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The Dirty Baker's Dozen: 13 Factors in the Coming Food Crisis Part I

Mark Jeantheau -- A three-part series begins with a focus on energy, water and other factors that are leading us to a global food crisis.

A baker throwing one extra into your bag of a dozen croissants is a good thing. But you may find yourself suffering from a mild case of triskaidekaphobia after checking out our list of 13 factors that are converging to push the world towards a food crisis.

In the United States and other western countries, food shortages seem remote, except for the occasional bare supermarket shelves the night before a major snowstorm. But there are many problems threatening our Business As Usual system, and a food crisis is going to be a serious possibility in the coming years.

Even though the risk remains highest in poorer countries and those already dealing with marginal agricultural conditions, consumers in the West are going to see higher food prices at a minimum, with occasional food shortages quite possible.

Food Crisis

Introduction

What factors may contribute to a food crisis—that is, sharply higher prices at a minimum, with actual food shortages possible? Here's a quick list of our baker's dozen:

-- Energy shortages and prices
-- Biofuels
-- Global warming
-- Fresh water shortages
-- Economic chaos
-- Higher population levels
-- Bad agricultural policy
-- Soil degradation
-- The honeybee problem and loss of native pollinators
-- Loss of crop varieties and genetic contamination
-- Farmer shortages
-- Fish declines
-- General ignorance of food

Today's article will discuss the first six of these topics. Topics 7-12 are discussed in the second article in the series: Crisis Affecting Agriculture. Part 3 discusses the lamentable item 13 and offers a cornucopia of strategies you can implement to limit the impact of any food crisis on you and your family: Food Security.

Food Crisis Factor #1: Energy Shortages and Prices

Modern agriculture is a highly industrialized, highly distributed, petroleum-dependent affair. Farmers are very reliant on tractors and other diesel-powered farm machinery. Most of the food we eat was grown in a place distant from us, processed at some other distant place, and shipped to our local store shelves via 18-wheeler (and sometimes by plane). Our local store refrigerates, freezes, or otherwise stores the food and presents it to shoppers in a well lighted, heated, and cooled space. Shoppers drive their petro-powered cars to the market and make their purchases, then store their food at home in refrigerators and freezers.

All of this requires huge amounts of fuel and electricity, and makes our food supply very dependent on steady supplies of affordable energy. So, where's the problem?

Global petroleum production appears to be peaking, which means tighter oil supplies and higher prices in the future. Higher fuel prices will be reflected in food prices. Similarly, spot shortages of fuel could result in spot shortages of food on store shelves. Few households maintain significant food stocks, so shortages would lead to hoarding (which also usually increases food waste factors), which would further exacerbate the situation.

In North America, production of natural gas has peaked. Much of the remaining supply is used to run power plants and, increasingly, to turn Canada's tar sands into vehicle fuel. But natural gas is also a critical ingredient in synthetic fertilizer, a critical component of industrial agriculture. Farmers can expect ever-increasing prices for fertilizer, and these cost hikes will continue finding their way to the price of food.

Besides transportation fuel, petroleum is also the base ingredient in chemical pesticides and a main ingredient in food packaging. Higher oil prices will mean higher pesticide and packaging prices and will contribute to higher food prices.

The final energy component in our food supply is electricity. In the US, we are fortunate that the grid is relatively reliable. But multi-day outages do occur, and such events usually leave those affected with fridges and freezers full of spoiled food. As demand for electricity continues to rise and global warming's pressure to phase out coal-fired power plants increases, our electricity system may be increasingly strained to keep up with demand—a situation that will make grid failures occur more frequently.

Food Crisis Factor #2: Biofuels

Oil prices have risen into the painful range. Social unrest is now standard in many of the oil producing regions of the world. Everyone is looking for global warming solutions. With these and other factors in mind, US and European policymakers all seem to be gung-ho on biofuels as a home-grown, climate-friendly energy solution. Ah, if it were only that easy.

Proper coverage of the potential benefits and obvious problems of biofuels would require a multi-part series all its own, and the overall pros and cons of biofuels are not really the point here. The question is, what effect will biofuels have on the food supply?

Diversion of corn and soybeans from the food stream into biofuels production has already begun to put upward pressure on food prices. U.S. farm land currently devoted to other crops will also be diverted to corn and soybean production in the future to increase the availability of biofuels feed stocks. The voracious biofuels push will also cause marginal, fallow cropland and unplanted buffer zones to be put into production, increasing soil erosion and water pollution.

Cellulosic ethanol, which can use the inedible part of the corn plant (or other plants that are entirely inedible), is championed as a double-barreled solution that will make the ethanol process more efficient and eliminate the need to use food crops as feed stocks. But that technology is still being worked out, and even if it does come to maturity, unsustainable "clear cut" harvesting of plants from farm fields, range lands, and "scrub" areas could degrade these lands to the point where we end up causing the next great Dust Bowl.

You may note that biofuels proponents never discuss soil health, the Achilles heel of biofuels (and industrial agriculture in general). One sustainable-agriculture advocate in the U.S. put it this way: "The ethanol craze means that we're going to burn up the Midwest's last six inches of topsoil in our gas-tanks."

This is not to say that biofuels have no role to play -- they clearly do. Local production of biofuels based on sustainable agriculture practices is a fine idea. But that won't scale up to a nationwide supply that can replace the current amounts of gasoline and petroleum diesel. Of course, that doesn't mean "they" won't try, impacts on food and soil health be damned.

Let's not be Bio-Fools

Peter Melchett, Policy Director at the Soil Association in the UK, summed up the biofuels limitations in Europe clearly: "The OECD estimates that the EU would need to use 72% of arable land to provide 10% of fuel used in the EU. Using 18% of the EU's arable land would cut greenhouse gas emissions from EU transport by 1-2%. This sacrifices food security for an illusion of energy security."

Food Crisis Factor #3: Global Warming

One of the standard arguments from the anti-global-warming crowd goes something like this: Plants eat carbon dioxide, so CO2-driven global warming will be good for farming. Further, colder climates will warm, making a longer, more productive growing season possible. Um, not so fast there, Slicko.

First, the "CO2 as fertilizer" argument is only correct if other required nutrients are also available in increasing quantities. Even where that is partly true, it worth pointing out that weeds tend to out-compete crops in higher-CO2 environments.

Colder agricultural areas like Canada and northern Europe may see warmer weather and increased growing seasons, which be a positive in the yield equation. But other factors, like increased pest and disease problems, which are predicted to be spurred on by warming, would push back the other way.

Other areas will get unwanted increases in average temperatures. USDA studies have shown that for every 1 degree increase in temperature you get a 10% drop in yield. A study in India found a slightly different relationship: A 1 degree C rise had little effect on wheat yields, but a 2 degree C rise was shown to reduce yields by as much as 38% -- even after adjusting for the offsetting effects of higher CO2 levels. Neither scenario bodes well for the future of grain yields.

Finally, one of the most prominent predictions associated with global climate change is increased bad weather -- droughts, floods, wind, hail -- all of which have a negative effect on farming.

Food Crisis Factor #4: Fresh Water Shortages

Also associated with global warming will be lower availability of fresh water in some areas. With use of river water in key farming regions already at or near full exploitation, any decrease will not only reduce farm output, it will also make living there more of a challenge.

Another fresh water problem is the over-pumping of groundwater; that is, pumping groundwater resources at a rate greater than their recharge rate. The 20th century saw a vast expansion of the use of groundwater for agricultural and residential purposes (such as in the U.S. Midwest and Southwest). Globally, up to 80% of potable water is used for irrigation.

But now water tables are falling in many countries, including China, India, and the United States, which together account for nearly half of the global grain harvest. Worse, the rate of depletion is accelerating. Not all food production relies on irrigation, of course, but enough does that the situation is of concern.

Farming in Ogallala-Land

The effects of aquifer depletion vary, depending on whether it is a replenishable aquifer or a fossil aquifer.

If the aquifer is replenishable, as most are, once depletion occurs, the amount of water that can be pumped is necessarily reduced to the level of the recharge rate. If, for example, an aquifer is currently being pumped at twice the recharge rate, when the point of depletion is reached, the rate of pumping will be cut in half.

In a fossil aquifer -- that is, a non-replenishable aquifer -- depletion means the end of pumping. Fossil aquifers include the giant Ogallala Aquifer under the U.S. Great Plains.

Source: Lester Brown, author of Plan B, v3.0

Also troublesome is contamination of groundwater from polluted surface water and land; leaking underground storage tanks; and, believe it or not, intentional "deep injection" of toxic waste that can eventually find its way to usable groundwater.

Food Crisis Factor #5: Economic Chaos

We certainly hope that the global financial system does not go "boom." But the sharpies we appointed to run things and those who manipulate money for a living have created very dangerous conditions in the money system.

The effect on food of a financial crash or a depression are obvious enough -- many people will lack enough money to buy food. Also possible are disruptions in the global supply chain as the "liquidity crisis" curtails loan-dependent agricultural activities or as supply-chain companies go bankrupt.

If serious economic chaos occurs, it will be bad for all sectors, and food will not be an exception. The impact on food is noteworthy, however, since food is one of the few truly essential things in our lives. We can live almost indefinitely without a new VCR or even a new car. We can't go long at all without food.

You can start keeping abreast of the real story on global financial problems -- forget about relying on corporate media for the truth on this -- at the LATOC Breaking News page.

Food Crisis Factor #6: Higher Population Levels

Population levels are a main driver in many environment and resource problems. Populations in Western countries have stabilized -- with the notable exception of the United States, which just passed the 300 million mark. Populations in many developing nations are still exploding. Overall, more mouths to feed means more pressure on food supplies. Even though total global grain production has managed to continue growing, the amount of grain per person has declined since its high in the 1980s, and total grain reserves are at their lowest point in decades.

At this point in agricultural history, we have a fixed amount of arable land. Further increases in population will smack up against limits in land availability and stagnating yield gains, thus further reducing the amount of grain per person.

Another trend that fits somewhat into this category is the demand for more meat. U.S. consumers' love of extra-meaty meals is well known. As average incomes in developing countries rise, there is a tendency for eaters in those countries to add more meat to their diets too. The amount of meat that can be raised per acre is far less than the amount of vegetable protein that can be raised per acre; thus, the more-meat trend will put further pressure on grain and soybean prices, supplies, and reserves.

Mark is a writer, financial analyst, Web developer, environmentalist, and, as necessary, chef and janitor. Grinning Planet is an expression of Mark's enthusiasm for all things humorous and green, as well as a psychotic desire to work himself half-to-death. Hobbies include health foods, music, getting frustrated over politics, and occasionally lecturing the TV set on how uncreative it is. For jokes, cartoons, and more great environmental information, visit http://www.grinningplanet.com.

© 2008 Mark Jeantheau

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