End Of Cheap Food
By John James
It looks like the era of cheap
food is over. The price of maize has doubled in a year, and wheat futures
are at their highest in a decade. The food price index in India has
risen 11%, and in Mexico in January there were riots after the price
of corn flour went up fourfold. The floods in England and India have
devastated crops. In nearly every country food prices are going up,
and they are probably not going to come down again.
Before World War II, most
families spent a third or more of their income on food, as the poor
majority in developing countries still do. But after the war a series
of radical changes, from mechanisation to the green revolution, raised
agricultural productivity hugely and caused a long, steep fall in the
price of food, to a tenth of many people’s income.
It will probably return to
a quarter of a family's income within a decade, or higher, from four
1) Demand as global population
continues to grow and more people want to eat more meat. Early this
month, in its annual
assessment of farming trends, the UN predicted that in
less than 10 years people in the developing countries will be eating
30% more beef, 50% more pig meat and 25% more poultry. With lot-feeding
huge amounts of grain-growing land will move from human to animal consumption.
2) Global warming lowers
crop yields: see the chart on the right. Christopher Field and David
Lobell in Environmental Research Letters in March stated that for every
0.5°C temperature rise, crop yields fall between 3 and 5%. So 2°C
hotter means a 12 to 20% fall in global food production just as the
population is about to surge over the 7 billion mark.
3) Rising demand for biofuels
replaces food production (see "Looming disaster", right),
causing food price hikes that lead to social unrest, such as the recent
riots in Mexico. This should be taken in context: a massive
report by the major oil companies warns that oil supplies
will peak within 8 years, if not sooner. It estimates that production
from existing reserves would soon start declining by 3% pa even as world
demand for oil is growing by 2% pa. In order to keep the driving public
from facing reality politicians will take the easy road and legislate
to use more land for biofuels.
4) Desertification, especially
in the Sahara and Central Asia (see map below), is undermining food
production for one third of humanity. Tree planting is not the answer
as it puts more pressure on already-scarce water. Their food will have
to be provided by just those breadbasket countries now turning to biofuels.
“It creates a chain reaction that must lead to social turmoil”,
Zafaar Adeel, author of the UN
Biofuel production is pushing
huge amounts of land out of food production. One sixth of the grain
grown in the US this year will be "industrial corn" for ethanol.
One third of US maize is
now used for biofuel and there was last year a 48% increase
in the amount of farmland devoted to biofuels. During that time hardly
any new land was brought under the plough to replace the lost food production.
There is only a difference
in scale in China, Indonesia and Brazil where primary forests are being
cleared to plant energy crops. Yet, after fossil fuel use, deforestation
is the largest single source of CO2.
The competition for water
is likely to favour the biofuel producers as their crop, being subsidised,
commands higher prices than corn or soya. Ethanol has roughly
70% the energy content of gasoline while costing 40% more
In Australia, if all our
wheat and sugar output was diverted to ethanol it would supply less
than 30% of our fuel needs. As these crops now feed 80 million people,
what will they eat instead?
It is argued that Australia
could increase its biofuel capacity by using marginal land, but Mick
Keogh, executive director of the Australian
Farm Institute, said: "A close examination of global
biofuel experiences shows they are only viable with high levels of government
support, and have at best a limited capacity to meet future energy needs."
The attraction of biofuels
for politicians is obvious: they can claim they are doing something
useful to combat global warming without demanding any sacrifices from
business or the voters. For voters the attraction is that they can continue
to drive their cars without a thought for the consequences. The attraction
for business is that they can make lots of money out of biofuels, and
be subsidised to do so.
A straight switch is happening
from food to fuel. As oil prices rise - and Peak Oil guarantees they
will - it pulls up the price of biofuels as well, so it becomes more
attractive for farmers to switch from food to fuel.
Lester Brown of the Earth
Policy Institute says: "The stage is now set for frontal competition
for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles, and the
world's two billion poorest who will need it to survive."
The real answer is to consume
less, drive less and to fund high-tech hybrid and electric cars so we
dont panic for ethanol as oil production declines. Let's not forget
that ethanol is NOT a renewable product: just consider the fuel and
water required to produce and distribute it, and the clearing of the
forests to grow it that is now releasing huge amounts of CO2.
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