Horn of Africa Food Crisis- What can be done?

The food crisis in the Horn of Africa has been devastating but with a worsening drought and increasing food prices, it can hardly be described as unforeseeable. In the immediate term, the UN is calling for donations to send assistance to the region. At a recent meeting in Rome, FAO chief Jacques Diouf stated “The required funding is lacking…If governments and their donor partners do not invest now, the appalling famine we are now struggling to redress will return to shame the international community yet again.”

The prices of staple grains such as sorghum and maize have increased as much as 200% from July 2010.  Wheat, though not at record levels, is at a 67% higher price than a year ago.  In addition, the price of milk, though lower than it was earlier in the year, is still higher than last year as well (source: the examiner).

The outlying reason for the famine is the extended drought season but other reasons for the increased price include reduced secondary season harvest yields, higher logistical costs (fuel, transport) and higher international commodity prices in the case of wheat.

Repeated articles in the media state ‘long-term solutions’ are required, but little details are given to how and what could be implemented long term.

Ban Ki Moon said in a meeting on August 10th that “We need to focus on practical measures – drought-resistant seeds, irrigation, rural infrastructure, livestock programs; improvements in early warning systems. ”

An huge injection of funding to develop sustainable irrigation systems, and to increase the availability of livestock and reserve seed supplies would obviously help here, but continuing the scientific development of drought-resistant seeds has to be one of the most important factors mentioned.

It could be seen that the public’s distaste towards GM crops could prove to be a hindrance to the progress of global food security, for example a ‘low-risk’ crop of GM wheat most recently being destroyed in Canberra in mid-July this year. Although that crop wasn’t being developed for drought resistance but for dietary reasons and GM crops have many negative aspects (a lot of the commercialisation of GM crops is done with too little testing and inadequate scientific grounding, hence why GM commercialisation is illegal in the UK until further research is done) , the international community will need to become more comfortable with specific uses of GM to help battle global food insecurity, 10% of global arable land is now growing GM crops and facing the positives and negatives of GM head on is going to be necessary to combat the rising global food costs (see DEFRA’s take here).

However, GM is also seen as having a negative effect on food security in terms of arable land and resources being used to support GM biofuel crops instead of food crops, meaning a higher import rate in those countries that are growing corn based bioethanol and a higher pressure globally on food supply (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/aug/15/gm-corn-development-food-fuel?intcmp=239). It seems that the public availability of data makes the truth in this angle difficult to follow, it is not statistically been calculated how growing corn for fuel will affect food prices, rather it is thoroughly suggested by international experts that if fuel crops will gain a higher premium than food crops then fuel crops will be grown and food will become more expensive, as supply reduces.

It seems that some long term solutions would be:

-Developing new energy sources and further research into hydrogen fuel cell efficiency to reduce dependency on biofuels.

-Developing GM drought resistant crops unhindered.

-Community education on the ground about the collection and preservation of water, and the development of low-cost irrigation systems.

-The increased development of wells to tap ground water sources.

-A greater increase globally of vegetarian diets and diets based upon high-yield, locally available, resistant crops.

-An increased emphasis on the care and preservation of arable land globally.

Though, with none of the research based options here coming to the fore anytime soon, the only option we have for now is to donate what we can.

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