Monday, April 9, 2012

Not Looking Good

There is a lot of serious, high-level worry going on over the state of  our current and future world food supply these days. Such as the Planet Under Pressure conference that just wound up at the end of March. As the New York Times reported about a year ago:

A rising unease about the future of the world’s food supply came through during interviews this year with more than 50 agricultural experts working in nine countries.
These experts say that in coming decades, farmers need to withstand whatever climate shocks come their way while roughly doubling the amount of food they produce to meet rising demand. And they need to do it while reducing the considerable environmental damage caused by the business of agriculture.
Agronomists emphasize that the situation is far from hopeless. Examples are already available, from the deserts of Mexico to the rice paddies of India, to show that it may be possible to make agriculture more productive and more resilient in the face of climate change. Farmers have achieved huge gains in output in the past, and rising prices are a powerful incentive to do so again.
Of course, if we really wanted to increase productivity, we'd do something about the size of our farms. Most of the world has small farms that are highly productive--weather permitting. But particularly here in North America and in Europe, farm sizes are large, which means high productivity per worker, but a lower calorie yield per acre. This is known as the Inverse Size Yield Relationship, and coupled with traditional farming techniques, means a higher sustainable yield from small farms over large ones. Here in Victoria, the founding farmers of Saanich Organics, a farmer-run local food distributor, have published All The Dirt: Reflections on organic farming. None of them runs more than a couple of acres, choosing to farm intesively and sustainably, rather than even try to take on a small Canadian farm of a couple of hundred acres. And they're making it pay.
But the combination of biofuel production in the US and commodities speculation following the 2008 crash, mean that food prices are headed back up again this year. Same reasons, just another speculation-driven price bubble.But, in order to ensure that speculators make their nut, a few hundred million more people will drop into food insecurity, and those already hungry will die.

We're facing a perfect storm: population pressures, unregulated capitalism, an international monopsony/monopoly market in foodstuffs, climate change seriously messing up weather patterns, the list goes on. As a society, we won't stop--Canadian rime Minister Stephen Harper has announced that the environment will not inhibit Canadian resource (read: petrochemical and mining) extraction and export. On the climate front, this winter Canada has seen records going back 150 fall regularly; one "warmest day" record was smashed by 20°C.

But this boat's too big to turn.Too many people are making far too much money with things the way they are now. As Yvo de Boer, former head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and now Special Global Advisor to KPMG, notes [pdf], “if companies had to pay for the full environmental costs of their activities, they would have lost 41 cents out of every (US) $1 earned in 2010. The external environmental costs of 11 key industry sectors rose by almost 50 percent between 2002 and 2010, from $566 billion to $854 billion.”And if you own the governments, are you going to allow a sudden tax increase of 41%? Even if it means saving the planet for your children? No, and not just because you are legally constrained from doing so, but because destruction of the world just means you better get yours now. But you don't want to believe it might well be the end of civilization (Hell, I don't want to believe it). Just like Pol Pot didn't see himself as a genocidal monster, we don't want to see ourselves as environmental criminals. But it doesn't change the fact that we are.
Over at Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security, they're worried about feeding the world in 2050. Using the following video as a teaching tool, they're showing us what a small target we're currently trying to hit. They also point out how we might make the target a bit bigger. So they, at least, are trying to remain optomistic.

Over at the Council on Foreign Relations, Laurie Garrett is interviewed about how the stumbling value of the US dollar and rising international food prices mean that donor pledges are worth less (although not yet worthless). $300 million just doesn't buy what it used to. So what does that mean for the starving? To say nothing of how food aid is used by governments to destroy local food markets and buy access for "their" multinational industrial food corporations. (If you dump free food onto a market you change the price local farmers can get for their crops to zero, and everyone knows, you can't compete with free. This destroys local farming communities and infrastructure, leaving the field clear for the Monsanto's and ConAgra's to come in preaching the "Green Revolution" doctrine of big farms and monocropping with high input costs). This would be an example of the law of unintended consequences, except that it was intentional.
And, in Thailand, there's a new delicacy on the menu:

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