More Food Is Not the Answer
By Kelpie Wilson
In Good Tilth
With food riots across the globe in the news, the immediate cause of food shortages is simply this: grain prices have doubled over the last year and poor people can no longer afford to buy enough food. There is no one single cause for the price rise; it is a combination of supply and demand.
Steady population growth means about 70 million new mouths to feed every year, and increasing affluence is also spurring more people to buy more meat. Meat is grain-intensive - it takes about seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. Biofuels are another new demand on grain stocks, and a potentially insatiable one. The grain used to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed one person for a year.
There is more than enough grain to feed every hungry human on the planet, but the poor cannot compete with wealthier buyers of meat and biofuels. Markets are not interested in feeding hungry people - they want to make money, so from a capitalist point of view, the only solution is to increase supply in the hope that it will drive prices down.
On the supply side, serious limiting factors are coming into play: dwindling water supplies and increased drought exacerbated by climate change; increasingly degraded land and soils; the rising cost of energy used for everything from water pumping to transport, and the growing cost of fertilizer and other inputs.
The world wants more food - a lot more food - but the planet will not be able to provide it. For this reason alone, more food cannot be the answer.
Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of the book Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, says that while there have been food price spikes in the past, “This troubling situation is unlike any the world has faced before.”
Brown doesn’t use the term, but it is likely that we have reached “peak food,” the moment when world grain output has achieved its maximum and we will have to work very hard to keep it from declining.
One of the top reasons to believe we have reached peak food is that we have apparently reached peak oil. In his book, Eating Fossil Fuels, Dale Allen Pfeiffer shows how utterly dependent modern agriculture is on fossil fuels, not just for the machinery that plants and harvests, but for the energy to irrigate fields and for fertilizers. About 30 percent of farm energy goes to fertilizer, much of which is made from natural gas. Like oil, natural gas is becoming increasingly expensive as production nears peak. Without oil, we might not drive cars, but without fertilizer, we might not eat.
Food and fuel are intimately connected. Not only is fuel essential to produce food, but because food can substitute for fuel, the price of food is now locked into the price of oil - a price that is going nowhere but up.
Report shows the way forward
Globalization has promised to lift every person out of poverty by growing the economy so large that wealth will eventually trickle down to all. But this is a false promise that ignores physical limits to planetary resources.
A groundbreaking United Nations report that presents a serious challenge to the promises of globalization and biotech was released April, 2008. The IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development) is directed by Robert Watson, a former director of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and it shares some similar features to the UN Climate assessment reports.