Food security erupts onto global trade agenda

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 August, 2014, 12:17pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 1:24am

What do Mount Tambora and Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 have in common?

Because you probably don't know anything about Mount Tambora, the question is a cruel one, but the answer is simple: they both offer big lessons on food security.

The topic is on my mind because of Apec meetings in Beijing this week where there were serious anxieties about how business can help to achieve food security in the region by 2020 - the goal declared by Apec's leaders when they met in Vladivostok two years ago.

Our assumption that food security is achievable by 2020 … is a tad complacent

Mount Tambora matters because when it erupted almost 200 years ago in April 1815, it threw up 160 cubic kilometres of "stuff" that shrouded the globe in virtual volcanic winter for at least three years.

It caused catastrophic crop failures across China, the United States and Europe. It stalled monsoon rains in India, triggered successive crop failures and ravaged millions with cholera. In Yunnan, millions starved. In Ireland, millions starved. In Switzerland, they talked of glacier "tsunamis" surging down farming valleys.

Krakatoa, Vesuvius, Mount St Helens in 1980, Mount Pinatubo in 1991, and Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull, which erupted in 2010, were nothing compared with Mount Tambora.

Yet it wasn't anywhere close to being the biggest volcanic eruption in human history.

The biggest daddy of them all, predating recorded human history, was that of Lake Toba 74,000 years ago - the biggest explosion in 25 million years. It blasted up into the stratosphere around 2,800 cubic kilometres of ejecta. Since Lake Toba, the meanest, and most damaging explosion has been Tambora.

Until recently, few people had been able to join the dots between that eruption and global climatic calamity.

Now we know Mount Tambora's lesson is that many parts of the world needed food stocks amounting to three years of farm output if they were going to escape famine.

Today, we talk of food security not in terms of three years of reserves, but in terms of three months.

Last year, a bumper farm production year, we had cereal stocks worldwide amounting to three months of consumption, and rice stocks amounting to about four months.

Meanwhile, the downing of MH17 in Ukraine has triggered an ominous stand-off between Russia and members of Nato.

As governments struggle to avoid a slippery slope into military conflict, they have resorted to sanctions and food embargoes. Suddenly the free trade in food is looking fragile.

Whether we look at Mount Tambora, or Russian President Vladimir Putin's food embargoes, it seems clear our assumption that food security is achievable by 2020 - even after two years of bumper harvests worldwide - is a tad complacent.

It will be intriguing if this week's discussions on food security in Beijing are reframed in any way by Russia's assault on free trade in food. One suspects they will not.

If global food markets are any guide, with prices for most farm products looking steady almost everywhere except in sugar and cocoa, our governments seem complacently unconcerned.

Surely this is a mistake.

While food production is looking steady, and food consumption in the rich Western economies is stable, the mainland's fast-rising appetite for more meat protein and processed foods is pushing global demand upwards.

Mainland wheat imports have jumped 50-fold since 1980, while pork consumption has jumped fivefold to 50 million tonnes a year - half of world consumption, and six times more per capita than the US.

The flip side of the success in cutting the world's under-nourished population from over one billion people to 840 million, is that food consumption is rising sharply in the poor, developing parts of the world.

Also, land and water resources are under increasing stress and environmental damage is immense.

The fact that Apec officials are taking food security seriously is commendable. But after two years, they still refuse to define "food security".

There might not be another Tambora any time soon. But even so, the challenges we face in providing the world's seven billion people with food security are more acute than many presume.

David Dodwell is the executive director of the Hong Kong-Apec Trade Policy Group