Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The looming food crisis?

Finally, one of the UK majors has picked up on what Peter was predicting in this very blog many, many months ago. The fact is that the switch of land use to grow crops for bio-fuels rather than for foodstuffs IS having an impact on food prices already.

This from the Guardian Environment highlights just what is already happening in parts of the world. The world price of maize has doubled, whilst UK wheat prices have also doubled over the last two years, from ~£100/tonne to ~£200/tonne (admittedly part of this increase is down to this years yield, which is down from the norm). A loaf of bread in the UK has increased in cost by 20% already this year.

In the US, "where nearly 40 million people are below the official poverty line, the Department of Agriculture recently predicted a 10% rise in the price of chicken. The prices of bread, beef, eggs and milk rose 7.5 % in July, the highest monthly rise in 25 years."

'A "perfect storm" of ecological and social factors appears to be gathering force, threatening vast numbers of people with food shortages and price rises. Even as the world's big farmers are pulling out of producing food for people and animals, the global population is rising by 87 million people a year; developing countries such as China and India are switching to meat-based diets that need more land; and climate change is starting to hit food producers hard. Recent reports in the journals Science and Nature suggest that one-third of ocean fisheries are in collapse, two-thirds will be in collapse by 2025, and all major ocean fisheries may be virtually gone by 2048. "Global grain supplies will drop to their lowest levels on record this year. Outside of wartime, they have not been this low in a century, perhaps longer," says the US Department of Agriculture.'

All in all, prospects don't look too good for the future. A substantial part of the food production in China and India is dependent on what are rapidly depleting (and non-replenishable) water sources. Experts believe that some two thirds of the planet's major fisheries are now at levels where serious and rapid decline in yields is starting to happen. When you then throw in climate change predictions from the IPCC, which suggested that some 20% of the planets crop production will be directly endangered by temperature and rainfall changes; plus the switch by major western farmers to agrofuels; the picture for the planet's poor and undernourished is beginning to look markedly bleak!

"Technologists pin their faith on GM crops, or drought- resistant crops, or trust that biofuel producers will develop technologies that require less raw material or use non-edible parts of food. The immediate best bet is that countries such as Argentina, Poland, Ukraine and Kazakhstan will grow more food for export as US output declines."

Me? I'm uncertain. I know mankind is incredibly adaptable and is capable of amazing things; but these just may be the early warning signals that our voracious appetite for food and resources is reaching the point where self-sustainability is going to become increasingly difficult.

Look what the fuel crisis (as a consequence of a handful of HGV drivers blockading refinery depots) a few years ago did to the UK economy in only a week and a half. Then imagine just what the impact would be if food was largely unavailable in the supermarkets for a similar time period.

Scary isn't it?


Peter said...

Amen. This from Richard Girling (who knows a thing or two. That said, he didn't half go on before hitting the point and may have lost some in the process) in the Sunday Times:

Goodbye beautiful Britain

Hope that URL works! Just had some fun trying to paste the HTML system on the site, but it kept turning the code into a link of course!

This whole issue is huge, and I don't think the guys in charge are getting their brains around it very well.

More and more people. Less and less land. And yet we are converting what little left that is arable into bio-fuels rather than for food???!

Not much point being able to drive to the supermarket for bread if it has none to sell.

Dave said...

Thanks for the link to the very interesting Richard Girling article - I'd somehow missed that one.

Regarding your very last point - sadly, it is very true. But, playing devil's advocate, when there are only 10 loaves left, and only 10 families have fuel to drive, whilst the rest have to walk, who gets the bread?

Unfortunately, this seems to sum up the mindset and the very raison d'etre of most of the major world powers over the last few decades.

Quite some years back, I think it was Napolean who observed that 'an army marches on its stomach'. No food, and the army ceases to operate. Modern military terms of engagement have modified that such that an army now 'marches on its fuel supplies'. (If you have fuel, you can get food!)

Sadly, Big Oil is still more important than Big Food, at least from a world power perspective.

I suspect that is probably going to start to change somewhat over the next few decades!