Thursday, January 13, 2011

Food Will Become Scarcer in 2011

The long-term causes of high food prices
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s food price index reached its highest-ever level in December. The index is now higher than it was in 2008, when food prices sparked riots in poorer nations around the world. Already riots have broken out in Tunisia, Algeria and India. Mexico is buying corn futures to try to keep the price of tortillas down. In Britain, wheat prices have reached an all-time high.
These high food prices prices are here to stay, writes Lester Brown in Foreign Policy magazine. It is long-term causes, not short- term problems like drought, that are causing the high prices:
But whereas in years past, it’s been weather that has caused a spike in commodities prices, now it’s trends on both sides of the food supply/demand equation that are driving up prices. On the demand side, the culprits are population growth, rising affluence, and the use of grain to fuel cars.

On the supply side: soil erosion, aquifer depletion, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, the plateauing of crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries …. These climate-related trends seem destined to take a far greater toll in the future.
Foreign Policy goes into detail on the factors it sees pushing food prices up. The details paint a bleak picture for the future. “Tonight, there will be 219,000 additional mouths to feed at the dinner table, and many of them will be greeted with empty plates,” writes Brown. “Another 219,000 will join us tomorrow night. At some point, this relentless growth begins to tax both the skills of farmers and the limits of the Earth’s land and water resources.”
Rising living standards in countries such as China also mean that more people will be eating meat and dairy products that require more grain to produce.
Brown also points out that more crops are now being used in cars. Of the 416 million tons of grain harvested in the United States in 2009, 119 million was used to make ethanol for cars. According to Brown, that grain could feed 350 million people for a year.
Demand for plant-based diesel also means that land is being diverted from growing food to growing oil-bearing crops.
“The combined effect of these three growing demands is stunning: a doubling in the annual growth in world grain consumption from an average of 21 million tons per year in 1990-2005 to 41 million tons per year in 2005-2010,” Brown writes.
Meanwhile, supply of food is also facing long-term problems. “An estimated one third of the world’s cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming through natural processes—and thus is losing its inherent productivity,” writes Brown. “Two huge dust bowls are forming, one across northwest China, western Mongolia and central Asia; the other in central Africa. Each of these dwarfs the U.S. dust bowl of the 1930s. Satellite images show a steady flow of dust storms leaving these regions, each one typically carrying millions of tons of precious topsoil. In North China, some 24,000 rural villages have been abandoned or partly depopulated as grasslands have been destroyed by overgrazing and as croplands have been inundated by migrating sand dunes.”
Aquifer depletion means that nations are facing water shortages. Mechanical pumps have allowed aquifers to be emptied far quicker than they can be refilled.
“Today, half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling as overpumping depletes aquifers,” Brown writes.
This is having an impact on global grain production:
Irrigated area is shrinking in the Middle East, notably in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and possibly Yemen. In Saudi Arabia, which was totally dependent on a now-depleted fossil aquifer for its wheat self-sufficiency, production is in a freefall. From 2007 to 2010, Saudi wheat production fell by more than two thirds. By 2012, wheat production will likely end entirely, leaving the country totally dependent on imported grain.

The Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where spreading water shortages are shrinking the grain harvest. But the really big water deficits are in India, where the World Bank numbers indicate that 175 million people are being fed with grain that is produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping provides food for some 130 million people. In the United States, the world’s other leading grain producer, irrigated area is shrinking in key agricultural states such as California and Texas.
A further cause of shortages is the fact that more land is being used for things other than farming. Brown writes:
Suburban sprawl, industrial construction, and the paving of land for roads, highways and parking lots are claiming cropland in the Central Valley of California, the Nile River basin in Egypt, and in densely populated countries that are rapidly industrializing, such as China and India. In 2011, new car sales in China are projected to reach 20 million—a record for any country. The U.S. rule of thumb is that for every 5 million cars added to a country’s fleet, roughly 1 million acres must be paved to accommodate them. And cropland is often the loser.

Fast-growing cities are also competing with farmers for irrigation water. In areas where all water is being spoken for, such as most countries in the Middle East, northern China, the southwestern United States, and most of India, diverting water to cities means less irrigation water available for food production. California has lost perhaps a million acres of irrigated land in recent years as farmers have sold huge amounts of water to the thirsty millions in Los Angeles and San Diego.
High food prices have serious consequences. Nothing is more important to the general population than having sufficient food and water. Governments have been overthrown in the wake of famine.
Even if a nation has enough food, high prices can lead to protests and civil unrest. In the U.S., record numbers are dependent on food stamps, and 6 million have no income other than food stamps.
Finally, food shortages make the world a more dangerous place. Water shortages have provoked conflicts in the past. History proves that nations will fight to secure the food supplies they need.
High food prices are here to stay, and they are bringing a more dangerous world with them.