“The Next Global Food Crisis:” U.N. Official Offers Warnings Over Southeast Asian Blight

REUTERS – Food prices have been increasing in the Thai capital following a trend affecting other Southeast Asian countries. This past weekend, prices on staples, including rice and corn, have increased by 66%, causing worry that the crisis will only deepen in coming months.

Mr. Maha Vajiralongkorn, who works in a flip-flop warehouse in the city, told a Reuters journalist that he worries he will not be able to afford food for himself and his family of four: “I work nearly 50 hours every week, I already spend most of my money on food. I won’t be able to afford any more price increases.”

Thai government scientists working with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have identified the Silver Silt Sheath Slime Mold (SSSM) as the cause for the decrease in agricultural production. SSSM is a plant disease that typically targets Monocot plant species, which infects the photosynthetic mesophyll layer of leaves. The disease is known to inhibit photosynthetic activities, effectively killing off the organism. This is problematic since majority of the world’s staple foods – such as rice and maize – are Monocot plants. It is projected that almost all small scale farmers will lose their crops as the outbreak continues to spread at alarming rates.

The Secretary General for ASEAN has noted that the outbreak has caused instability across the region. The government of Thailand has begun restricting rice exports to neighboring Philippines and Vietnam, both of whom rely heavily on Thai rice imports. Massive food shortages in Bangkok, Manila and Hanoi have caused local riots, causing a state of emergency for each respective countries. A Thai government spokesperson explained that the decision was made to end the food price crisis at home and to prevent the blight from spreading, through their actions may be too late as already it has spread to parts of South America and Africa where they have found signs of the blight in local crops. The Food and Agricultural Organisation predicts that there will be similar effects seen in the Southeast Asia if something isn’t done to stop the devastation of local crops. Small scale farmers are the main victims of this blight outbreak and leave thousands worried about how they will feed themselves.

A recent publication by the scientific journal, Nature, has overwhelmingly stated support for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), emphasizing their resilience to lethal plant diseases, specifically the Silver Silt Sheath Slime Mold, which has recently broken out in developing countries. Additionally, GMOs have also improved the nutrition of staple food such as corn, rice and wheat. These improvements have helped to tackle malnutrition in regions where there is heavily reliance on a select number of crops. With the reduced number of crops being wiped out by plant disease, GMOs are seen as a viable means of achieving food security and tackling malnutrition. Questions on how GMOs affect local biospheres and plant life have yet to be studied in full according to a Daniel Cressey article in the journal Nature.

Spillover effects of this new disease has started to move towards other plant species, specifically in the Amazon Rainforest, the Great African Lakes, and the Indonesian Rainforests. Concerns over losing large swathes of critically endangered plant species have been raised by the United Nations Environment Programme. In addition to the elimination of over half of the world’s biodiversity, the overreaching consequences will also affect animal life and their ability to survive.

Hilal Elver, the UN’s special rapporteur for the World Food Programme, has called for a special session of the General Assembly to help assist states in the Global South on a potential international food crisis. They warned “we are witnessing the next global food crisis emerge.” Similar sentiments made by the Director General for Bioversity International, an NGO that specialises in conservation, warns this is a “dire situation for global biodiversity.”