There are many reasons why food production cannot keep up with population growth in the medium and long term such as loss of land, water shortages, improved diets and the use of cropland for biofuel production; but a real problem is modern farming’s huge dependence on finite resources including oil and gas.
There is of course an ongoing debate about the timing of Peak Oil. Some experts say that it is already here and that world production will soon go in to rapid decline while others say that new discoveries and the exploitation of shales and tar sands will allow production to keep up with demand for some time. Whatever the truth, the very high prices of the last few years have not caused the expected rapid production response and some big fields such as Cantarell in Mexico are in serious decline. We should realise that although there will be fluctuations in prices, the age of cheap oil is over.
In agriculture, the recent high prices are causing farmers all over the world to try to increase production, but it’s not all that easy. Most suitable land, and some that is unsuitable, is already being farmed. Rain forests are being destroyed, but mainly for biofuel crops while old cropland is being lost at the rate of 25 million acres every year.
Demand for the inputs needed to increase food production has sent the price of nitrogen, phosphate and potash fertiliser from about £145/tonne to over £300/tonne since last June. Pesticide prices have also soared and some products are hard to obtain. The price of land is also rising but the amount available here is not increasing although in eastern europe some neglected land is being brought back in to production.
We can, I think, expect some short term extra food production provided that climatic changes do not cause too much disruption, but like the oil industry, we do not have the resources to constantly keep up with increasing demand and any serious oil and gas shortages caused through Peak Oil or geo-political events would cause a similar or greater shortage of food.
We have allowed food production to become dangerously linked to the production of ever greater amounts of finite resources. If nothing is done to reverse that, disaster is inevitable.