world food
Global food prices fell to a six-month low in July, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

The FAO’s Food Price Index – which measures price shifts according to the average price of a basket of over 50 food products – measured the average international price of food at 2.1 percent lower than in June. Current levels are the lowest they’ve been since January 2014 and 1.7 percent lower than in July 2013. While global meat prices rose due to higher demand in Asia, prices for grains, oil-seeds and dairy fell. The expected crop production of the United States and South American surpluses drove down the value of soy oil.

“The lingering decline of food prices since March reflects much better expectations over supplies in the current and forthcoming seasons, especially for cereals and oils, a situation that is expected to facilitate rebuilding of world stocks,” says top FAO economist Concepcion Calpe.

The global average price of cereals has dropped 36.9 points since July 2013 while vegetable oils dropped 5.6 points and dairy 17.5 points during the same time period. Sugar and meat prices have risen, however, by 20.1 points and 25.4 points, respectively.

The release of this data comes as Russia has declared a year-long ban on Western food imports in retaliation for Western sanctions against Russia over the Ukrainian conflict. Russia imports 40 percent of its food, and prices within the Federation will likely rise without food imports from the U.S., the European Union and Norway.

Prices in the EU could lower as the ban will decrease overall demand.Yet Calpe does not believe the ban will significantly affect global food prices, saying, “The big losers in this case would be more the consumers in Russia themselves because it means they would pay higher prices. It would increase prices internally in the Russian Federation, but for the rest of the world it would tend to depress the quotations.”

The conflict in Ukraine brought a brief spike in global food prices in March, but experts remain skeptical that the fighting could affect food prices to the extent of the 2008 world food crisis. From 2005 to 2008, global food prices increased by 83 percent – a drastic change that rendered 40,000 million more people unable to afford food. Tens of thousands of citizens found themselves suddenly unable to afford the new prices, demonstrated throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt and parts of Asia.

Economists have since blamed the crisis on decreased levels of production, higher demand from emerging economies, higher energy costs and a new demand for safer agricultural stocks in the wake of the housing bubble.

Still, the decrease in prices comes as good news to those in developing nations who spend a significant portion of their income on food. As the FAO points out, 842 million people worldwide still suffer from chronic hunger, but the organization continues to strive “…to make sure people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives.”

Erica Lignell

Sources: UN 1, Bloomberg, FAO 1, UNCTAD, FAO 2, The Guardian, FAO 3
Photo: Business Insider

sequence-african-rice-genome
As the Earth’s population is predicted to increase to more than nine billion people by the year 2050, researchers have made a step forward in solving the “Nine Billion People Question.” The question poses the possibility of a lack of natural resources as a result of rising population growth. Through successfully sequencing the complete genome of Oryza glaberrima (African rice), scientists and agriculturalists will be better able to understand the crop’s growing patterns and this could allow for the development of modified rice varieties equipped to handle environmental hurdles.

Rice, which feeds half the world, is often deemed the most important food crop. In fact, scientists predict that  come the expected nine billion mark  “hardy, high-yield” crops such as African rice will become increasingly crucial for human survival in conditions of extreme climate change.

While the number of people needing to be fed continues to grow by at least two billion over four decades, crop production is nonetheless halting due to climate change, resulting in a scary combination. Rod A. Wing, who led the recent sequencing effort, also helped sequence the genome of Asian rice, which has since enabled the discovery of hundreds of “agriculturally important genes” which can allow for faster breeding cycles and even the ability for the plant to survive up to two weeks under water during flooding.

The genome for the wild tomato, Solanum pennellii, has also recently been published. Despite the fact that it is poisonous, the wild tomato can better tolerate dry conditions and can handle saltier soils. The genome will ensure that new varieties bred do not include any of its poisonous genes. The tomato, along with African rice, are two prominent examples of food modification that could save millions of human lives.

“The idea is to create a super-rice that will be higher yielding but will have less of an environmental impact,” said Wing, including varieties which could require less water, fertiliser and pesticides. African rice, which has already been crossed with Asian rice to produce new variations known as NERICA, independently selected many of the same genetic traits as its cousin. By developing types of rice which can hold Asian rice’s high yield and African rice’s high tolerance, scientists may have just found the answer to their original “9 billion” question.

Nick Magnanti

Sources: International Business Times, Science 2.0, Voice of America
Photo: International Business Times

palm weevil
To many in the developed world, insects are nothing more than a 
nuisance. They ruin perfectly fun summers, spread dangerous diseases and can wreak havoc on crop production. They are pestilent almost anywhere, but in some tropical and sub-tropical areas, insects are diverse, plentiful and an excellent source of protein.

One such bug, the palm weevil, is even considered to be a super food by the standards of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Now a new social enterprise is working to commercially farm the nutritious bug to combat food insecurity.

Aspire, a startup social enterprise that won the prestigious Hult Prize in 2013, is looking to bring insect-based meals to the impoverished masses in Ghana, Mexico, Kenya and Thailand. Originally a five-member team of MBA students from McGill University, the group is now growing in size and has an official partnership with the FAO.

In Ghana, the palm weevil is a culturally accepted staple of the Ghanaian diet, but commercial production of the insect is nonexistent. At the same time, vitamin and mineral deficiencies are pervasive in Ghana, and developmental issues such as growth and mental health in children are growing as a result.

The palm weevil offers an interesting solution to the lack of nutrition in the Ghanaian diet. Whereas producing one pound of beef requires 2,900 gallons of water, 25 pounds of feed and 1,345 square feet of land, producing one pound of crickets (similar to producing palm weevils) requires only one gallon of water, two pounds of feed and 134 square feet of land. Insects like the cricket and the palm weevil are much more cost effective to farm and offer comparable levels of protein to beef production.

But unlike beef, palm weevil protein is also rich in essential micronutrients like iron, zinc, potassium and phosphorous. Growing commercial volumes of the bug for food production is cheaper than growing beef, offers more vitamins and minerals and can promote food security in Ghana quite effectively.

Mohammed Ashour, one of the founding members of Aspire, says farming the insect is easy and straightforward. “The process of farming itself isn’t overly complicated. Someone who is uneducated but industrious can do it and get it up and running in a short amount of time,” Ashour told CNN.

The enterprise is in its earliest stage, having only started in 2013. It will need to grow substantially and learn from its current projects to impact food security globally. Entomophagy, the human consumption of insects for food, is as old of a practice as humans themselves. Perhaps economizing the practice is the way to promote stable and nutritious diets for the world in the future.
– Joseph McAdams

Sources: Aspire, CISR Blog, CNN, World Bank
Photo: LGCNews