On Razor’s Edge

Humanity is trapped but few realize. It has been severally trapped: trapped in its own trappings, in shackles of its own making, in chains of its own design, in fetters of its own manufacture. There have been several reasons that led to it getting trapped: pride, greed, refusal to accept the truths, oppression, unreasonableness, short-sightedness, and, of course to top it all, and the prime reason, Godlessness. It was told, “Submit.” The answer (accompanied with some sneer) was, “We will not give up our freedom.” The choice has meant freedom of speech, freedom of action, freedom to think, and freedom in matters ethical. In short, humanity opted for an unrestrained freedom of the carnal self. It was freedom of the body to trample the soul. The results are before us.

The food crisis is before us. There is no quick solution. But, is there a long-term solution? It is hard to say no. If we said no, a rebuttal could be flung in our face tomorrow. The scenario is frightening. Humanity seems to have been surrounded. It may take any road; after some travel, it will find it closed. It might take another path, but after a while it will discover it sealed. It is trapped from all sides. There is no road to recovery. All escape routes are blocked. The sequel? The lesson? Well, come to realize. You are in a prison: the earth. There is no escape from it. In addition, you face restraints: on its lithosphere, its seas, its atmosphere – everywhere. A prison within prison. Finally, there are the restraining factors. They are hard to overcome. But, that is an understatement. They are impossible to overcome. And you, your fate are fettered to circumstances. Your freedom is mortgaged to time. Then, there is the Reason, the Logic, the Science, and the Data. You like to ignore them – those which you diligently work upon and pile them up in library racks. But for how long will you? What do you expect when you witness an accused stand chained in a court? Humanity waits for the judgment. The shackles forebode unfavorable judgment.

Take food production. You were proud: proud of your control, of your planning, of your ability to multiply crops per year, the ability to increase output per acre, to produce fertilizers, to control pesticide, and the ability to produce genetically modified food. You had conquered. You became arrogant. But you forgot .. forgot a few things .. forgot some realities.

There are a few wheat baskets: USA, Australia, Russia, Canada, India, Ukraine, and others. The output was down in 2007 and another shortfall is expected this year. Weather played its part. Either it was too hot in some regions, or too cold. Apart from weather, spread of the Ug99 virus was another worrisome factor. It continues to threaten world wheat production. If not brought to control, it could spell disaster.

With global wheat stocks projected to fall to the lowest level in 30 years in 2007-08, any event causing an unexpected drop in production could send shockwaves through the world’s wheat markets.

While drought, such as the one that has devastated the last two wheat crops in Australia, is the most common threat to production, scientists say a potentially more serious problem is developing in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where a new and virulent wheat fungus is plaguing the region and has the potential to spread to other parts of the world.

The new form of wheat stem rust, called Ug99 because it first emerged in Uganda in 1999, is capable of attacking a wide range of wheat varieties and can destroy entire wheat fields, said Dr. Rick Ward of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in El Batan, Mexico.

(Arvin Donley, World-Grain.com)

The above was no idle talk. The following came a little later,

A WHEAT disease that could destroy most of the world’s main wheat crops could strike south Asia’s vast wheat fields two years earlier than research had suggested, leaving millions to starve. The fungus, called Ug99, has spread from Africa to Iran, and may already be in Pakistan. If so, this is extremely bad news, as Pakistan is not only critically reliant on its wheat crop, it is also the gateway to the Asian breadbasket, including the vital Punjab region.

Ug99, a virulent strain of black stem rust (Puccinia graminis) was identified in Uganda in 1999. Since then it has invaded Kenya and Ethiopia and, last year, Yemen. From previous fungal invasions, scientists expected the prevailing winds to carry Ug99 spores to Egypt, Turkey and Syria, and then east to Iran, a major wheat-grower, buying them some time. But on 8 June 2007, Cyclone Gonu hit the Arabian peninsula, the worst storm there for 30 years. (The New Scientist, 12th March 08).

Another factor is the increased demand for livestock feed as Chinese, Indians and others are consuming larger quantities of meat. Again, the increased demand for corn and sugarcane has to be taken account of. They are for Bio-fuel industries.  The USA has decided to vigorously enhance Bio-fuel production and so, American farmers get a better price for corn. In 2006, corn was planted on 78 million acres in the USA. In 2007 it jumped to 93 million acres. In many cases, these have been at the cost of wheat. But USA has the advantage of relying less on aggression (except when it becomes inevitable).

The story is no better for various other food commodities. Although, overall cereal production is expected to rise in 2008 by a tiny amount, consumption is going to outstrip the production. By 2007, world food stocks had been reduced to half, the lowest since several decades. In addition, if the weather fails, or viruses spread, or transport runs aground, then hundreds of millions of people would be affected. But of course, we are not finished with the issue. There is that issue of fertilizers that must be addressed. Fertilizers are petrol based. Jumps in oil prices increase the cost of fertilizer production. We have the following:

Fertilizer is a world market commodity, which means that supply and demand factors in major markets around the world impact the price U.S. farmers pay for fertilizer. Average prices paid by U.S. farmers for the major fertilizer nutrients reached the highest level on record in March 2008, 168 percent higher than the January 2000 level according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Increased global demand for fertilizer has played a large part in placing upward pressure on fertilizer prices. Overall, world nitrogen demand grew by 14 percent, phosphate demand grew by 13 percent and potash demand grew by 19 percent from fiscal year 2001 to 2006. China, India and Brazil are the three largest contributors to the growth in world nutrient demand. The quest for healthier lives and better diets in developing countries is the primary driving factor behind the increased global demand for fertilizer. (The Fertilizer Institute)

The above are only part of the story. When it comes to food on the table, transport is a strongly influencing cost factor too. Since 2003, oil prices have gone up four times. In last two years they have doubled. This affects the cost of transport. Freight shippers have doubled and tripled the transport cost.

But it is not only the increase in fuel cost that has resulted in transport costs shooting up. There is a shortage of ships for the ever increasing volumes of materials to be shipped from one corner of the world to another. Ship owners are making, as they say, “some quick buck.” China now pays more per ton for transport of iron ore from Latin America, than for the ore itself.

“.. the cost of ocean freight has risen significantly over the past five years. Since January 2003, Cape size vessel rates have increased 453 percent, while Panamax rates have increased 359 percent. Rates have increased primarily as a result of strong demand for vessels, strong import demand for iron ore and coal and exports of steel by China and higher fuel costs, but have also been impacted by factors such as port congestion and weather disturbances.” (The Fertilizer Institute)

Add these factors together, and humanity can promise itself a problem that promises to give it company for a while.

What applies to food production, also applies to several other commodities, though of course, the factors vary. Maybe we can look into just one of the problems: transport, and look into the options that humanity has to kick open the doors that have closed on it.

Apart from the rising petrol prices, there is that shortage of shipping vessels. What does humanity need to do? Yes, increase ship manufacture. But we have a problem. Ports need to be expanded. Presently, they are working at full capacity. That will take a couple of years and couple of billions. But time and investment money from busted banks are not the only factors. Manpower is also a factor, especially skilled manpower. Skilled manpower is in short supply all over the world. (That has shot their salaries up from five figures to six figures). So, you need more colleges. Granted you can invest quickly in this sector, it does not guarantee skilled engineers, managers and accountants. On an average, it takes 5-10 years (depending on the field) to turn a degree holder into a skilled white colored professional guy, or blue collared technician. Then there is the question of steel. You need to open more steel industries (and cough out a few billion dollars more). But that comes later. First the iron ore! You need to expand the ore-mining sector first. And you need manpower. Next comes the issue of setting up several new chemical plants. Again, you need increased manpower, increased funding. But more. You need a lot of energy, viz., oil. So, oil production needs to be enhanced drastically. But crude oil production is at its full capacity. So you need more refineries. That requires some more money and manpower. Add up all the manpower requirements and start thinking of housing them. So, you need more industries producing construction material. (In the Gulf today, demand has outpaced supply of construction materials. Quite a few major projects are running behind schedule because of materials shortage). But manufacture of construction material requires more and more of raw materials: steel, aluminum, copper, manganese, zinc, and so on. But to top the list, you need lots of plastic raw material: polymer based polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene, acrylic, silicone, urethane, as well as synthetic rubber, polystyrene, PVC, nylon, Polyester – the list needs a paragraph. These are petroleum-based products – you may be reminded.

 All the above listed steps – to solve a single problem: expand the ship manufacturing activity – demand enhanced transport facilities. But the streets are already choked. Even highways are choked. Nonetheless, millions of new trucks will have to be in place to transport material to manufacturing sites. In the meanwhile, hit the supercomputer keyboards and work out the effects of carbon dioxide emission, which has its direct impact on worsening climatic conditions. But, even before such exercises, you will have to go back to all your “Project Reports” to alter figures in view of the impact on oil prices: double them up in two year’s time, work out the consequences of that, and see how it chokes your plans.

 Thus, you can see, the chain is complete. You can go a full round. Is it a vicious circle? It is not. It is the dead ends that disrupt your traffic of “promised” vigorous actions. (“Vigorous actions” is in fact the problem of our time). Some seventy years earlier you were warned .. warned by none else than your own kind (e.g., Bertrand Russel, or earlier, by William Darwin), that you are overdrawing from the banks of raw materials; and that your coming generations will have to pay back. But you laughed at them. As a matter of fact, if you can laugh at Muhammad, you can laugh at any one.

Humanity is trapped, and is on a razor’s edge. If it believes that it should fight it out – an attack on Iran, or take over some other oil producing regions – if it does that, smashes through, like a mad fat bull fed on brandy, egged on by the crowds of maniac neo-cons and fanatical right-wingers perched on Mount Zion – the razor’s edge will cut through its feet and make it fall into an abyss. And an abyss is a place where civilizations are buried. Prophet Muhammad has predicted: “Houses will be for devils.” These are words of a man whose few other predictions have come clean through: as true as the appearance of the dawn. Humanity may better treat his words seriously. It is trapped – and only one way is open, one path, one course: the higher, the sublime, heavenly course. The Prophet also said, “The worst of fornications is the fornication of an old man.” Humanity has gotten old. Its crimes are doubly unjustifiable. Old age is the prime time for repentance.