David Richardson: Famine fears for the future

I’ve just finished BBC reporter Michael Buerk’s autobiography The Road Taken.

It’s a good read, recording the range of experiences and dangers faced by a top news reporter.

In one of the most harrowing sections Buerk recalls his exposé of the Ethiopian famine in 1984 that shocked the world and led, among other humanitarian efforts, to the Send a Tonne to Africa campaign.

I remember it well. We’d gathered a fantastic harvest in good weather. On this farm for the first time we had averaged over 10t/ha of wheat. Prices, supported by the EU, were good and there was a feeling in farming circles of well-being – until we saw the BBC news report.

I was co-presenting the Anglia TV farming programme with Oliver Walston and remember him bursting into the office saying we must do something.

All of us involved with the programme agreed. Oliver became UK farming’s equivalent of Bob Geldof.

We used Farming Diary (and Farmers Weekly) to virtually demand each farmer give a tonne of wheat, or £100 to the fund. The rest, as they say, is history.

Live Aid and other spin-offs are testament to the desire of compassionate people to try to alleviate human misery and avoid it happening again.

Governments, too, pay lip service although perhaps more cynically, for not all of them deliver on promises made at world forums.

Moreover, at the first World Food Summit in 1996 the FAO announced a target of halving the number of malnourished people on the planet by 2015.

As I was reminded by Harald von Witzke of Berlin’s Humboldt University when I was in Germany last week, that goal is out of reach. Close to a billion people are estimated not to have enough food and that number has increased significantly because of the credit crunch and high food prices last year.

As regular readers of these columns are aware, food security has been a pre-occupation of mine and I have argued for a more positive approach towards production and for targeted investment in research to increase productivity. By relying on imports from the Third World we are making things worse for those in greater need than ourselves.

The NFU promoted similar policies in its Farming Matters campaign.

But von Witzke and his colleagues concluded climate change with shortage of land and fresh water for irrigation will mean global production of food will decline leaving the expanding population disastrously short of food.

Even if massive sums were injected into research immediately, he says, it would be too late. For most agronomic developments of sufficient scale to deal with the emerging crisis will take too long and the global deficit is expected to be five times as great even by 2030 as it is now.

Hunger and malnutrition will increase, he believes, and the developing world will be hardest hit.

Prospects for us in the developed world are better in that most will have money to buy food.

But shortages will raise prices and consumers will pay more, which sounds like good news for farmers. Production will once again become the priority and we will have to deal with our guilt as best we can.

Meanwhile we struggle on with inadequate returns.

What do you think? Will climate change and increasing populations lead to food scarcity? Have your say in our forum.

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