Thursday, August 30, 2012

Are We Headed For A Food Crisis First?

Jeremy Grantham thinks so:
In his new discussion, he warns we are in a “chronic global food crisis that is unlikely to fade for many decades, at least until the global population has considerably declined from its likely peak of over nine billion in 2050.” Why? “There are too many factors that will make growth in food output increasingly difficult where it used to be easy”:

•Grain productivity has fallen decade by decade since 1970 from 3.5% to 1.5%. Quite probably, the most efficient grain producers are approaching a “glass ceiling” where further increases in productivity per acre approach zero at the grain species’ limit (just as race horses do not run materially faster now than in the 1920s). Remarkably, investment in agricultural research has steadily fallen globally, as a percent of GDP.

•Water problems will increase to a point where gains from increased irrigation will be offset by the loss of underground water and the salination of the soil.

•Persistent bad farming practices perpetuate land degradation, which will continue to undermine our longterm sustainable productive capacity.

•Incremental returns from increasing fertilizer use will steadily decline on the margin for fertilizer use has increased five-fold in the last 50 years and the easy pickings are behind us.

•There will be increased weather instability, notably floods and droughts, but also steadily increasing heat. The last three years of global weather were so bad that to draw three such years randomly would have been a remote possibility. The climate is changing.

•The costs of fertilizer and fuel will rise rapidly

He points out something I have reported on many times here, “Talk privately to scientists involved in climate research and you find that they believe that almost everything is worse than they feared and accelerating dangerously.” The good news/bad news is:

On paper, though, the energy problem can be relatively easily addressed through very large investments in renewables and smart grids. Those countries that do this will, in several decades, eventually emerge with large advantages in lower marginal costs and in energy security. Most countries including the U.S. will not muster the political will to overcome inertia, wishful thinking, and the enormous political power of the energy interests to embark on these expensive programs. They risk being left behind in competiveness.

The devastating food crises to come will, however, largely affect the United States indirectly, through much higher prices and the terrible global instability they causes. He notes that:

For Fortress North America (ex-Mexico), or what we might call Canamerica, these problems are relatively remote. When corn crops fail we worry about farmers’ income, not about starvation. In the long run, the truth is that Canamerica seen as a unit is in an almost unimaginably superior position to the average of the rest of our planet. Per capita, the U.S. alone has five times the surface water and seven times the arable land of China! And Canada has even more.

But the staggering immorality of our food, energy, and climate policies will become increasingly indefensible. As but one example:

Despite corn being almost ludicrously inefficient as an ethanol input compared to sugar cane and scores of other plants, 40% of our corn crop – the most important one for global exports – is diverted away from food uses. If one single tankful of pure ethanol were put into an SUV (yes, I know it’s a mix in the U.S., but humor me) it displaces enough food calories to feed one Indian farmer for one year! To persist in such folly if malnutrition increases, as I think it will, would be, to be polite, ungenerous: it pushes the price of corn away from affordability in poorer countries and, through substitution, it raises all grain prices. (The global corn and wheat prices have jumped over 40% in just two months.)

Our ethanol policy is becoming the moral equivalent of shooting some poor Indian farmers. Death just comes more slowly and painfully.

Once again, why single out Indian farmers? Because it was reported last month in Bloomberg that the caloric intake of the average Indian farmer had dropped from a high of 2,266 a day in 1973 to 2,020 last year according to their National Sample Survey Office. And for city dwellers the average had dropped from approximately 2,100 to 1,900.
Mark Bittman on Jeremy Grantham and organic farming:
Grantham has made offbeat predictions before, and he’s been right. In 2007, referring to remarks by the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, about the subprime crisis being contained, he said, “If it’s contained, the container in this case is likely to be Pandora’s.” Since then, he’s been sounding the alarm on the finite nature of resources, an undeniable state of affairs that is largely ignored by economists. And he’s concluded that the most compelling issue isn’t energy (technology will take care of that, he believes, making renewables less expensive while oil prices rise) or even metals, but food.

Grantham’s article succinctly puts economic teeth into the argument that all advocates of truly sustainable food make almost constantly: We are going to be eating sustainable, more-or-less organic and mostly regional food within a couple of generations, and the big question is whether we get to that place willingly (it might be too late for that, but one can hope) or whether we go through a dystopic convulsion first.
Citing falling grain productivity, rising resource prices (and, of course, dwindling resources; they are finite after all), snowballing water problems, declining returns from the use of chemical fertilizers, increasing energy costs, a lack of will, investment theory that is “ill-informed, manipulated, full of inertia, and corruptible,” and a newly unfavorable climate, Grantham concludes that we are “about five years into a chronic global food crisis that is unlikely to fade for many decades.”

Discussing food security and the global food crisis on the phone, Grantham was if anything more emphatic: “We have to go to an organic sustainable system or we’ll starve,” he told me. And he elegantly counters the arguments that large-scale organic agriculture (or whatever it will be called when it becomes dominant; the agro-ecological method, perhaps) cannot be profitable. (Remember, this is a guy who does profit for a living.)

He’s established foundations that are financing research in organic agriculture. After all, he said: “The U.S.D.A., the big ag schools, colleges, land grants, universities — they’re all behind standard farming, which is: sterilize the soil. Kill it dead, [then] put on fertilizer, fertilizer, fertilizer and water, and then beat the bugs back again with massive doses of insecticide and pesticide.” (At one point in the conversation, he said that most supporters of industrial agriculture, who tell “deliberate lies over and over again,” could have been taught everything they know by Goebbels.)
Some others have sounded the alarm on a new feudalism where farmers work as neo-peasants on land owned by one-percent financial sharpies based in distant cities. Is this pointing that direction? Having these wealthy elites buying up farmland and fresh water supplies seems to be pointing in that direction.

More and more there seems to be contrast in America not between capitalists and socialists, but between capitalists who get it (like Grantham, the late Matthew Simmons, T. Boone Pickens, etc.), and the completely clueless reactionaries (e.g. Republicans, the "Tea Party" etc.). In any case, it looks like food and fresh water will be as much if not more of a limit to growth and political stability than energy.

And see: World may be forced to go vegetarian by 2050, scientists say (Yahoo!)

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