The world food scene is turning grimmer. While the UN is warning that food prices would continue to soar for another two years, a senior UK official speaks of a serious worldwide scarcity by 2050. Demand is far outstripping our ability to produce.
New chief science adviser to the British government, Professor John Beddington, says the crisis could be as serious as climate change and might hit sooner.
AdvertisementThe world's 6.5 billion population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050.
This, combined with growing consumption as poverty is alleviated, will put huge pressure on food supplies, he said.
Professor Beddington said there would be a huge knock-on effect as economic growth lifted people out of poverty in countries like China and India.
He told BBC News: "Something is actually happening out there for very good reasons, namely that poverty is being alleviated.
"To some extent we are actually trying - and properly so - trying to eliminate poverty. Now as poverty is eliminated, big changes in consumer demand occur."
Climate change is expected to worsen the problem, reducing rainfall and affecting crop growth.
Added to this, efforts to tackle climate change - by using biofuels instead of fossil fuels - are taking more land away from food production.
Professor Tim Lang of City University has welcomed the chief scientist's effort to draw attention to a relatively neglected issue.
He told BBC News: "I welcome it, that a chief scientist would do this is a sign that he's expressing what a lot of us out there feel is a very big shift in the food economy.
"There is a real, fundamental problem emerging in food policy that, frankly, has been under-recognised."
Professor Beddington says there would be no simple solution and is calling for more agricultural research as a matter of urgency to help tackle the problem.
Meantime the head of the UN World Food Programme has warned that the rise in basic food costs could continue until 2010.
Josette Sheeran blamed soaring energy and grain prices, the effects of climate change and demand for biofuels.
She has already warned that the WFP was considering plans to ration food aid due to a shortage of funds.
Some food prices rose 40% last year, and the WFP fears the world's poorest will buy less food, less nutritious food or be forced to rely on aid.
Speaking after briefing the European Parliament, Miss Sheeran said the agency needed an extra $375m (244m euros; £187m) for food projects this year and $125m (81m euros; £93m) to transport it.
"The assessment is that we are facing high food prices at least for the next couple of years," she said.
Miss Sheeran said global food reserves were at their lowest level in 30 years - with enough to cover the need for emergency deliveries for 53 days, compared with 169 days in 2007.
Among the contributing factors to high food prices is biofuel production.
Miss Sheeran says demand for crops to produce biofuels is increasing prices for food stuffs such as palm oil.
Hence governments need "to look more carefully at the link between the acceleration in biofuels and food supply and give more thought to it," she felt.
The WFP says countries where price rises are expected to have a most direct impact include Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Haiti, Djibouti, the Gambia, Tajikistan, Togo, Chad, Benin, Burma, Cameroon, Niger, Senegal, Yemen and Cuba.
Areas where the WFP is already seeing an impact include:
• Afghanistan: 2.5 million people in Afghanistan cannot afford the price of wheat, which rose more than 60% in 2007
• Bangladesh: The price of rice has risen 25% to 30% over the last three months. In 2007, the price rose about 70%.
• El Salvador: Rural communities are buying 50% less food than they did 18 months ago with the same amount of money. This means their nutritional intake, on an already poor diet, is cut by half.
• Anger over rising food prices have already led to riots in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal and Morocco.