Record crop averts global food crisis

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The Independent Online
BUMPER HARVESTS are predicted around the world, pulling humanity back from the brink of a global food crisis, despite the devastating weather brought by El Nino, writes Geoffrey Lean.

Official forecasts to be released by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) next month will come as a relief to a world braced for disaster in the wake of the most severe El Nino on record. The figures suggest the world will produce its biggest ever grain crop this year, despite climatic disruptions.

Food prices are falling, and world stocks of grain - held as insurance against famine - are expected to recover from dangerously low levels. Yet nearly 40 countries around the world still face "food emergencies" as a result of the weather or war.

The FAO says the outlook for food supplies "has markedly improved" this summer. It forecasts a world grain harvest of 1,911 million tons, much higher than previously estimated and a new record, although bad weather could still trim those projections.

As a result of the bumper crop, the price of wheat has dropped by a quarter over the past year and is now at its lowest for five years.

Prices of coarse grains, such as maize and sorghum, are also falling, allowing poor countries with bad harvests to buy more food on international markets.

More importantly, the world's buffer stocks of grain, a bulwark against disaster, are now forecast to rise above danger levels for the first time in four years, finally getting back to what the FAO regards as "the minimum necessary to safeguard food security".

This is partly due to the good harvest, the second in a row, and partly to the sharp falls in the amount of grain fed to animals to produce meat, particularly in the US and China.

But the outlook in different countries around the world is patchy, with some having a record year and others badly hit by the effects of El Nino and military conflicts. The harvest has been particularly good in North America (the recent drought has mainly affected cotton crops in Texas rather than the grain belt of the Midwest) and Europe.

Pakistan has had a good year, while North Africa is doing very well, with its wheat crop up 40 per cent and its harvest of coarse grains increasing by 21 per cent.

Good crops are also expected in Angola, Mozambique and Swaziland, while El Nino has had a much smaller impact on South Africa than was expected.

Farmers in Australia also defied predictions of the effects of the weather phenomenon to produce a good harvest.

But Russia last week announced that it was harvesting the worst crop since 1955 - partly the result of the weather and partly due to its economic crisis.

The worst floods in a decade have devastated the harvest in Somalia and flooding, brought by El Nino, has also hit Kenya and Tanzania. In contrast, drought has cut harvests in Sudan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and many parts of South America.

The Sudan has had a good harvest overall, but 2.4 million of its people face famine, due mainly to drought and civil war, according to the FAO, and five million people remain "vulnerable" in Ethiopia.