My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
At the danger of confirming my new nickname as “doom and gloom Dennison” with which a friend recently hailed me, I’m posting this summary of a feature by Lester R Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, about global food.
Many of us may want to keep our heads stuck in the sand, but even a cursory look around the world today will show you that much is troubling this planet. Denying isn’t going to make the gathering troubles go away.
It is my personal belief that it is now too late to prevent any of the major catastrophes heading our way. Like the energy of a wave they will engulf and flow over us in the coming few decades and they cannot now be stopped. What matters now are preparation and mitigation.
Many people in rich countries may be able to pretend for years that they are unaffected – paying more as food and energy prices soar, unconnected to the political turmoil and distant resource wars that are already in progress, quickly unured to the suffering of tens of millions of people.
But I am writing from a global perspective. This is one planet, we are one human race, and only one among many millions of species, and EVERYWHERE there are portends of breakdown and collapse.
Many of the problems could be solved – that is, we have the technical solutions – but that is a far cry from saying they will be. The pattern of response was confirmed when America invaded Iraq to seize the oil rather than develop solutions to the looming energy shortage.
Summary: One Poor Harvest Away From Chaos by Lester R. Brown, published in the Bangkok Post, Saturday 19, 2011.
Record global food prices climbed another 3% in January 2011, according to the FAO.
Lowering food prices will require a bumper grain harvest, much larger than the record grain harvest of 2008.
“If the world has a poor harvest this year, food prices will rise to previously unimginable levels. Food riots will multiply, political unrest will spread and governments will fail. The world is now one poor harvest away from chaos in world grain markets.”
A) Overpumping water from aquifers
Over the longer term, the bursting of “food bubbles” based on overpumping of ground water will shrink harvests in many countries. Meanwhile, increased production will become harder due to climate volatility and more extreme weather events.
“Some 18 countries have inflated their food production in recent decades by overpumping acquifers to irrigate their crops. Among these are China, India and the US, the big three grain producers.”
Evidence of failing aquifers is mounting:
1) Saudi Arabia was self-sufficient in wheat 20 years ago; now the wheat harvest is collapsing and “will likely disappear entirely within a year or so as the country’s fossil (non-replenishable) aquifer is depleted.”
2) Syria and Iraq harvests are slowly shrinking as irrigation wells dry up.
3) “Yemen is a hydrological basket case.”
4) The largest water-based food bubbles are in India and China. A World Bank study indicates 175 million people in India are being fed by grain produced by over pumping. In China, overpumping is feeding 130 million people.
B) Climate change
A rule of thumb among crop ecologists that that each 1 o C rise in temperature during the growing season, drops grain yield by 10%. Last summer’s heat wave in Russia shrank their grain harvest by 40%.
C) Demand side challenges:
1) Population growth. There are 219,000 more people expecting dinner tonight than last night. (Global population is expected to rise 50% to 9 billion by mid century.)
2) Increasing affluence. Some 3 billion people are moving “up” the food chain and expecting to eat more grain-intensive meat, eggs and eggs.
3) Bio-fuels. “Roughly 120 millions tons of the 400 million tonne of the 2010 US grain harvest are going to ethanol distilleries.”
What is needed now to handle these challenges?
1) A worldwide effort to raise water productivity.
2) Cut carbon emissions.
“The goal of cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 is not sufficient. The challenge now is to cut carbon emissions 80% by 2020.”
3) Accelerate move to smaller families. 215 million women want to plan their families but lack access to family-planning services – they represent over a billion of th world’s poorest people.
4) Remove subsidies for converting grain and other crops into automotive fue
Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Lester R. Brown doesn’t say whether he thinks any of these major changes in global policy are likely to happen. Personally, I don’t see any of them taking place – but you should decide for yourself what you believe the outcomes are likely to be.
PS China is currently tackling its worst drought in 200 years.