Food, the Coming Shortages

A fine discussion of the coming food crisis by Lester Brown in Foreign Policy and discussed on Fresh Air:

Brown points out the effect of global warming on food production and the jockeying by various countries to control future harvests. Yes, Virginia, there is no doubt that there is global warming and that the consequences are very sobering.

Already in 2011, the U.N. Food Price Index has eclipsed its previous all-time global high; as of March it had climbed for eight consecutive months. With this year’s harvest predicted to fall short, with governments in the Middle East and Africa teetering as a result of the price spikes, and with anxious markets sustaining one shock after another, food has quickly become the hidden driver of world politics. And crises like these are going to become increasingly common. The new geopolitics of food looks a whole lot more volatile — and a whole lot more contentious — than it used to. Scarcity is the new norm.

More alarming still, the world is losing its ability to soften the effect of shortages. In response to previous price surges, the United States, the world’s largest grain producer, was effectively able to steer the world away from potential catastrophe. From the mid-20th century until 1995, the United States had either grain surpluses or idle cropland that could be planted to rescue countries in trouble. When the Indian monsoon failed in 1965, for example, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration shipped one-fifth of the U.S. wheat crop to India, successfully staving off famine. We can’t do that anymore; the safety cushion is gone.

And:

At the same time, the United States, which once was able to act as a global buffer of sorts against poor harvests elsewhere, is now converting massive quantities of grain into fuel for cars, even as world grain consumption, which is already up to roughly 2.2 billion metric tons per year, is growing at an accelerating rate. A decade ago, the growth in consumption was 20 million tons per year. More recently it has risen by 40 million tons every year. But the rate at which the United States is converting grain into ethanol has grown even faster. In 2010, the United States harvested nearly 400 million tons of grain, of which 126 million tons went to ethanol fuel distilleries (up from 16 million tons in 2000). This massive capacity to convert grain into fuel means that the price of grain is now tied to the price of oil. So if oil goes to $150 per barrel or more, the price of grain will follow it upward as it becomes ever more profitable to convert grain into oil substitutes. And it’s not just a U.S. phenomenon: Brazil, which distills ethanol from sugar cane, ranks second in production after the United States, while the European Union’s goal of getting 10 percent of its transport energy from renewables, mostly biofuels, by 2020 is also diverting land from food crops.

This is not merely a story about the booming demand for food. Everything from falling water tables to eroding soils and the consequences of global warming means that the world’s food supply is unlikely to keep up with our collectively growing appetites. Take climate change: The rule of thumb among crop ecologists is that for every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the growing season optimum, farmers can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. This relationship was borne out all too dramatically during the 2010 heat wave in Russia, which reduced the country’s grain harvest by nearly 40 percent.

Read the entire article to understand the long term ramifications.

Medicynical Note: There are almost three billion people in the world, more than ever before. Warming deniers, if they can get past simple denial of warming, want to believe that the world has warmed before so what’s the big deal. The big deal is that this has never happened with some many people in the world. In some ways we’re remarkably like lemmings.


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