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close this bookCERES No. 072 (FAO Ceres, 1979, 50 p.)
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Open this folder and view contentsCerescope
View the documentThe public granary: an historical basis for state intervention.
View the documentFood grain imports: whether, when, and how?
View the documentProvisioning the urban poor: the new challenge in food marketing systems
View the documentInstruments for consumer protection: the Indian experience
View the documentTCDC and the communications problem: an Asian dilemma
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Distribution: the fragile link

The life support systems of the human race, like those of all other species on this planet, are fragile structures. Ten millennia of conscious effort to strengthen them have not eliminated, for the maprity of humanity, uncertainty about food supplies. Moreover, those processes we call civilization and modernization have made even more tenuous the links between growing multitudes of urbanized people and the basic elements of food production: land, water, crops and livestock

To its credit, the civilization of this century can claim to have launched the greatest organized efforts in human history to alleviate hunger and famine when regular food supply systems collapsed for climatic, political or other reasons. That millions still exist on the edge of famine, and many still die of it, should not obscure the growth of a sense of collective responsibility for eliminating such conditions. Both private and public institutions that embody this concept are vulnerable to certain criticisms. They seem to elicit more support for curative approaches to hunger, rather than for preventive ones. They are clumsy vehicles, at best, for international sharing of food.

Their experience illuminates one vital consideration: when a food supply system breaks down in a province, or state or region, even the alleviation of the ensuing conditions is not simply a matter of plugging in some external source of supply, like a collective intravenous tube. The history of food aid programmes is speckled with cases of donations mismatched to dietary habits, of shipments snagged and spoiled in transportation bottlenecks, of supplies siphoned into illicit channels that bypassed the truly needy.

Now, finally, much more serious consideration is being accorded to the evidence that human societies nourish themselves, when they can, through a myriad of different systems, some closely attuned to the primary production of food and nominally near self-sufficiency, while others, at the metropolitan end of the spectrum, are obliged to rely on a complex and often devious range of processes and services to bring daily fare to the table. One end of the spectrum may be more vulnerable to the vagaries of climate, the other to the fluctuations of currency, prices and income, but what should be noted, above all, is the potential for interaction between the systems, however diverse. The demand for cheaper livestock feedstuffs to furnish beefsteaks afforded by higher incomes in industrialized countries can divert investment and resources from growing yams or beans for village markets to producing soybeans or cassava for export.

By the end of this century, perhaps as much as half of the human race will be removed from direct access to the simplest types of self-sufficient food systems. Inevitably, growing millions will need to find their sustenance at the retail end of massive metropolitan marketing systems. Whether they can afford to feed themselves adequately will depend partly, of course, on employment opportunities. But it will also depend on what sort of incentives and support are required for those who remain on the land to produce in abundant excess of their own needs, and how efficiently that surplus can be moved to those no longer able to grow any significant portion of their food supply.

Value system

Umike world production of wheat, which has been gradually increasing, the global output of gold, or at least from those countries for which the International Monetary Fund has figures, has been tending to contract. Prices, of course, are another matter. Last autumn we reached the stage where an ounce of gold could buy 2.5 tons of wheat; that is, approximately enough to provide for 10 to 12 Asian- level diets for one year. Or even very needy three more affluent diets rich with steak, bacon, eggs and milk shakes.