Multiple threats mounting to world food supply, experts warn

Soaring demand and rising prices threaten to create a "perfect storm" in the global food industry, experts warned on Thursday.

Global demand is forecast to rise by 50 per cent by 2030

Soaring demand and rising prices threaten to create a "perfect storm" in the global food industry, experts warned on Thursday.

In a report, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warns of a growing food crisis, as low-income people in the developing world feel the pinch of food prices that have yet to fall despite a global recession.

A field of wheat is harvested south of Columbus, Ohio, last year. Food experts warn the Western world's over-reliance on a few key crops could threaten the food supply.

After sharp spikes last year, "food prices have fallen internationally," the agency said Thursday. "But in developing countries they have not fallen so fast, or at all."

Food price inflation hits the poor hardest, as the share of food in their total expenditures is much higher than that of wealthier populations. Food represents about 10 to 20 per cent of consumer spending in industrialized nations, but as much as 60 to 80 per cent in developing countries.

As it stands, 963 million people, or around 15 per cent of the world's population, are suffering from hunger and malnutrition, the FAO says.

In London, Britain's chief scientist warned on Thursday that demand for food and energy is set to jump 50 per cent by 2030, and the world is not prepared for the unrest that will cause.

"It's a perfect storm," Prof. John Beddington told the GovNet Communications Sustainable Development 09 conference in London.

"We're not growing enough food, so we're not able to put stuff into the reserves," he said, noting that the price of crops such as rice spiked more than 400 per cent last year.

Food reserves at 50-year low

Global food reserves currently sit at about 14 per cent of consumption, which means the world has enough food to survive for a little over a month if food production suddenly stopped.

With the world's population projected to hit more than eight billion people by 2030, "we are going to see a large increase in the demand for food," he said.

As a major food producer, Canada will doubtless play a key role in any crisis involving the global food supply.

But some say the solution has more to do with logistics than simply increasing output.

Infrastructure key

"It's not an issue of not having enough food," University of Toronto food security lecturer Julie Lee says. "It's more an issue of actually getting it to those that need it."

"I'm sure Canada will step up our role as a food producer to the world," she says. "But the question is, should we just blindly bump up crop yields."

Farmers in the developing world often grow cash crops such as coffee, which can easily be sold internationally, says food security lecturer Julia Lee.

She says the Western world's over-reliance on a few crops has done much to decimate sustainable farming in the developing world.

"To keep up with Western demand for things like cocoa and coffee, many fall into the trap of monoculture farming, so they can't produce food locally."

"Do we have enough food to go around? Yes," Lee says.

"But do we distribute it equitably? At this point, definitely not."