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Cost of Food as Catalyst for Change Cannot Be Ignored

In 18th century Paris the first thing the lieutenant of police did every morning upon reaching his desk was to inquire as to the price of a loaf of bread in the bakers’ shops of Paris. The price of the loaf would tell him whether he could expect a quiet day or should prepare for a day of unrest and violence in the streets. By the time the Bastille was stormed on July 14th, 1789, a loaf of bread cost the average laborer an entire month’s wages. From the French Revolution, via the Russian Revolution to our own American Revolution, the cost of food as a catalyst for change cannot be ignored. Indeed, the International Food Policy Research Institute believes the destruction of Russia’s wheat harvest in 2010 and the subsequent food price spikes in Egypt helped to trigger the events now known as the Arab Spring.

In a report published last year by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of Food Insecurity in the World, the overriding conclusion is that international price volatility and high food prices are expected to continue in the years ahead. Comfortably seated on a sofa in front of the TV in the developed world, the term “food insecurity” tends to conjure tragic images of starving children on distant continents. Well, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee while we can still afford it. The compelling report, The Future of Food and Farming: challenges and choices for global sustainability, published in January 2011 by the Foresight group, the research arm of the UK’s Government Office for Science, makes for some fascinating reading. Here are some of the bald facts:

—  To feed the projected 9.2 billion population by mid-century food production will have to increase between 70 and 100 per cent.

—  The area of agricultural land will remain static at best. At worst it will decrease as a result of land degradation and climate change.

—  Up to 40% of food bought in developed countries is thrown away.

—  Current agricultural production consumes 70% of the world’s water supply. Most estimates agree that by 2030 farmers will need 45% more water – they won’t get it.

—  Since 1990 China’s fertilizer use has risen by roughly 40% – but their grain production has remained stable.

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