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Japan’s hunger becomes a dire warning for other nations

Justin Norrie, The Age
… Japan’s acute butter shortage, which has confounded bakeries, restaurants and now families across the country, is the latest unforeseen result of the global agricultural commodities crisis.

A sharp increase in the cost of imported cattle feed and a decline in milk imports, both of which are typically provided in large part by Australia, have prevented dairy farmers from keeping pace with demand.

While soaring food prices have triggered rioting among the starving millions of the third world, in wealthy Japan they have forced a pampered population to contemplate the shocking possibility of a long-term – perhaps permanent – reduction in the quality and quantity of its food.

A 130% rise in the global cost of wheat in the past year, caused partly by surging demand from China and India and a huge injection of speculative funds into wheat futures, has forced the Government to hit flour millers with three rounds of stiff mark-ups. The latest – a 30% increase this month – has given rise to speculation that Japan, which relies on imports for 90% of its annual wheat consumption, is no longer on the brink of a food crisis, but has fallen off the cliff.

According to one government poll, 80% of Japanese are frightened about what the future holds for their food supply.
(21 April 2008)
Contributor Jeffrey J. Brown writes:
It’s not a good time to be both a net food and a net energy importer, such as Japan.

Food Rationing Confronts Breadbasket of the World

Josh Gerstein, New York Sun
Many parts of America, long considered the breadbasket of the world, are now confronting a once unthinkable phenomenon: food rationing. Major retailers in New York, in areas of New England, and on the West Coast are limiting purchases of flour, rice, and cooking oil as demand outstrips supply. There are also anecdotal reports that some consumers are hoarding grain stocks.

At a Costco Warehouse in Mountain View, Calif., yesterday, shoppers grew frustrated and occasionally uttered expletives as they searched in vain for the large sacks of rice they usually buy.

… At the moment, large chain retailers seem more prone to shortages and limits than do smaller chains and mom-and-pop stores, perhaps because store managers at the larger companies have less discretion to increase prices locally.
(21 April 2008)
I think this trend represents only an annoyance in the U.S., not anything significant. After all, it can’t happen here in wealthy Silicon Valley… can it? -BA

Contributor Norman Church writes:
The price of basic foods continue to rise. Here in the UK we see prices of baics like bread have nearly doubled over the last year. Another thing that is affecting thses price rises isn the divertion of grain for bio fuels.

International Agricultural Assessment: We Need a Paradigm Shift

Ben Block, WorldChanging
A commission of international agriculture experts unveiled a series of reports on Wednesday calling for an end to “business-as-usual” farming practices to avoid widespread environmental degradation and increasing food scarcity.

The group of more than 400 experts, known as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), concluded through its global and regional studies that governments and industries need to discontinue environmentally damaging farming methods. Farmers should have greater access to agricultural technology and science, especially in the developing world, to ensure productivity increases without further environmental degradation, the reports say.

The commission’s conclusions come during one of the most severe food crises since the productivity boom of the Green Revolution.

… The reports are the largest international collaboration to date to advocate more sustainable farming practices such as crop diversification, use of organic fertilizers, and the adoption of labeling and certification schemes. More controversially, the commission suggests policy options that include “ending subsidies that encourage unsustainable practices.” The reports also stress the ineffectiveness of genetically modified crops in aiding food productivity in some developing regions.

Global society must undertake a “paradigm shift” in agriculture, the authors said at a press briefing. And without more sustainable practices, the problems will only worsen. “These are long-term trends that we really need to take into account,” said Shelley Feldman, a Cornell University sociology professor and report co-author. “We’re going to continue to work with less labor; less water; less arable land; increasing land policy conflicts; the loss of biodiversity, genetic species, and ecosystems; increasing levels of pollution; and as we all know, climate change.”
(21 April 2008)
As far as I can tell, WorldChanging and Energy Bulletin are the only US-based publications to have picked up on this significant report. -BA

Role of Potash as strategic resource could push China to make acquisitions

Jonathan Ratner, National Post
Demand for potash and other nutrients has got its own dose of Miracle-Gro in the past few years as emerging economies boost their protein intake. So if countries like China are snatching up oil and gold assets, what’s to stop them from making acquisitions in the fertilizer market since the supply of these materials appears to be of equal, if not greater, strategic importance?

Wellington West analyst Robert Winslow sums it up perfectly: “After all, potash minerals represent fertilizer, fertilizer represents food, and food represents political stability at a time when food scarcity has become a concern of governments across the globe,” he said in a note.

So it is no surprise that shares of fertilizer producers have been skyrocketing – most notably Potash Corp, which vaulted to third spot in terms of market cap in Canada on Wednesday at more than $62-billion.
(17 April 2008)

Amid strong farm economy, some dire signs

Associated Press
At a time of record agricultural profits, concerns are mounting that American farmers could be edging toward a financial crisis not seen since the 1980s farm-economy collapse.

Soaring land values, increasing debt and a reliance on government subsidies for ethanol production have prompted economists to warn that what some describe as a golden age of agriculture could come to a sudden end. At risk are the livelihoods of thousands of farmers, the health of hundreds of banks and the vitality of an agricultural industry that has been one of the nation’s few economic bright spots in recent months.
(20 April 2008)