries and irreparable environmental damage.
Israel has emerged as a pioneer in agricultural technology. Experts have been working to increase agriculture output with less or brackish water. At a recent agriculture conference and exhibition in Tel Aviv called the Agro-Mashov, thousands of farmers and researchers from around the world came to see what Israel had to offer.
The self-proclaimed “World Cup of Agriculture” had glitzy Israeli stalls pushing everything from high tech fruit sorters, genetically modified fruit flies and sophisticated milking sensors. It is easy to see that innovation is driven not so much by the desire to feed the hungry, but to reach the growing lucrative markets.
“Every farmer that grows products and wants to export it to the European or North American market has to bring a perfect product to the market,” says Menashe Tamir, general manger of Eshet Eilon Industries. Tamir’s company produces sensitive fruit sorters that pack crates of nearly identical unbruised fruit for top price markets.
“The food that goes through this machine is either going to the European market or the American market or high class market in the developing countries. There is a big niche in the Chinese market. There are many rich people over there. In every country in the world there are rich people,” Tamir says.
Israel is the world leader in per cow milk yield. Semen from prize Israeli bulls is sought after across the globe. The Afimilk dairy farm management consultants have helped set up dairy farms in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and China.
“In the world today there is a growing number of middle class and their demand for protein out of livestock is increasing. That is why there is a lot of demand for meat products and milk products,” says Baruch Fine, who is responsible for overseas development for Afimilk. “Also, because of the reduction of fish in the world there is a big focus on milk products.”
Ronnie Friedman, head of The Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture, warns that just keeping up with food supplies is damaging the earth in unparalleled ways.
“Our goals are to increase productivity and protect the environment. With modern agriculture, we cannot continue to exploit the environment as we once did,” Friedman says. “Food production is not keeping up with global growth. In the next 20 to 30 years there won’t be enough food because there is a limited amount of arable land.”
According to Friedman, in the 1950s there were 2.5 billion people on earth and one hectare of arable land for every 1.7 people. Today one hectare needs to feed 4.2 people and by the middle of the century when world population will reach and estimated 10 billion one hectare will need to support seven people.
“This is a dramatic increase,” Friedman says.
Rising oil prices also have an indirect affect on food due to increased transportation costs and agriculture inputs like fertilizers. Ironically, the quest for oil alternatives such as biofuels have diverted 120 million tons of cereals away from human consumption and developed countries had even paid $13 billion in annual subsidies to encourage this, according to the UN’s Diouf.
In the United States, corn stocks have dipped to a 15-year low as more is being diverted to make ethanol, according to the UN’s WFO.
Bob Calala, president of the Ohio Aquaculture Association, who was visiting the Agro-Mashov conference, says the oceans were being overfished and fish farming was suffering due to a lack of grains and other feeds used in aquaculture.
“There is really not enough feed,” says “[The world] is using the grains once used for fish food and turning them into biofuels and other areas that are not feeding the people.”
He says he hopes the global food crisis would spare American shores.
“We’re kind of a land of plenty and people have really not experienced the lack of basics as they have in other places in the world. We want to head that off before it gets to that point. And we hope that we can use some of the Israeli technology to do that,” Calala says.