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Why even the good Lord will not put food on our tables in future

Wednesday June 15 2011

 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

If I had the power of God, I would have made every African president and politician read the May/June issue of Foreign Policy magazine (it’s available in the good news stands in Nairobi).

Dubbed the “Food Issue”, it examines in extremely brilliant and insightful articles the question of food prices around the world, and how much longer it will be before most of us go hungry.

One measure of good writing is that it should be able to shed light on other things other than the direct subject it is tackling.

The magazine’s “Food Issue” does that, because it also helps understand why we tend to have too many witches and evil witch-doctors in places like Africa; and why most of them are old women, or grey-haired old men.

In Kenya last year, there was an epidemic of killing grey-haired men in the coast area, and in the western part of the country in recent months, the murder of witches has risen sharply.

One of the FP food articles says that when food is scarce or becomes too expensive, there is always a rise in the killing of members of society who are thought to be too old to work, or who have “lived long enough”.

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The real reason these people are killed is to remove them from the dinner table and allocate the food that would have gone to them to young “able-bodied” members of society.

Witch killing is primarily, if you like, a coping mechanism in times of food shortage.

Because the United Nations has warned that the wider East African region will be hit hard by food shortage in months to come, you can expect to see more old women being accused of witchcraft and banished from the village or murdered, and old men being ambushed at night and being beheaded.

And, needless to say, people with albinism (who find it difficult to work in the sun for too long) will be also at greater risk in countries like Tanzania and Burundi, which are notorious for such attacks.

The other of the many conclusions that one can draw from the special reports is very contradictory.

While the world will have less food for its growing population in the future because of climate change (we are told that for every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum, farmers can expect a 10 per cent decline in grain yields), the real culprit is growing global wealth.

Here is why. In the last 30 or so years, for example, over 400 million Chinese have joined the middle class.

In Africa, about 300 million have moved into the middle class over the same period, and in India too, about the same number have moved up.

When children raised in humble families where they ate beef or chicken only at Christmas become rich as adults, they don’t become vegetarians.

They eat lots of meat. The demand for beef and chicken, therefore, rises with the growth of the middle class.

Then land that was being used to grow grain, and the maize that was making its way to our tables as ugali, is diverted to raise and feed the new herds of cattle and chicken for the growing middle class because it is more profitable.

That means there is less land and food dedicated to feeding human beings. So global food shortages and prices increase.

Furthermore, half the world’s population, it is reported, live in countries with “water-based food bubbles” (Saudi Arabia, China, India and so forth).

These are countries where the natural replenishable sources of water have been used up for agriculture, and now irrigation is drawing the “reserve” water table.

Food production is already falling in several these countries, and it won’t be long before they have no water of any sort. Imagine what will happen next.

Closer home, I was intrigued to learn on a recent trip to Lesotho that South Africa, Africa’s most agriculturally advanced nation, imports quite a bit of water from Lesotho to keep that up.

Lesotho’s water exports to South Africa are about 5 per cent of the mountain kingdom’s GDP! One conclusion from all this is that the richer we become, the hungrier the world will be. A vintage Catch-22 situation.