We wrote a lot about China in our book “Famine in the West”, simply because China and the other fast growing nations of the East will have a massive impact on food availability in the future.
The extraordinary growth of China is hard for us in the West to grasp because every change is multiplied by such large numbers of people. There are now 49 Chinese cities with populations of over one million, and now the more wealthy are moving into vast suburbs with larger houses and more land. Many then need a car and although now their are only 12 million private cars, sales are growing at 26% per year. These relatively rich people consume far more of everything than they did when they were in villages, including food. They want a more western diet with more meat and alchohol, needing much more land per person just when the amount of farmland per person is going down due to desertification in the north west of the country and the massive loss of good, flat, fertile land for the expansion of cities.
It should be remembered that until recently, only about one billion of us were big consumers of food, energy and other resources. The other five billion were relatively low consumers. The world is adding about 90 million people to it’s population each year, but more significant is the similar amount of people in the world each year who move up to become consumers on a similar scale to us. This is the problem we face, more people wanting more of everything when in the case of food at least, there will be less.
When a real food crisis hits the world, it will be countries like China with huge foriegn exchange reserves that will be able to buy what food is available.
Our book “Famine in the West” was written during the early months of 2007 and events have moved quickly in the short time since then.
Wheat prices have doubled over the past year and other grains, legumes and oilseeds have risen by at least 50%. This causes people to ask,
“Are the severe food shortages forecast in the book starting to happen already?”
The answer is that we don’t know, but probably not. Without strong worldwide action by governments, we are heading for a disaster, but the timing can only be guesswork. Starting on page 105 of this book we show two fictional scenarios of the years leading up to 2025, simply because that is the year when the world population should reach 8 billion.
We think that in the next few years , oil and grain prices will fluctuate wildly but the world will most likely get by without a major catastrophe. Farmers will respond to higher prices and will use the small remaining reserves of land such as European set -aside, to sow more acreage, therefore temporarily making up for the 25 million acres of cropland lost each year to desertification, new cities, roads, etc. They will also need to make up for the extra millions of acres being used for biofuel. Although higher prices have put some biofuel projects at risk, government schemes such as the renewable fuel obligation will ensure that many will go ahead.
Higher prices will also mean that the poorest people in the world will have to tighten their belts even further. They are already spending most of their income on food, so when prices rise they have no option but to buy less. Lower consumption by the very poor will help to off-set increased consumption by the millions of newly prosperous urban dwellers in the developing world.
Providing the inputs of fertiliser and pesticides are available to grow both food and fuel, we should get by but it is unlikely that world reserve grain stocks will be rebuilt to safe levels. The real crunch will come when the inevitable big event occurs. Droughts and floods have always happened, and are happening now, but when we get a severe drought in a major region such as the U.S. mid west that lasts for more than one year, we simply will not have the food reserves to cope or extra land to use. The other big risk is that with oil supplies on a similar knife edge as food, our oil dependent farming would suffer if events in the volatile middle east caused real oil shortages. A reserve tank of diesel on the farm could be a good investment.
When a real food crisis happens, panic buying, hoarding and speculation will make things much worse.
The present world population of about 6.6 billion is expected to rise to about 9 billion by 2050 which would imply that food production would need to rise by about 50%. But Professor Robert Thomson told this year’s Sentry Conference that a tripling of food output would be needed.
This is because as people become more wealthy their demand for more and better food shoots up. Professor Thompson explained that much of the interior of China has been left behind as the coastal regions have grown wealthier and that more than one third of China’s population still lives on less than $2 a day. He said that as the majority of people in developing countries grew out of poverty and passed the $2 a day mark, they would make significant demands on the world’s food economy.
We at Peakfood have previously said that this – when combined with the many threats to food production - will cause famine if urgent changes are not made.
Slowly, people are realising that some biofuel crops can increase carbon emissions and reduce food production. It is so important that only crops with a good energy balance are grown, but government targets and incentives for the inclusion of biofuels do not set any standards for the type of crop or demand any kind of energy audit.
In a new study, Joseph Fargione of the American Nature Conservancy points out that clearing forests, grass and peatlands to make way for biofuel crops like corn and soybeans causes the carbon stored in the soil to escape to the atmosphere. He says that the conversion of peatlands to palm oil plantations in Indonesia has caused the greatest losses, and the conversion of land in Brazil for soy production was also very damaging.
Fargione says, “You release about 280 tons of carbon to the atmosphere for every hectare you convert, and that is compared to the saving you get when you use biodiesel, which is about 0.9 tons of CO2 for every year. So you would take 319 years just to get back to where you started by using biodiesel grown on that land.”