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Tony Weis

Global Food Crisis Explored in Tony Weis Lecture

By Patrick Bedard '14  |  Contact Holly Foster 315-859-4068
Posted April 23, 2013
Tags Levitt Center Levitt Sustainability Program Slow Food

The world’s food crisis statistics are alarming. Nearly half of the global population lives on less than $2.50 a day, and approximately 1.4 billion people survive on only half of this. Since 2007, food prices have more than doubled in many third-world countries, especially those in Central Africa and Southeast Asia. Over this time, the number of malnourished individuals worldwide has increased by nearly 30 percent, to more than one billion people. Food riots took place in more than 30 countries in 2007 and 2008, and for a time, the world food crisis was so prominent that it made the covers of Newsweek and The Economist.

Today the issue of scarcity has shrunken back into relative obscurity, but still, one in every seven of the world’s inhabitants is chronically malnourished. Despite the rampant hunger in the underdeveloped world, the earth nonetheless produces more than one and a half times the amount of food necessary to feed the planet’s population. So, why then is there such rampant starvation in the third-world? Part of the answer lies in the lack of transportation infrastructure available in many underdeveloped countries, but during his lecture on April 22 University of Western Ontario professor and author Tony Weis provided a more novel analysis of the problem.

Weis’s lecture, “The Meat of the Global Food Crisis,” was sponsored by the Levitt Center, the Arthur Coleman Tuggle Fund and Slow Food. According to Weis, the global food crisis first came about when advancements in agribusiness, farm subsidies and global food aid forced many small scale farmers in developing countries out of business. Unable to compete with the low prices of North American and European grains, many farmers moved to cities and became reliant on imported food in what became known as the “wheat trap.”

Today, two percent of the world’s farmers, represented by a few agribusinesses, are responsible for over half of the world’s agricultural exports. Many of the third-world farmers who do continue to grow produce have switched from growing sustenance crops, like rice and soy, to high-demand tropical crops, like coffee, tropical fruit and sugar. Often, the farmers who grow these “luxury foods” cannot even afford to eat the very crops they grow for export.

The global food crisis has also resulted in a narrowing of biophysical mass. Today, the top 30 crops in the worldwide food system make up a staggering 95 percent of caloric intake – famers are growing more of fewer crops. Corn, rice and wheat now make up more than 50 percent of all plant products grown each year, and crops like soy, grape seed and canola are becoming increasingly common as well.

While this trend of consolidating the growth of fewer crops at fewer large agribusinesses explains why the third world is growing less food, it fails to explain why the world is faced by a full-on food crisis. After all, with 1.5 times the food necessary to feed the world being grown each year, shouldn’t malnourished nations be able to import the food they need? The answer to this question represents the crux of Weis’s theory and is the topic of his first book, The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming and his most recent work in progress The Ecological Hoofprint: The Global Burden of Industrial Livestock.

Over the past half-century, the earth has seen an enormous increase in the consumption of livestock, especially poultry and pork. Although the world population has only doubled since 1968, livestock slaughter has increased eightfold, and the U.S. now slaughters more chickens in a single day than it did in an entire year in the 1930s. In 1961, the average person consumed 23 kilograms of meat products a year but today, that number has nearly doubled to 42 kilograms.

While U.S. meat consumption has peaked over the past decade and is currently declining, Chinese meat consumption has increased 60 times over since 1961, and Brazilian meat consumption is close behind. The world may grow more food now than it ever has before, but more of this produce finds its way into feed troughs and not the stomachs of the malnourished. Livestock farms are what Weis calls “reverse protein factories” – for every 16 units of feed that go into raising a cow, only one unit of beef is produced. The practice of feed production for resource-intensive livestock production has now taken over more than 30 percent of the earth’s arable land.

The global food crisis has greater implications than simply increased malnutrition rates, and at its current rate of growth, Weis believes that meat production and consumption is completely unsustainable. Soil nutrient depletion from over farming and the resulting overuse of nitrogen based fertilizers has had a devastating environmental impact, and monoculture crops have led to pest problems and less biogenetic diversity.

These factors, along with the global climate change reducing methane produced by cattle, contribute to Weis’s idea of the “ecological hoofprint” that our meat consumption leaves behind on the planet. If the suffering endured by animals in factory farm conditions is not enough to reduce our meat consumption, Weis believes that our negative impact on resource depletion, global food shortages, and ecological impact should be.

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