Thursday, June 05, 2008


I came across some startling numbers in Newsweek while taking my usual lrt train to work in downtown KL. "By the Numbers" is my favourite section in the magazine because it makes you double back and think again. This time it's about Burma and food.

Since the media broke stories about the food crisis and rising food prices, I've been trying to get my head around this new global life threatening issue. Food shortage due to climate change and biofuel taking away land for food crops are among the things that have been blamed. And the solutions - I've read that we need another green revolution, we need more genetic modified seeds, we need to modernise and corporatise agriculture, and we need more free trade.

But are those the answers? Or are they the very reasons why we're facing the food crisis now.

These numbers from a very "backward" country confirms my suspicion about the mis-conceptions and mis-information about the global food crisis.

By the Numbers (reprint from Newsweek May 25 - June 2)

Burma is a land of agricultural bounty - its rice yield ranks as one
of the highest in Southeast Asia. This richness has cushioned the
ruling junta from the food riots that are starting to plague
neighbouring states.

206 - number of kilograms of rice per person per year consumed in
Burma, the highest in the region.

3.8 - number of tons per hectare of Burma's rice yield - 44 percent
higher than that of neighboring Thailand.

2,912 - average number of daily calories consumed by Burma's citizens,
the highest in Southeast Asia

6% - of Burma's people who are malnourished, as opposed to 20 % of
Thais and 19 % of Vietnamese.

Now for those of you who have little idea about the wealth disparity of these South East Asian nations, here are their GDPs per capita.

Burma USD 1,800
Thailand USD 9,200
Malaysia USD 12,200
Indonesia USD 3,900
Philipines USD 5,000

Thailand's GDP per capita is more than FOUR times that of Burma, and Malaysia's is almost SEVEN times that of Burma. If you walk in downtown Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, and then in Rangoon, you'd think that you've been transported 50 years back. Yet there are more malnourished people in Thailand than Burma.

I am amazed that whatever we think about the Burmese, as being oppressed and starved by their fat military rulers, they are amazingly self-sufficient. Left to their own devices, left to their antiquated agricultural tools and their traditional way of farming, Burma's rice yield per hectar is 44% higher than Thailand, which has an export oriented agriculture and has embraced all kinds of new technologies, modern chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

That leads me to ask: Is modern farming depleting the richness of soil and thus, reducing the capacity of land to produce? Is the corporatisation of food decreasing food sustainability and food security?

I want you to read Vandana Shiva's interview with ALTER net. She is a world-renowned environmental activist, physicist, and authour of 300 papers in leading scientific and technical journals. Here she explains how corporation-friendly economic schemes got us into this mess in the first place.

Vandana Shiva: Why We Face Both Food and Water Crises


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