Earth Chat

Finding a way out of soaring food inflation (part 1)

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Found on the Internet, "Green vegetables, plump gourds, abundant yield” (Artist: Jin Meisheng) is a New Year's calendar painting from the 1960s in mainland China, portraying the joyful scene of a bountiful harvest of vegetables in a farm village. In the Great Leap Forward, the society was in pursuit of "quality" and "quantity". Half a century later, although technological advances have satisfied the basic necessities for life (for food and clothing), people around the world are facing an ever more serious threat—the natural resources we depend on for survival and well-being are being depleted.

Chemical pollution, environmental degradation, climate change, more frequent and severe floods and droughts, soil erosion, loss of soil fertility, food contamination, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, widening wealth gap, famine... they are familiar terms for us, pointing to the consequences of industrial agriculture. Since the mid-20th century, agriculture has been gradually mechanised with artificial chemicals to boost yield, followed by the globalisation of agricultural trade.

Furthermore, the ongoing economic impact brought by inter-country conflicts, disruption of food supply chain and COVID-19 has resulted in inflation rates of over 5% in 90% of the world's countries. As consumers, we must have experienced the impacts of food inflation over the past couple of years. According to the World Bank, as of July 29, 2022, the price index for agricultural products was 19% higher than that of January 2021. While rice price was down about 14%, corn and wheat prices were up 16% and 22% respectively. [1]

Countries in Asia, Africa and South America are arguably the most vulnerable regions to escalating food prices. In 2022, countries such as Iran, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Sudan, Albania, Peru, Tunisia and Lebanon are suffering from food shortages. According to "The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022”, the number of people affected by hunger rose to 828 million in 2021, seeing an increase of approximately 150 million compared to before the COVID-19 outbreak. [2] As for Hong Kong’s hungry population, an NGO pointed out that 1.3 million people are living below the poverty line. A survey also showed that two-thirds of low-income families are underfed and 20% of poor families are living in hunger.

Most multinational agricultural companies, including Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge, have established strategic partnerships with seed, pesticide and biotechnology companies. With 80% of the world's food trade under their control, the agricultural models they adopt would tend to maximise profits for their partner companies to achieve profit leverage. [3],[4]

As a result of globalisation and free trade, global demand and profitability have increased drastically, leading to the rapid expansion of entrepreneurial agriculture in many South American countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia. According to some reports, the Paraguayan government has illegally sold or leased public land, on which small farmers have relied for livelihood, to closely-related politicians and business figures in the soybean industry, resulting in the monopoly of land property rights by a very small group of people. 

As can be seen, some people are controlling most of the market power. Food and money represent political power, if it happens to fall into the hands of the ill-intentioned, it would greatly affect people from all walks of life. Unfortunately, small farmers who were once subsistent have been forcibly evicted, along with the permanent destruction of tropical rainforests and grasslands.[5] As farmers lose their homes, the production of other non-mainstream crops such as rice, corn, sunflower, and wheat are shrinking rapidly, causing the negative impact of monoculture and GM crops to emerge.

According to a study, soybean farms in Paraguay use more than 10 million litres of pesticides and herbicides each year. [6] In addition to damaging the environment, these chemicals pose a serious health risk to the local population. To make matters worse, the media tend to refrain from reporting suspected cases of illness and death caused by chemical overdose, whitewashing multinational corporations. The media is under pressure to deny the potential harm caused by "agrotoxins"; some newspaper owners even ban these terms and urge reporters to use only "agrochemicals" when reporting these incidents.

Since the discovery of the wheat stem rust fungus Ug99 in Uganda in 1999, it has spread to fields in Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Iran, and could likely affect 80% of wheat varieties in Asia and Africa. The biggest impact is on large wheat fields that apply genetically modified varieties and monoculture systems. That is what it means when we say, "a drop of ink stains a glass of water”.

Biodiversity is a macro concept, and many people may not be aware of how closely it is related to our food. In fact, it has a lot to do with food safety. Biodiversity consists of three dimensions: genetic diversity, species diversity, and ecological diversity. Most of our food, medicine and raw materials are provided by various species. All organisms on Earth depend on biodiversity, which is essential for the sustainable development of human beings. If biodiversity continues to decline, we may face major food crises in the near future.

While comfortably living in Hong Kong, have you ever sat down and thought about where your food comes from? Some agricultural products are sold at a low price at the expense of land and labor exploitation, hiding under the façade of feeding an ever-expanding population. In face of imminent food crisis, some people may think there is no way out of this problem: how can we possibly change what is happening in Africa or South America single-handedly?

According to a report by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the global urban population has already surpassed the rural population in 2008. [7] The market for agricultural products is concentrated in cities to meet the needs and consumption patterns of urban dwellers. As urbanites, Hong Kong imports a lot of food and agricultural products from the mainland and overseas. Can our consumption and local agricultural production be gradually transformed?

Do we have a way out in this seemingly irreversible trend? Stay tuned for my next article.

Interested Topic:
Urban Farming

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