August 21, 2012
|Some scientists say the use of corn for biofuels is exacerbating the food crisis [Reuters]|
The world is on the brink of a food "catastrophe" caused by the worst US drought in 50 years, and misguided government biofuel policy will exacerbate the perilous situation, scientists and activists warn.
When food prices spike and people go hungry, violence soon follows, they say. Riots caused by food shortages - similar to those of 2007-08 in countries like Bangladesh, Haiti, the Philippines and Burkina Faso among others - may be on the horizon, threatening social stability in impoverished nations that rely on US corn imports.
This summer's devastating drought has scorched much of the mid-western United States - the world's bread basket.
Crops such as corn, wheat, and soy have been decimated by high temperatures and little rain. Grain prices have skyrocketed and concerns abound the resulting higher food prices will hit the world's poor the hardest - sparking violent demonstrations.
Early dryness in Russia's wheat growing season, light monsoon rains in India, and drought in Africa's Sahel region, combined with America's lost crop, mean a perfect storm is on the horizon.
Surging food prices could kick off food riots similar to those in 2008 and 2010, Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex Systems Institute, told Al Jazeera.
"Recent droughts in the mid-western United States threaten to cause global catastrophe," said Bar-Yam, whose institute uses computer models to identify global trends.
Hopes were high in May of a bumper corn crop this year, but sizzling temperatures in June and July scuttled those predictions. US corn yields are now expected to be the lowest in 17 years.
The United States accounted for 39 per cent of global trade in corn in 2011-12. Stockpiles are now down 48 per cent, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Corn prices have shot up 60 per cent since June 15.
Corn is a primary staple in Sub-Saharan Africa, and in much of Central and South America. In South Africa, the cost of maize has increased about 40 per cent in the last year, even before the US drought struck.
Bar-Yam highlighted the food riots of 2007-08 and 2010-11 that were fuelled by sudden and dramatic spikes in food prices. He said his institute recently entered data from the US drought into its computer model, which predicted the outbreak of food-related unrest "in a short period of time".
"When people are unable to feed themselves and their families, widespread social disruption occurs," Bar-Yam said. "We are on the verge of another crisis, the third in five years, and likely to be the worst yet, capable of causing new food riots and turmoil on a par with the Arab Spring."