Monday, January 6, 2014

The Coming Crisis

About 30 percent of the major global cereal crops – rice, wheat and corn – may have reached their maximum possible yields in farmers' fields, according to University of Nebraska-Lincoln research published this week in Nature Communications. These findings raise concerns about efforts to increase food production to meet growing global populations.
Yields of these crops have recently decreased or plateaued. Future projections that would ensure global food security are typically based on a constant increase in yield, a trend that this research now suggests may not be possible.
Estimates of future global food production and its ability to meet the dietary needs of a population expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050 have been based largely on projections of historical trends. Past trends have, however, been dominated by the rapid adoption of new technologies – some of which were one-time innovations – which allowed for an increase in crop production.
As a result, projections of future yields have been optimistic – perhaps too much so, indicates the findings of UNL scientists Kenneth Cassman and Patricio Grassini, of the agronomy and horticulture department, and Kent Eskridge of the statistics department.
Source: UNL news release
Isn't that good news to start the New Year off with?  Thirty percent of current cropland has topped out its productivity and may actually begin to decline in yields. The authors of the paper suggest that regardless of how much money we dump into research into crops and productivity, "return on these investments is steadily declining in terms impact on raising crop yields." That's the "high-production" industrial agriculture we're talking about. And that's not including increased salinity, loss of cropland to desertification (particularly in Northern China), climate change effects, or any of the other threats to food production we might be facing.
All the indications are that we're facing an extended "Special Period" similar to the one experienced by Cuba after 1991. Which is one of the reasons why I've been reading a lot on the Great Hunger; the Irish famine of 1845-1847.
I expect to be writing a great deal more on the famine in the near future, but for now, let me just hit a few of the high points:
  • The famine happened with a short-term change in historic climate patterns in Ireland. Temperatures went up a little, allowing a previously quiescent mould to get a grip on the potato crop.
  • The Irish were utterly dependent on the potato. Worse, primarily on the "Lumper" cultivar.
  • The Irish economy was crap, undiversified, and beat down over the last century by the English in response to some poor choices on the part of the Catholic Irish on who they supported politically.
  • The English were in the grip of a religious revival that was very Old Testament, and were busy blaming victims for religious reasons rather than looking at political solutions.
  • The English were in the grip of a neo-liberal economic philosophy that demonised interference in the market, and exalted free-trade.
I'd go on, but you might be ahead of me here. Amartya Sen says that there's never been a famine in a democracy, but doesn't say anything about failed states that were once democracies.

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