Middle East Unrest Exposes Food Production’s Vulnerability to Oil

Oil prices have climbed to almost the heights of two years ago as a result of the popular uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East and there is no telling whether they will rise further or how long they will stay that way.

Meanwhile, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that food prices had risen in February 2011 above their previous peak in 2008 and warned that they could rise even further as the unrest continues or spreads further.

All this emphasises the vulnerability of food production because of its dependence on oil and petroleum products for much of the process, starting from the production of synthetic fertiliser and continuing through industrial-style farming to the transport and processing of produce before it reaches the shops.

The connection between oil and food production and the effect of oil prices on food prices has been well rehearsed, and it is ironic that these democracy movements should have first emerged in protest at high food prices, among other things, in an area that is a major oil producer.

But the most interesting piece of recent news is an article in the China Post, Singapore, on March 7 2011. The piece, reporting on a workshop among scientists, revealed that unrestrained manufacture of what it called “cheap” pesticides and their overuse was causing problems throughout Asia’s rice paddy fields, which it said was destroying the surrounding ecosystems and actually allowing pests to thrive and multiply.

It reported that the problem was that poorly-trained farmers who were under pressure to raise crop yields were relying too much on these chemical pesticides. According to one of the participating scientists, George Lukacs, of Australia, large outbreaks of pests, called “pest storms” have been reported in China as a result.

All this suggests that the alleged benefits of cheap oil-dependent pesticides are far outweighed by the consequences of their over-use and it all reinforces the urgent need to give farmers across the world access to equally cheap but more environmentally friendly agricultural products, particularly pesticides, in order to reduce the dependence on synthetic pesticides and the reliance of oil in the food production process.

Equally important is the need for farmers to have widespread access to proper training in their use.

Research into alternatives to the older generation of synthetic, chemical-based pesticides has produced many safer, low-chemical products from the biopesticides developers. They include biopesticides, biofungicides and yield enhancers that harness use natural ingredients to which local pests and plant diseases are vulnerable.

They include crop solutions to protect soy beans, corn and wheat as well as a variety of vegetables including protection from bacterial diseases in tomatoes and peppers, to provide protection from soil diseases in potatoes and biofungicides to protect leafy vegetables from fungal diseases by harnessing the powerful biochemistry of Bacillus subtilis, a bacterial microorganism that is commonly found in the environment.

These low-chem agricultural products also leave little or no residue in the foods produced and in the land, so that damage to the surrounding ecosystem is minimised. They make it possible for farmers to increase their crop yields by cutting down the losses from diseases without depleting the land’s goodness.

It is possible that the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East and consequent uncertainty about oil supplies will give governments across the world the incentive to accelerate their processes of getting alternative, natural and more environmentally friendly, less oil-dependent agricultural products through the registration and licensing processes more quickly and available to farmers more cheaply.

It may be hoped also that the result will be healthier, more natural and affordable food for all consumers around the world and better protection for the environment on which we all depend.

Copyright (c) 2011 Alison Withers