Monday, January 17, 2011

Countering the Prevailing Myth that "The World is Running Out of Food"

One thing that is easy to notice when reading as much main stream news covering agriculture as I do is that the subjects related to food supply are often hyped and over-dramatized. Every time there is a weather event, or a commodity that goes up in price the media cries "the world will be unable to feed itself" or "we are running out of food".

Recently, high food prices have been in the forefront of news headlines. However, if one looks more closely at the FAO food index, it is sugar, oils and coarse grains which have made the basket more expensive. Rice, a staple which feeds 60% of the world's population is in adequate supply and costs half as much as it did during the 2008 food scare. Wheat stocks also remain well above 2008 levels although soybean and wheat prices are rising.

Corn ethanol policy, not true food scarcity, is the key driver in the high coarse grains price index. In other words, the food is being produced and is theoretically available, but its chosen use is not as food at this time. It is greatly concerning that global biofuel production is taking many acres of production away from global food supplies and raising overall food prices.

High food prices due to economic conditions in Asia and other nations are real and I don't want to underestimate the access to affordable food being a common goal for all as well as an important contributor to stability of governments everywhere. A favorite agriculture quote of mine is “Civilization and anarchy are only seven meals apart,"
by Julian Cribb.

On the negative side of prospects for global food production and security, we have fears of high oil prices and/or shortages if alternate farming methods are not widely adopted since they cannot be set up overnight. We have concerns of fertilizer availability and affordability. We have the climate change extreme weather events and temperature changes coming at us though we don't know for sure how this will affect production. We have currently unsustainable practices such as overuse of limited water resources and topsoil loss. We have the biofuels policy debate yet to play out. Last, but not least, we have national and global macro economic condition factors which dictate agriculture policy, trade, affordability of food, affordability of farm inputs, and oil prices.

Next, let's look at the reasons for a very positive outlook on global food security.

Last week, Scientific American published an article about the bright future of food, reporting on two French studies which concluded that the current hyperbole coming at us constantly about running out of food to feed the world's growing populations is a myth. Even though it would be an environmentalist's nightmare, it stated that there are major reserves of potential farmland across the globe which could increase production land from 1.5 billion hectares to 4 billion cultivated hectares, especially in Africa and Latin America.

A year ago, in my article titled "The World Could Feed 14 Billion People" I stated that the areas of concern are "economics, government agricultural policy, storage, refrigeration, and distribution." The fact is, we produce way more than enough food to feed everyone today. There is a great deal of slack in the system. Today's government agricultural policies promote overproduction. Food waste is forty percent in some industrialized nations. The real questions related to feeding everyone on the planet are whether food is affordable and whether the infrastructure is there to store and distribute it.

In the year since I wrote that article, it seems that the trend of African (and other) farmland acquisition investments globally are leading towards the needed infrastructure upgrades which will enhance food distribution. Middle Eastern oil-rich nations which cannot feed themselves, such as Saudi Arabia, have a vested interest in seeing these projects through. Deere and Caterpillar are selling equipment at record levels to get the work done.

Grain storage including steel storage bin sales are increasing around the world. Genetic technology in plant science is rapidly advancing both nutrient quality and weather tolerance in food crops. The ever increasing and diversified number of national global producers and exporters of grains and other foods are adding to overall global food security. Perhaps, instead of reducing food production, climate change will make vast swaths of warmer and wetter northern Canada and Russia increasingly productive.

All in all, it seems very possible that the biggest surprise in agriculture going forward this coming decade is that we will not be running out of food as our global populations grow. The media just might have to find a new subject to grab the headlines.

* The Pannonian Plain (above photo) is a large plain in Central Europe that remained when the Pliocene Pannonian Sea dried out. It is a geomorphological subsystem of the Alps-Himalaya system. The river Danube divides the plain roughly in half. The plain is divided among Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine.

The plain is roughly bounded by the Carpathian mountains, the Alps, the Dinaric Alps and the Balkan mountains. Although rain is not plentiful, it usually falls when necessary and the plain is a major agricultural area; it is sometimes said that these fields of rich loamy loess soil could feed the whole of Europe. For its early settlers, the plain offered few sources of metals or stone. Thus when archaeologists come upon objects of obsidian or chert, copper or gold, they have almost unparalleled opportunities to interpret ancient pathways of trade.

The precursor to the present plain was a shallow sea that reached its greatest extent during the Pliocene, when three to four kilometres of sediments were deposited. The plain was named after the Pannonians, a northern Illyrian tribe. Various different peoples inhabited the plain during its history. In the first century BC, the eastern parts of the plain belonged to the Dacian state, and in the first century AD its western parts were subsumed into the Roman Empire. The Roman province named Pannonia was established in the area, and the city of Sirmium, today Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia, became one of the four capital cities of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century. (from Wikipedia)