Grain Shortages in 2nd and 3rd World

Posted: April 6th, 2008 by: h2

Well, after 1 year or so of heavy biofuel frenzy, the results are coming in pretty fast. Note that all of these shortages and problems have multiple causes, but the fact is, like a freeway travelling at capacity, any event, no matter how apparently trivial, pushes the freeway into a traffic jam state.

First we have some fairly predictable events. Coupled with the inevitable corruption, the recent wheat price increases, indirectly triggered by intensive corn cultivation in the USA to make the highly energy intensive corn based ethanol (intensive = expensive crop ‘inputs’), and directly by increasing global, especially Chinese, demand for wheat, and a serious drop in wheat production in Australia due to a drought, we now see the first cracks appear:

The subsidized price of a 110-pound sack of flour has been less than $3 for years; the market price reached $45 early this year and has fallen to $36 since the government intervened.

Even more serious, rice, the staple of much of the world’s poor, the ones, that is, who don’t rely on corn or wheat, is skyrocketing in price as well.

A global rice shortage that has seen prices of one of the world’s most important staple foods increase by 50 per cent in the past two weeks alone is triggering an international crisis, with countries banning export and threatening serious punishment for hoarders.

With rice stocks at their lowest for 30 years, prices of the grain rose more than 10 per cent on Friday to record highs and are expected to soar further in the coming months. Already China, India, Egypt, Vietnam and Cambodia have imposed tariffs or export bans, as it has become clear that world production of rice this year will decline in real terms by 3.5 per cent. The impact will be felt most keenly by the world’s poorest populations, who have become increasingly dependent on the crop as the prices of other grains have become too costly.

Rice is the staple food for more than half the world’s population. This is the second year running in which production – which increased in real terms last year – has failed to keep pace with population growth. The harvest has also been hit by drought, particularly in China and Australia, forcing producers to hoard their crops to satisfy local markets.

Not looking so good.

“As prices go up in the world market many millions of people across Asia will face food shortages and possible starvation,” WFP regional spokesperson Paul Risely said. “Every day we are battling to procure food, and every day millions of people in Asia are in greater danger of going hungry.”

And that’s just this week.

I’m going to go out on a limb here: there is not going to be a gradual drop off in global food availability, and the population it enables, the system globally has been stretched too far, too fast, as has the population. While it’s easy to pretend that when a population doubles, that means it’s only 2 times larger, the reality is that when you add this many consuming humans to the global ecosystem, they are simply going to push it to its limits.

Keep in mind a very basic fact: in around 1970, the planet hit its rough natural carrying capacity in terms of producing enough food to feed the expanding population. This event, which was about to trigger massive famines, was averted at the last minute by the so called Green Revolution. The green revolution, bypassing all the fancy explanations, is the process of converting oil into food.

It also pulled in massive agribusiness conglomerates, and allowed them to begin profiting from what had previously been a very natural process: locally generated seedstock, used to generate next year’s seeds. This was replaced with proprietary seeds, that cannot be used to plant next year’s food supply. Instead, you have to buy them. So you leave two sustainable, fairly natural methods of food production, and substitute them for 2 totally non-sustainable ones. This resulted in taking us to about where we are now, a doubling of global population.

Genetically engineered food isn’t going to do anything else, at very ‘best’, than to allow a tiny increase in population, before it too hits a limit. And this is ignoring everything else around farming, water, topsoil, etc. But especially global oil prices, which feed directly in as base costs for almost every single component of modern industrial agriculture, from tractor production, fuel for tractors, oil based pesticides, natural gas based fertilizers, oil based food transport, harvesting, and so on. Not to mention oil based roads, ships, etc.

Since we don’t have a lot of empirical data about what it looks like when a global ecosystem is pushed to its limits, there’s going to be a pretty serious lack of scientific data to make predictions, at least, real scientific data. Lots of speculation, of course, but no way to verify theories and so on, since the theories will now have to be constructed more or less as the events happen, and will always be playing catchup to reality.

Assuming that the Club of Rome study estimate of 1980 being the year humanity went into the condition called ‘overshoot’ is somewhat correct, ie, the population exceeds the carrying capacity of the earth, we are now in a brand new situation. Personally, I seriously doubt the population was sustainable at even half today’s total, possibly much less, although it would have dragged on for longer before grinding to a halt. How long, it’s hard to say, and is no longer more than fictional speculation, since we kept growing.

If people can’t buy food to eat, things are going to get bad pretty fast. And I don’t see any scenario where present population numbers are even remotely sustainable, let alone major increases. Think of it as a teeter-totter. You walk up one side, get closer to the middle. The closer you get, the easier it is to make the teeter-totter start to balance by small movements, change of balance, etc.

This is the peak. When small movements, ie, trying to grow liquid fuels, aka ethanol / biodiesel to avoid oil production peaks, a drought in Australia, a bit of corruption in Egypt, shipping problems elsewhere, start to make the teeter-totter wobble, you know you’re at a very dangerous point. And that’s where we are now.

Comments are closed.