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Quarter Of World's Food Production Could Be Lost In Environmental Breakdowns

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NAIROBI, Feb 18 (IPS) - Worldwide demand for food is expected to grow steadily over the next 40 years, but 25 percent of the world's food production may be lost to 'environmental breakdowns' by 2050 unless urgent action is taken.

This is the message in a document presented to environment ministers from more than 140 countries meeting in Nairobi, Kenya under the auspices of the United Nations Environmental Programme Governing Council to discuss climate change and other environmental challenges.

The document, titled "The Environmental Food Crisis: The Environment's Role in Averting Future Food Crises" calls for an increase in food production to meet the needs of an estimated 2.7 billion more people.

"Elevated food prices have had dramatic impact on the lives and livelihoods, including increased infant and child mortality, of those already undernourished or living in poverty and spending 70-80 percent of their daily income on food," it reads.

The UNEP meeting comes as the host country Kenya is engulfed in a severe food crisis with up to 10 million people facing starvation due to poor rainfall and high fertiliser prices among other things.

Kenya's policies were criticised for failing to address the problem by developing systems geared at improving food production. "Kenya should be one of the countries rethinking how agriculture production systems should be improved. Kenya should not be facing food shortage. It needs to be able to feed itself not only today but in years to come even when population increases," Achim Steiner, UNEP executive director said.

Maize flour, the staple food in Kenya, is now retailing at about 80 U.S. cents a kilogramme, way too high for a country where half the population lives on less than a dollar day. A year ago, maize cost the equivalent of 30 cents a kilo.

Similarly steep price hikes led to riots in in Cameroon in February 2008, when protesters outraged by high food prices took to the streets demanding huge cuts in prices. The unrest was the worst in 15 years in the central African country.

"People could not understand how a country which was previously food sufficient could suddenly be food insufficient, with high prices on basic food commodities," Mary Fosi, a senior official in the country's environment ministry told the meeting.

"The main problem is that mechanised agriculture in the country is very small. There is need to focus on advanced agricultural systems that will increase food production," she noted.

It emerges that lack of investment in agricultural development, including modern technology and machinery has played a role in reducing yields in Africa, where most farmers still use the hand hoe to till land. Critics contend that for the continent to achieve food security, it needs to move from the idea of carrying hoes and machetes to the farm and embrace a new era of technology-driven agriculture.

But authorities are on the defensive, saying governments cannot afford to invest in new technologies and machinery just yet. "The technology is there; it is not that we do not want it, but our economies are poor," Bonaventure Baya, director of Tanzania's National Environment Management Council told IPS at the meeting.

According to Baya, immediate measures to achieve food security must include educating farmers to diversify and plant alternative crops that are resistant to changing climatic conditions. This, he says, will also help conserve the environment. "Intensive land cultivation and growing of the same crop over a long period of time degrades the soil. Increasing food production and security must take into account protection of the environment, including the soil," he observed.

As the meeting considers ways of increasing food production, farmers think they have the answer - government subsidies.

Peter Andenje is one such farmer. As chairman of the Association of Small Scale Maize Growers in Kitale, western Kenya, he says the government needs to subsidise fertilisers and high-yielding seeds which are critical in getting increased harvests.

"Many farmers cannot afford the high cost of fertilisers and seeds; some are now growing the plant without applying fertilisers. This has resulted in to very low yields. Some have abandoned growing the crop because of the high cost of inputs," he said in an interview with IPS.

The UNEP document launched at the Nairobi meeting cites the issue of providing subsidies to farmers as a crucial safety net in achieving increased food production and security.

But subsidies for African farmers have been vehemently opposed by donors and remain a contentious issue at international trade talks. "What we must not do is neglect the fact that we have an environmental crisis unfolding in the agricultural production sectors and we must tackle that alongside the trade agenda, not one after the other because we are running out of time for both," Steiner stated.

"This is a reasonable, fair and appropriate measure now that we are facing the challenge of sustainability in agriculture production."

Read more from Inter Press Service.

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