Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Food Crisis

On this Earth Day, we are just waking up to a new global food crisis, starkly described by The Economist:
“World agriculture has entered a new, unsustainable and politically risky period,” says Joachim von Braun, the head of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, DC. To prove it, food riots have erupted in countries all along the equator. In Haiti, protesters chanting “We're hungry” forced the prime minister to resign; 24 people were killed in riots in Cameroon; Egypt's president ordered the army to start baking bread; the Philippines made hoarding rice punishable by life imprisonment. “It's an explosive situation and threatens political stability,” worries Jean-Louis Billon, president of Côte d'Ivoire's chamber of commerce.
Bloomberg News describes the harsh reality:
The price of rice, the staple food for half the world, has doubled in the past year to an all-time high. Countries including Indonesia and Egypt have seen social unrest over high prices, and are attempting to restrain inflation and curb instability by limiting food exports or removing import duties on food staples.
Did anyone see this coming? Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, did. Brown has been warning of such a crisis brought on by the growing use of biofuels, spreading water scarcity and global warming would create this very crisis. For instance, he predicted that the cultivation of grains for fuels would drive up food prices in The Globalist in 2006:
Cars, not people, will claim most of the increase in world grain consumption this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that world grain use will grow by 20 million tons in 2006.
Of this, 14 million tons will be used to produce fuel for cars in the United States, leaving only 6 million tons to satisfy the world’s growing food needs. In agricultural terms, the world appetite for automotive fuel is insatiable. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year. The grain needed to fill that same tank every two weeks over a year will feed 26 people.
Brown warned that this diversion of agriculture to fuel production could cause social and political instability:
For the two billion poorest people in the world, many of whom spend half or more of their income on food, rising grain prices can quickly become life threatening. The broader risk is that rising food prices could spread hunger and generate political instability in low-income countries that import grain, such as Indonesia, Egypt, Nigeria and Mexico.
Another factor Brown cites is growing water scarcity, which would affect rice prices first:
Among the three grains that dominate the world food supply—wheat, rice, and corn—the supply of rice is likely to tighten first simply because it is the most water-dependent of the three grains. Finding enough water to expand rice production is not easy in a world with spreading water scarcity. If rice supplies tighten and prices rise, the higher prices will then likely spread to wheat, the other principal food grain.
Because global warming affects water supplies, China has become a net importer of wheat in the last decade:
Higher temperatures in mountainous regions alter the precipitation mix, increasing rainfall and reducing snowfall. The result is more flooding during the rainy season and less snowmelt to feed rivers during the dry season. In Asia, for example, this shift is affecting the flow of the major rivers that originate in the vast Himalayan-Tibetan region, including the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow.
Brown first gained notoriety as the founder of the Worldwatch Institute, which still issues an annual report, The State of the World. If you want to understand the current food crisis, I recommend two of Brown's books: Outgrowing the Earth, about water scarcity, and Plan B 3.0, about the overall ability of the Earth to sustain human civilization.


OpenID lo765263 said...

Not Only gasohol but what about the overdevelopment of farm land by egomaniacs not only here in Delaware but throughout the country
This has to be addressed sometime or there will not be any land to grow food on let alone corn for ethanol

8:01 AM, April 22, 2008  
Anonymous Nick Fernandez said...

Transportation fuel is going to be the toughest of the many challenges on the road to sustainablity, in my opinion. Even by using biofuels from feedstocks with great energy return ratios, like switchgrass, it still requires enormous land area to grow enough crops to offset even modest amounts of the oil we use.
The alternative would be to create an electric vehicle fleet or a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle fleet to decouple transportation from hydrocarbons, but the life cycle analysis on such vehicles is very poor as well, usually because of the demands in making such robust batteries.
Electric power generation on the other hand, seems, on the other hand to be largely a conflict of forward thinkers butting up against the establishment.

3:16 PM, April 22, 2008  

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