Special Conference issue of Food Outlook puts food aid at an all-time low and forecasts impact of El Niño

A special Conference issue of FAO's Food Outlook points to a drastic fall in food aid around the globe. The latest figures on food aid in 1996/97 show a sharp drop of 37 percent from the previous year, to just 4.9 million tonnes. This is the lowest level since the start of food aid programmes in the 1950s.

"Cereal shipments fell for the fourth consecutive year", the Outlook says. They were down to less than one-third the figure for 1992/93 (see graphic). Low-income food-deficit countries consumed about 4 million tonnes of the 1996/97 total, which contributed only 6.5 percent of their estimated total imports. Forecasts for 1997/98 food aid are now estimated at about 5 million tonnes, close to last year's record low.

The Outlook also contains a Special Feature on El Niño, giving a basic description of the phenomenon, summarizing and forecasting its impacts on agriculture, fisheries and forestry and outlining FAO's role in mitigating its impact on food security (see box).  

Number of countries with food emergencies is rising

While food aid falls, the number of countries in the grip of food emergencies is rising. In 1997, as of late October, some 29 countries were struggling with food supply shortages, compared to 25 in 1996. The countries affected are distributed as follows: 18 in Africa, five in Asia, five in eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and one in Latin America. In Africa, food shortages - particularly in the East - are being caused by adverse weather conditions with civil strife also continuing to play a significant role. In southern Africa, harvests in Malawi have fallen sharply and there is general concern that the current El Niño may cause drought during the cropping season that has just started.

In Asia, the Outlook mentions Korea DPR - hit this year by severe drought and typhoon, following two years of catastrophic floods - and Mongolia, where vulnerable people are suffering serious food supply problems. In the CIS, targeted food aid is being supplied to men, women and children in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Tajikistan, where more than 16 percent of the population need assistance to survive.

Global cereal supplies continue to be tight

Although global cereal supplies are now forecast to reach a record of 1 888 million tonnes in 1997, this would just meet needs. "Replenishment of the much reduced global cereal stocks will have to wait at least another year and would depend on another good crop in 1998", the Outlook says. Use of cereals around the world in 1997/98 is forecast to grow by 2 percent, reflecting a modest increase in human consumption of cereals and a continuation of last year's strong growth in their use as feed for livestock. Global agricultural production for 1997 is estimated to have increased 1.1 percent, a marked slowdown in production growth compared to 1996.

Special feature on El Niño

The Outlook summarizes the effects of El Niño on agriculture, fisheries and forestry during 1997 and forecasts likely impacts during 1998. While global cereal production in1997 was little affected, "greatest concern is over the threat that El Niño may pose to the crops to be planted in the coming months for harvest in 1998," according to the report. Some countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean have already suffered harvest losses because of extreme, El Niño-related weather conditions.

Cereal prices may also be pushed up, with international markets reacting nervously to the uncertainty generated by El Niño. Of the rice trade, the Outlook says, "until the potential effects to the 1998 production become clearer, trader speculation could drive prices up during the first part of 1998". The wheat market "has been reacting nervously to weather report and wheat prices have remained strong in recent weeks."

Deterioration of pasture and range conditions caused by possible El Niño-induced drought would hit some important southern hemisphere livestock-producing countries. "Delayed or scarce rainfall would boost slaughtering, especially of large ruminants ... with increased meat output in the short-run depressing producer prices", the report says.

Eastern Pacific fisheries are particularly vulnerable to the warming of the waters that characterizes El Niño. The Outlook predicts that the stock of Peruvian anchoveta - which gave the world's largest fish harvest before its collapse in conjunction with the 1972-73 El Niño - will suffer severely and may take years to recover.

Although the effect on trees and forests of short-term climatic changes caused by El Niño tend to be less severe than those on agricultural crops, it does pose one major threat - that of fire. "The current situation in Indonesia is a dramatic example," according to the Outlook. "With regard to the direct provision of food," the report says, "the greatest immediate impact of El Niño will likely be on the many non-wood forest foods, including nuts, tree flowers and honey, that serve as supplementary and emergency sources of nourishment."

12 November 1997

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