AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 4/2008

Our Hungry Planet The Choice between Food and Fuel

Part 4: Can the Poor Afford to Eat?


In Germany, the rapeseed plant has displaced many other crops. Few farmers plant feed peas or beans anymore. Rapeseed fields, with their yellow flowers, take up the largest amount of space -- 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres), or about 60 percent more than in 2000 -- among renewable commodities. Some of the expansion comes at the cost of fallow land, green space and bogs -- in other words, natural CO2 sinks.

A simple calculation points out biofuel's less-than-stellar potential. To fill the roughly 100-liter (26-gallon) tank of an SUV, an ethanol producer has to process about a quarter of a ton of wheat. This is enough wheat for a baker to bake about 460 kilograms of bread, which has a total nutritional value of about a million kilocalories -- enough to feed one person for a year.

So are the SUVs of the rich ultimately consuming the bread of the poor? According to Lester Brown, the president of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, this question sums up the essence of a new clash between North and South. "The stage is clear for a conflict between 800 million car owners and the two billion people who represent the poorest of the poor worldwide."

The poor are the first to feel the painful effects of turbulence in agricultural markets. Some spend up to 80 percent of their disposable income on food. "The world's poorest people are especially hard-hit," says John Powell, the deputy executive director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP). The WFP is the world's largest humanitarian organization. It provides food to roughly 90 million people in places where the need is greatest: refugee camps, regions devastated by flooding and war zones. The WFP derives half of its funding from charitable donations and the other half from the contributions of UN member states. Much of the money goes to purchasing grain -- expensive grain. "We now need more money to achieve the same goals," says Powell.

Unable to Feed Their Own Families

He has mixed feelings about rising grain prices. On the one hand, higher prices on the world market enable farmers in Africa to sell their grain for more money, partly by doing business with the WFP. The organization buys about two-thirds of its food reserves in developing countries. On the other hand, it is part of a bitter reality in the developing world that even the rural population is often forced to supplement its harvests by purchasing additional wheat or corn. In some cases, farmers are unable to feed their own families with the crops they produce.

They are also plagued by another factor of uncertainty: Climate change makes every harvest a gamble, both in the developing world and elsewhere. In Australia, crop yields have remained well below long-term averages for the last three years in a row. In northwestern China, desertification is gradually consuming more and more agricultural land, with ground water levels declining by more than a meter a year in some areas. "China has acute problems with its water sources," a study by the US Department of Agriculture warns. Economists expect that the Chinese will have to develop other solutions to their water problem, probably by importing "virtual water," by which they mean grain.

Genetically modified crops are seen by many as the solution to coming food shortages.
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Genetically modified crops are seen by many as the solution to coming food shortages.

China already depends heavily on Brazil for its grain imports, and the two countries have signed extensive supply agreements. The world's pantry can apparently offer virtually unlimited capacity to satisfy Chinese demands -- but this comes at a high price for the rest of the globe. Ancient rainforests are being destroyed. As the agricultural industry expands its sugarcane plantations, soybean farmers are forced to move closer to the Amazon, where they buy land from cattle ranchers. The ranchers, in turn, burn down the rainforest to create new grazing land.

This illustrates how the scarcity of agricultural commodities contributes to the destruction of highly vulnerable vegetation zones, not just in the Amazon region, but also in Malaysia and Indonesia, where oil is derived from the fruit of palm trees. Environmental activists refer to the product as "clear-cutting diesel." According to Paulo Adario of Greenpeace Brazil, "the rainforest burns when the prices of soybeans and ethanol go up."

New Approaches

Nothing illustrates more clearly than slash-and-burn deforestation how valuable and scarce fertile soil is and will remain, as long as the demand for agricultural commodities continues to grow. If agriculture hopes to even come close to satisfying global demand, it will have to find new approaches.

Depending on the development of even more powerful and efficient machines will hardly do the trick. Technology is not expected to yield any significant advances anymore. Fifty years ago, it took a farmer 30 hours to harvest his crops on one hectare (2.47 acres) of land. Today a combine can complete the same task in 20 minutes, and it can harvest 60 to 70 tons of wheat an hour -- enough to provide medium-sized city with a day's worth of bread. The real challenge will be to maximize crop yields on limited amounts of arable land.

The world has faced a similar challenge once before. In the 1960s, underdeveloped nations began using agricultural technology to combat poverty and hunger. Farmers bought improved seed, especially hybrid varieties, and used fertilizer, pesticides and more efficient irrigation systems. Between 1970 and 1995, farmers in Asia managed to double their yields, even though the amount of land they farmed grew by only 4 percent. In those days, the phenomenon was dubbed a green revolution.

Today there is renewed talk of a revolution, a second green revolution, but this time it has been triggered by genetic engineering. Scientists have developed technologies to make crop plants resistant to pests or immune to weed killers. These interventions promise higher yields and better quality, and in doing so they offer the promise of solving the global food problem -- but only as long as this is what the world wants.

In an industrial zone in the southern part of Gent, in Belgium's eastern Flanders region, Bayer CropScience operates a laboratory where 120 researchers are developing the plants of tomorrow. They are plants designed to withstand virtually any form of stress -- plants that will not wither during dry periods, will not wilt in the heat and will be capable of surviving floods -- in other words, plants that are capable of surviving the effects of climate change.

Michael Metzlaff, a scientist at the Gent facility, uses a plastic card to gain access to the inner sanctum, a room filled with shelves of labeled preserving jars, each containing a seedling. The seedlings look like normal rapeseed plants, but these specimens are everything but ordinary. Metzlaff has deliberately inhibited the activity of specific genes in the plant that normally consume a lot of energy in response to stress, thereby damaging the plant. The process, known as "gene silencing," suppresses this automatic behavior.

'Normally Fatal'

According to Metzlaff, crop yields went up by almost 40 percent when these test plants were used in the field. He subjected the plants to stress tests, including nine days of temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), followed by two days of complete dryness. "This would normally be fatal," he says, but not for the genetically engineered plants. They thrived, while the control plants withered and died. His high-stress rapeseed plants will have to pass an entire series of field tests, and Metzlaff estimates that it will take eight years before the plants are ready to be marketed. At that point, the question remains whether government agencies, especially in Europe, will even grant licenses for the genetically modified (GM) plants.

For years the European Union has adopted a restrictive stance on GM plants, unlike the governments in Canada, Brazil and the United States, where farmers use GM products as a matter of course. Worldwide, GM plants already grow on more than 100 million hectares (247 million acres), or 7 percent of all area under cultivation. The technology is especially common with soybean, corn and cotton plants. But so far Europe has been passed over by the genetic wave.

Europeans are highly skeptical of all products originating in genetic laboratories. Critics at Greenpeace warn of unpredictable consequences when plants and animals are genetically modified. They argue, for example, that manipulation can lead to allergic reactions, that growing GM plants jeopardizes natural diversity and that the consequences have not been sufficiently studied. Bayer researcher Metzlaff has little patience for these arguments. He says that humans have cultivated and bred plants for centuries. In the past, the success of their efforts depended on chance, whereas today's geneticists can precisely instill plants with desirable attributes. "This can speed up the work by years," says Metzlaff.

The domestic livestock industry is already feeling the effects of European reticence. The prices of animal feed have risen drastically, partly because imports of corn gluten from the United States have practically ground to a halt. The EU practices a policy of zero tolerance, banning the importation of anything that is not licensed in Europe. This begs the question of how long Europe can afford this solo effort. The second green revolution is already underway everywhere else, says Michael Schmitz, an agricultural economist in the central German city of Giessen. He is convinced that Europe will change its position sooner or later.

Decades of Shortages?

Schmitz has observed the global agricultural markets for years. Thanks to a complex computer program he and his research team have developed, the professor can even steal a glimpse into the future. The program simulates what happens when the agricultural conditions change -- as is currently the case.

To run the program, Schmitz feeds vast amounts of data into the computer, including population growth and income development figures, as well as columns of numbers relating to the production, consumption and costs of agricultural commodities. In a probable scenario, demand will continue to rise, because emerging economies like China, India and Indonesia still have a lot of catching up to do. "We have to get used to the idea of a prolonged phase of rising prices," says the professor.

How long would it last? Although Schmitz doesn't want to pin himself down, he says that the current shortages are not a phenomenon that will end in a few months -- or even in a few years. Schmitz predicts: "This could continue for two or three decades."

By Alexander Jung, Jens Glüsing, Frank Hornig and Wieland Wagner

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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