What caused the global food mess? Notice this sentence from a recent story on rice shortages:
Prices of rice, wheat and corn have skyrocketed in recent months because of rising fuel prices, drought, more demand for food in China and India and other emerging nations, and the trend of using crops for biofuel rather than food.
I’m confident that a trained analyst like fester can manage the variables in much more detail, but for now this will do. Counting down the main causes of food instability we can start with the problems that won’t ever get better.
* First, the price of fuel. We have hit the point where oil stops being an elastic commodity (e.g., production can be upped to meet demand) and switches to a catch-as-catch can resource. Atrios had a post a few days back about how that shift will necessarily make the price of gas go crazy. We won’t see cheap gas again unless the entire planet stops driving or we find a magic spell that turns CO2, water and soot back into light sweet crude. Since modern agriculture has been described as the process by which petroleum is converted into food (fertilizers, harvesting, packaging, transport and most of the other steps depend on hydrocarbons) that can be a real problem.
* Climate doesn’t need to get tremendously warm to cause major problems, weird will do. The major problem here is that food production isn’t the sort of thing that can just chase clement weather wherever it happens to be from year to year – if farmers can’t predict the right crop to grow in a given region year in and year out then a lot less food will come out of the ground. Drought in regions that grow rice, for example, is devastating because cultivating rice demands more water than any other kind of agriculture. CO2 climate warming will gradually shift agriculturally productive regions, but in the much shorter term it will have the equally dangerous effect of making local climate less reliable. Regarding reversibility, even if we stopped emitting CO2 today inertia and positive feedbacks will keep warming the planet for a decade or more. We’re not going to do that, so we might as well treat warming and climate instability as a given.
* More demand for food in China and India. At the same time that global population is growing, the two most populous countries on Earth have starting upgrading from a third world diet. In China’s case that is only the beginning of a potentially titanic shift from a carefully managed reduction in living standards (China invests most of its revenue in foreign currency rather than bread, circuses or infrastructure) to something more appropriate for their GDP. In India it is more of a symptom of the country’s rising prosperity. In the case of neither country would it be very useful to ask them to go back.
* Collapsing fish stocks. The cost-to-benefit ratio of commercial fishing is getting increasingly silly as more ships work harder to chase rapidly decreasing stocks of fish. Many species have already crashed to the point where harvesting just isn’t feasible, and there is ample evidence some overfished ecosystems have radically changed for good. Species near extinction may recover, but a) not for a very long time, and b) not before fuel prices make commercial fishing impractical. Fish farming is as much a shell game as growing meat on land – to get a pound of protein you need to throw in a bucketful of feeder meal.
The good news, such as it is, is that food supply has some elements of elasticity. It doesn’t have many, but the choices do represent option space that will be explored once the ‘life as usual’ path is no longer feasible.
* Meat. How many pounds of grain does it take to make one pound of beef? I don’t know the answer, but the popular consensus of about ten to one sounds right to me. Eventually it won’t make sense to shovel that expensive grain into cows and chickens, and then people will stop eating as much meat. Since people like meat (one could say “demand” it) the shift won’t be total – meat will gradually get more expensive, fewer people will buy it and a little more grain will land in stores instead. Consider the veg option a finite and limited buffer against availability-based price spikes for certain grains.
* Biofuels. We might as well accept that foodstuff-based biofuel is a dead plan walking. However, eventually we will stop making it, food will still be expensive and we won’t be that much better off.
* Population is elastic. People have ways of dealing with resource shortages – they die of starvation and disease, they go to war to take resources from others (and drop their own demand somewhat), and eventually they reach a new stable state. Just ask the Maya!
All told, count me as concerned. We can change our behavior a little to mitigate the implacable trends of fuel and climate, but in the long run I have a hard time seeing how supply keeps up with demand. Maybe good leaderhip may prove up to the challenge. To get there however, we could use someone with a rudimentary understanding of the relevant issues (i.e., not John McCain) and someone who doesn’t respond to critics by building a defensive wall and making an enemies list. Unless Al Gore gains reality-bending superpowers and crowns himself President I think that Obama is the best option that we have.