The expanding appetite of a hungry world transforms food mountains into molehills

Grain shortages: Cuts in subsidies, bad weather and Chinese imports have combined to curb huge cereal surpluses and threaten a crisis

Imagine a cube just over 1,100 feet high. That was the volume of the European Union's surplus grain - the infamous mountain - when it last reached a peak after the 1993 harvest.

That 30-million-tonne store had shrunk to 4.8 million tonnes last month. The mountain, scattered through hundreds of warehouses, has dwindled to a foothill. Last year the earth's people and their animals ate more cereals, our most basic and important foodstuff, than we grew. The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says 1995 harvests of wheat, barley, maize, rice and other grains were 3 per cent lower than in 1994.

Yet each year the global population of 5.6 billion rises by 90 million. So food stocks have been rapidly drawn down in Europe and across the world. They will continue to fall until June, when the northern hemisphere's anxiously anticipated harvests start coming in. By then, international traders reckon, stocks will have sunk to180 million tonnes, enough to cover 47 days at current consumption levels. This is unprecedentedly low; the FAO secretariat thinks it is ''well below ... the minimum necessary for world food security''.

Naturally, prices have soared. Late last year the benchmark price for internationally traded wheat rose to just over $200 a tonne, a 20-year high, and has hovered there since. The 1995 world market price of rice was 50 per cent up on 1994.

There are three reasons why a global oversupply lasting nearly 20 years is turning towards deficit. First, the United States and the European Union reformed their support to farmers in the early 1990s to cut crop surpluses. They did so to control the vast subsidies taxpayers and consumers were paying and to reduce their dumping of cheap grain on world markets, which made a nonsense of aspirations for freer and fairer world trade.

After much arable land had been taken out of production, the second reason came into play - weather. Through 1994 and last year, heat waves, droughts or heavy rainfall at the wrong time caused poor harvests in some of the most important grain-growing regions.

And thirdly, there is China. Over the past three years its cereal purchases have grown by two-thirds, while exports have plummeted. In 1993 they were in balance but this year the world's most populous country will be a huge net importer, of 20 million tonnes, a tenth of total international cereal flows. China's increasingly affluent, urban and still growing population is changing its diet and wants more chicken, pork and beer, which accelerates the demand for grain. Farmland is being gobbled up by new homes, streets and workplaces, a trend across much of Asia.

There is little dispute about the causes of today's shortage; the debate is over whether this is part of ordinary, cyclical fluctuations in supply versus demand, or whether it signals a hungrier world hitting environmental limits, finding it harder and harder to feed its growing billions.

Most traders expect prices to remain high for at least a year but then expect normal service to be resumed. Farmers will respond to shortage and high prices as they always have done, by growing on more land, more productively. Stocks will recover to some extent, although they may never be as enormous as the earlier grain mountains. The long-term trend of growing more food each passing year will resume.

The European Union has already decided to cut the quantity of cereal land put into set-aside from 12 to 10 per cent this year. And 7.5 per cent of US maize-growing land taken out of production last year is going back under the plough. If shortages continue, the US could grow cereal on a large part of the 56,000 square miles of ex-cropland placed in the Conservation Reserve Programme under 10-year contracts. Much of this land is, however, prone to erosion.

Within two decades, genetic engineering should boost yields and increase resistance to disease and weed-killing herbicides. This could bring production gains larger than those achieved in the 1960s "Green Revolution", when new strains helped poor countries such as India to achieve food self-sufficiency.

And in developing countries, forests will continue to be logged and burnt and swamps drained to grow more crops, wiping out entire plant and animal species and the way of life of indigenous tribes.

But Lester Brown, director of a Washington-based environmental think- tank the Worldwatch Institute, points out that the fertility of huge tracts of once fertile land has already been lost - damaged by erosion and irrigation schemes in the struggle to keep up with demand. ''Achieving a stable balance between food and people may now depend heavily on policies that can dramatically slow population growth in the next few years,'' he says.

He finds three reasons why farmers may no longer be able to match rising demand. Heaping on ever more fertiliser will bring smaller and smaller yield rises. Water shortages will worsen. Some countries, including the hugely productive US, are in effect mining water to irrigate their crops. Within a few decades, boreholes can extract centuries' worth of rainfall stored in aquifers.

There is also the wild card of climate change, caused by the accumulation of heat-trapping pollutants in the atmosphere. Most climatologists agree that this has already caused a very slight global warming. But they do not yet know how it will alter rainfall, temperature and storm patterns in the major crop growing regions of the world.

For the foreseeable future, the developed nations can and will grow more food for exports - their own consumption is at near-saturation level. They have ample resources and technology to do so.

But more people will go hungry around the world if developing countries fail to achieve similar increases in crop production, or if they cannot afford to import food from the West.

Many poor nations with fast- growing populations, such as the entire North African region from Morocco to Egypt, have come to depend heavily on food imports. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation says the recent rise in prices will heap $3bn on the annual trade deficit of 88 poor countries which are net cereal importers. Often these imports are used to feed the urban poor at subsidised prices.

There have been no reports of famines and riots caused by the current global cereals squeeze. Yet the usual localised and deadly food emergencies continue around the world, as they have done through all the years of global plenty. Most are due to civil wars in desperately poor countries, with local crop failures the other main reason.

There are grounds for optimism. Cereal production rose by more than 3 per cent last year in those low-income countries which are net cereal importers. Zimbabwe, which has suffered years of drought, expects a bumper maize harvest next month and may resume exports for the first time in five years.

Jules Pretty, of the London based International Institute for Environment and Development, has studied 95 successful farming projects in eastern and southern Africa, the continent which has the greatest difficulty feeding itself. He came away impressed and optimistic about these ''islands of success among a sea of failure".

''The small farmers in these countries could certainly double or treble their food production without genetic engineering or heavy investments in pesticides or fertiliser,'' he says.

The main factors in achieving this are using appropriate technology - small-scale, inexpensive, adapted for local conditions and experience, encouraging farmers to work in groups and reforming the way in which state authorities, banks and international investing and aid-giving bodies deal with these groups.

There may be troubles ahead as population growth races on; global environmental limits must eventually be hit. Such limits may already be working in countries like Egypt, which relies entirely on the flow of one river to grow food in a limited, densely populated irrigated area. But worldwide, it is probable that much more food can and will be grown.

shortages continue, the US could grow cereal on a large part of the 56,000 square miles of ex-cropland placed in the Conservation Reserve Programme under 10-year contracts. Much of this land is, however, prone to erosion.

Within two decades, genetic engineering should boost yields and increase resistance to disease and weed-killing herbicides. This could bring production gains larger than those achieved in the 1960s "Green Revolution", when new strains helped poor countries such as India to achieve food self-sufficiency.

And in developing countries, forests will continue to be logged and burnt and sw amps drained to grow more crops, wiping out entire plant and animal species and the way of life of indigenous tribes.

But Lester Brown, director of a Washington-based environmental think- tank the Worldwatch Institute, points out that the fertility of huge tracts of once fertile land has already been lost - damaged by erosion and irrigation schemes in the struggle to keep up with demand. ''Achieving a stable balance between food and people may now depend heavily on policies that can dramatically slow population growth in the next few years,'' he says.

He finds three reasons why farmers may no longer be able to match rising demand. Heaping on ever more fertiliser will bring smaller and smaller yield rises. Water shortages will worsen. Some countries, including the hugely productive US, are in effect mining water to irrigate their crops. Within a few decades, boreholes can extract centuries' worth of rainfall stored in aquifers.

There is also the wild card of climate change, caused by the accumulation of heat-trapping pollutants in the atmosphere. Most climatologists agree that this has already caused a very slight global warming. But they do not yet know how it will alter rainfall, temperature and storm patterns in the major crop growing regions of the world.

For the foreseeable future, the developed nations can and will grow more food for exports - their own consumption is at near-saturation level. They have ample resources and technology to do so.

But more people will go hungry around the world if developing countries fail to achieve similar increases in crop production, or if they cannot afford to import food from the West.

Many poor nations with fast- growing populations, such as the entire North African region from Morocco to Egypt, have come to depend heavily on food imports. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation says the recent rise in prices will heap $3bn on the annual trade deficit of 88 poor countries which are net cereal importers. Often these imports are used to feed the urban poor at subsidised prices.

There have been no reports of famines and riots caused by the current global cereals squeeze. Yet the usual localised and deadly food emergencies continue around the world, as they have done through all the years of global plenty. Most are due to civil wars in desperately poor countries, with local crop failures the other main reason.

There are grounds for optimism. Cereal production rose by more than 3 per cent last year in those low-income countries which are net cereal importers. Zimbabwe, which has suffered years of drought, expects a bumper maize harvest next month and may resume exports for the first time in five years.

Jules Pretty, of the London based International Institute for Environment and Development, has studied 95 successful farming projects in eastern and southern Africa, the continent which has the greatest difficulty feeding itself. He came away impressed and optimistic about these ''islands of success among a sea of failure".

''The small farmers in these countries could certainly double or treble their food production without genetic engineering or heavy investments in pesticides or fertiliser,'' he says.

The main factors in achieving this are using appropriate technology - small-scale, inexpensive, adapted for local conditions and experience, encouraging farmers to work in groups and reforming the way in which state authorities, banks and international investing and aid-giving bodies deal with these groups.

There may be troubles ahead as population growth races on; global environmental limits must eventually be hit. Such limits may already be working in countries like Egypt, which relies entirely on the flow of one river to grow food in a limited, densely populated irrigated area. But worldwide, it is probable that much more food can and will be grown.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
Danielle George is both science professor and presenter
people
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015