Walker's World: French food and inflation

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  May 16, 2011 at 6:32 AM
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LIMOGES, France, May 16 (UPI) -- An ominous sign that global inflation isn't going to relax anytime soon can be seen in the stunted growth of the corn and wheat in the rich farmlands of central France.

The grass, which usually grows an inch every three days at this time of year, is taking 10 times longer because of the lack of water. Across France, the forage crop for livestock is down by one-third and, without strong rains soon, this summer's wheat crop will face the same fate.

"This April was the driest we have ever known since 1939 and that is the fourth month this had endured," meteorology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet told the French National Assembly last week.

The French government has already convened its Drought Committee because aquifers are down to alarming levels after less than half the usual rain fell from September to April. In the great wheat fields of France in the Beauce, south of Paris, government officials are talking nervously of comparisons with the savage drought years of 1948, 1976 and 2003.

In 2003, some 15,000 older people died of various heat effects and nuclear power stations had to be shut down for lack of cooling water in the rivers.

France is the great breadbasket of Europe. If the French harvest disappoints, the price of food on world markets will reflect it. The price of forage has doubled this year for cows in the vast French dairy herd.

Given the prevailing weather patterns, drought in France is likely to be echoed in the rest of Western Europe. Yields look grim across northern Europe.

Food supplies worldwide are tight. The floods in the Mississippi River basin have hit 3 million acres of the farmland in the United States, delaying and probably cutting the harvest of the world's top food producer.

Russia and Ukraine look to be having a better crop than last year, when Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin banned wheat exports because of damage from drought and forest fires.

There is little margin for error. With 73 million babies born last year, each with an extra mouth to feed, the world is living from hand to mouth.

Demand for food is rising, while the supply of arable land is finite and the land itself is being lost to the fast-growing cities and roads and industrial zones of the developing world.

And as the Chinese and Indians get richer, they want a richer diet, moving up the protein chain from rice to hamburgers. The more meat they eat, the bigger the strain on the world food crop. Farmers can produce eight pounds of corn on the land it takes to produce one pound of beef.

Worse still, the regions in Asia that are growing the fastest are the ones in the worst trouble over shrinking farmland. The Food and Agricultural Organization, an arm of the United Nations, warns that: "This situation is particularly serious in Asia and the Pacific because most good agricultural land has already been opened up. Indeed, the region as a whole may already have passed the safe limits for agricultural expansion. The region had only about 0.14 hectares of arable and permanently cropped land per head of population in 1990, compared to about 0.4 hectares in the rest of the world."

The FAO warns that South Asia, which covers India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with a total population of 1.5 billion, faces "a vicious circle in which increasing numbers of the rural population are being forced to farm marginal and unsuitable land, which becomes quickly degraded and more people move to urban areas, adding to congestion, pollution and often removing yet more prime agricultural land from production.

With virtually no reserves of land with crop production potential, the land in use per person in South Asia fell from 0.17 hectares in 1990 to some 0.12 hectares in 2010.

The result, says the FAO, is "a lack of control over resources; population growth; a lack of alternative avenues of livelihood: and inequity are all contributing to the degradation of the region's resources. In turn, environmental degradation perpetuates poverty, as the poorest attempt to survive on a diminishing resource base."

There are solutions, starting with better irrigation (which, ironically, means using water less lavishly) and higher-quality seeds, plus better rural roads and storage facilities to prevent the massive losses of food between the field and market.

But like the education of farmers, these are long-term fixes and the squeeze of land and crops and food supplies is an immediate concern.

"Spring barley is almost ruined and for corn we expect a big fall in yields of 30 to 50 percent," reports Jean Grall of the Chamber of Agriculture in Brittany.

The price of food isn't coming down soon, which means the pressure of inflation will continue.

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