For European farmers, the last few years have seen remarkable fluctuations in profitability. When IACS was first introduced, payments were supposed to compensate us for being exposed to lower world prices. But for a few years (because world prices were high) we managed both the payments and the high prices. Of course, it couldn’t last, and grain prices declined until even the most efficient farmers couldn’t make a profit unless they had no rent or mortgage to pay.
Now we have a situation where grain prices have shot up but are highly volatile. Livestock farmers are having a terrible time until meat prices adjust upwards, and most farmers are wondering if higher grain prices are here to stay, or if wall-to-wall planting of wheat will quickly push prices back down to unprofitable levels.
In my opinion, the answer is that if we get a bumper world harvest in 2008, then prices will fall back. But this won’t be to previous low levels because stocks by then will be at record low levels and demand for both food and biofuel will still be rising.
However, what we should all be concerned about is the possibility that the 2008 harvest is really poor due to drought or other extreme weather in major grain growing regions. We would have virtually no carry over stocks to help out and once it becomes obvious that there is not enough food to go around, panic buying, hoarding and speculation would change a difficult situation in to a disaster. While farmers are more than ready for better times, I’m sure none of us don’t want a situation where people are hungry or starving!
In the medium term, the outlook for the consumer is grim due to Read more
- growth of seeds lost previous year
This photo shows weed seed return. What a waste of energy! There are so many threats to future food production that we need to be working now on ways of reducing this waste. The Intact Harvester is one answer. See our intact harvesting videos or the page on our site for more details.
Survivors of the catastrophe that will soon decimate the world population if nothing is done will be astonished that such a fundamental mistake could have been made. The mistake was to believe that we could use a finite and unreliable resource (fossil fuel) to supply an infinite need (food) in ever larger quantities
An incredibly serious situation has been allowed to develop which unless tackled will result in the starvation of a large part of the human population.
In a very short timeframe, only about 60 years, the human race has been able to successfully multiply it’s population and overcome the constraint that has for millenia kept population growth in check i.e. sufficient food supply.
This has been done by effectively turning fossil fuels in to food by
1. Replacing horses and oxen by fossil fuel driven machines so that the 30% land area previously needed to feed them became available for human food production.
2. Using fossil fuel derived fertilisers and pesticides to push yields to undreamt of levels.
If supplies of these fossil fuels were infinite, reliable, cheap, and caused no changes to the weather patterns upon which food production depends we would have no big problems.
Unfortunately, this is not the case but without fossil fuels in sufficient supply, food production would fail and famine would result.
By 2025 there will be about 8 billion people on earth, yet by then oil production will be in decline and crop destroying extreme weather events such as drought or floods are expected to be even more common than now.
This would be bad enough, but there are many other threats to world food supplies such as water shortages that mean the irrigated area of land is reducing.
Desertification, degredation and salination are losing us over 20 million acres of land each year.
A further 5 million acres are lost each year to paving over for cities, roads new industry and airports. This is often good quality, highly productive land on coastal plains.
Fuel crops now take up millions of acres of land that previously grew food crops and the area is expanding at an incredible rate as governments use subsidies to encourage the growing of these crops in an attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and to increase energy security.
An expanding population moving up the food chain. The world is expected to gain about 1.4 billion people by 2025, but perhaps more significant is the fact that a large part of the population of Asia and other fast developing areas are using more meat in their diet. A eat based diet needs much more land per person than the traditional grain based diet. In other words, we are going to need more food per person when there will be less food per person. In 1970 there was 0.28ha of farmland on average for each person on earth, but at current rates that will have fallen to 0.15ha by 2050.
Climate change is causing food production problems that will almost certainly get much worse. Successful crops depend on sufficient water at the right time through natural rainfall or less commonly through irrigation. Farmers plan cropping programs based on the expected water availability for their region and fairly small changes can result in much lower yields. This has been happening more frequently with droughts and floods in many areas. Climate scientists say this will get worse, reducing food production by amounts that can only be guessed at.
It could be starting now. The US Department of Agriculture recently a forecast US grain stocks at the lowest since 1949, and world stocks at their lowest since 1976. These stocks are now dangerously low and we desperately need a run of good harvests to rebuild stocks. Wheat is now around double the price it was just a year ago and consumers are now seeing this reflected in the price of bread, meat and most other foods. If we have a poor harvest in 2008, prices will really rocket as we will by then have almost no reserve stocks.
These shortages and high prices have been caused by three of the factors mentioned above, namely climate change, using crops for fuel, and increased demand from Asia. At some time we will be faced with a problem that could wipe out much of the worlds food production i,e. oil and gas shortages.
Without sufficient oil and gas, food production in the west would fail and in other less developed areas it would fall dramatically, yet we act as if these supplies are reliable and will last forever. This is plainly not the case. Supplies are finite, we are using far more each year than is being found in new discoveries and in the West, we are becoming dependent on unfriendly and unreliable suppliers. Most of the remaining oil is in the middle east where civil war between shi’ites and sunnis, war between Israel and Iran, conflict in Kurdish areas, the fall of the House of Saud, or concerted terrorist activity could cut off oil supplies . Little wonder that the US is desperate to stop Iran deploying nuclear weapons.
Similarly, up to 40% of the increased crop yields that have been achieved over the last 60 years have been due to the use of nitrogen fertiliser using natural gas as the feedstock. In Europe we are slowly becoming dependent on fertiliser made in eastern Europe using unreliable Russian gas.
Within a few short years a larger, more demanding population will need to be fed despite severe droughts and floods, water shortages and less cropland at the same time as oil and gas depletion and unreliability threaten the food supply system. But no one in government seems to know or care.
As well as floods in Britain and India, there are now floods in Nabraska and northern Illinois.
Weather related production problems have also hit China, mainland Europe and the Black Sea region. This couldn’t have come at a worse time as grain carry over stocks are extremely low and will plainly go even lower. Experts say that it is not always possible to blame global warming for any individual event, but the severity is almost certainly down to warming. Grain prices have almost doubled over the past year, and although farmers needed some increase in prices, present prices must be really bad news for the poorest people on Earth who have to survive on $1-$2 dollars per day.
We have been warning for some time that the world is heading for serious food shortages as a result of a combination of factors and we have many posts on this site giving more details. The worst case would be if extreme weather problems happen in the future at the same time as fuel shortages.
Governments around the world should consider the present problems as a warning and stock up on grain if we are fortunate enough to have surplus supplies in future years. They should also take drastic action to cut greenhouse gases and conserve finite fuel supplies. If they do not take action, famine is inevitable in the fairly near future.
Policy makers are now giving priority to the credit crisis that is threatening to push the whole world in to recession. They feel that the great problems of climate change, resource depletion and food security are less urgent but this could lead to disaster as less government and bank funding is available for sustainable projects.
Already, Texan oilman T Boone Pickens has been forced to delay plans to build the world’s biggest wind farm, partly because of the difficulty in borrowing money.
We should really be questioning if continuous rapid growth of the world economy is possible without damaging the Earth’s capacity to produce enough food for an expanding population. We need to find a way for all the people of the world to live a good life while using less fossil energy. We need innovative ways to reduce energy consumption and to efficiently collect the abundant solar energy reaching us every day.
While fossil energy is still cheap there is no incentive to do this, so the massive tax increases that will come about because of government borrowing should be energy taxes. Jobs would then be created in the new industries that would spring up providing renewable energy and building energy efficient products and infrastructure.
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