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May 20, 2006

Peak Food Environment  Future  Peak Oil

The world is eating grains faster than farmers can grow them, and the problem is only going to get worse, with rising oil prices and global climate change both playing a significant part. CommonDreams:

The world is now eating more food than farmers grow, pushing global grain stocks to their lowest level in 30 years. Rising population, water shortages, climate change, and the growing costs of fossil fuel-based fertilisers point to a calamitous shortfall in the world's grain supplies in the near future, according to Canada's National Farmers Union (NFU).

Thirty years ago, the oceans were teeming with fish, but today more people rely on farmers to produce their food than ever before, says Stewart Wells, NFU's president.

In five of the last six years, global population ate significantly more grains than farmers produced.

And with the world's farmers unable to increase food production, policymakers must address the "massive challenges to the ability of humanity to continue to feed its growing numbers", Wells said in a statement.

There isn't much land left on the planet that can be converted into new food-producing areas, notes Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington-based non-governmental organisation. And what is left is of generally poor quality or likely to turn into dust bowls if heavily exploited, Brown told IPS.

Unlike the Green Revolution in the 1960s, when improved strains of wheat, rice, maize and other cereals dramatically boosted global food production, there are no technological magic bullets waiting in the wings.

"Biotechnology has made little difference so far," he said.

Even if the long-promised biotech advances in drought, cold, and disease-resistance come about in the next decade, they will boost yields little more than five percent globally, Brown said.

"There's not nearly enough discussion about how people will be fed 20 years from now," he said.

Hunger is already a stark and painful reality for more than 850 million people, including 300 million children. How can the number of hungry not explode when one, two and possibly three billion more people are added to the global population?

The global food system needs fixing and fast, says Darrin Qualman, NFU's research director.

"Many Canadian and U.S. farmers are going out of business because crop prices are at their lowest in nearly 100 years," Qualman said in an interview. "Farmers are told overproduction is to blame for the low prices they've been forced to accept in recent years."

However, most North American agribusiness corporations posted record profits in 2004. With only five major companies controlling the global grain market, there is a massive imbalance of power, he said.

"The food production system is designed to generate profits, not produce food or nutrition for people," Qualman told IPS. [...]

Shifting from a global food production system to local food for local people would go a long way towards addressing inequity, Qualman believes.

"The 100-mile diet, where people obtain their food from within a 100-mile radius of their homes, makes good sense for most of the world," he said.

The whole fabric of the food production system needs to change, or hunger and malnutrition will only get much worse.

"North America's industrial-style agricultural system is a really bad idea and maybe the worst on the planet," Qualman concluded. [Emphasis added]

And people want to take a big chunk of the grain harvest and burn it (turning it into ethanol for that purpose). What's wrong with this picture?

Posted by Jonathan at May 20, 2006 06:18 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


I agree with what your saying about bio fuels.

I agree with what you’re saying about bio fuels. Primarily because most farmers would scream if the government wanted to remove the organic waste that holds their fields in place. That same waste reduces the fertilizers they need.

But I question food production peaking. Having lived in grain belt for a number of years, I will tell you farmers don't produce on every piece of land. In fact the majority of grain production is fodder (animal feed).

Before we peak on food production their will be another green revolution. But this one will be in producing vegetation for direct consumption. Look at Asia as a prime example. The US is far from this point. Large portions of the ag business are directed at secondary food products, like corn syrup to use in processed foods, which allow longer shelve lives and allow for export. Not to mention the vast suburban lawns. If we stopped producing lawn fertilizer how much natural gas and oil would we save?

I know that in one third world country where food production is actually at peak due to poor lands, over-crowding and lack of water, alcohol production is restricted to specific brewers and then it’s priced mainly for the consumption of tourists.

I’ll believe we are nearing peak food when there is a corn syrup shortage. A far more threatening peak in basic substance is clean “potable” water.

It would be an interesting question to see if Americans would give up meat, alcohol or sweet foods (corn syrup) in their diet to drive cars.

It does bring up another interesting point though. What I’ll call the “Domino theory of peaks”. Peak oil is here. The response to it could cause or accelerate peaks in other commodities. The obvious are other energy sources like natural gas. Do people realize that natural gas if the primary ingredient in synthetic fertilizers. The not so obvious are things like food itself; if we try to “grow” our way out of it.

This brings me back to my thinking that the only correct solution is harvesting natural renewable energy supplies (solar, wind & gravitational), with an emphasis on energy frugality pushing a societal re-engineering. The re-engineering would restructure society to be less mobile more self-sustained. Again look at Asia for examples. The answer to our problems will most likely come from the second and third world nations. Why, because they are past-peak now. If we help them solve their problems, we will have the tools to cope with ours when the pressure is on.

Posted by: mark at May 23, 2006 08:04 PM