Are we one year and a few dozen scientists away from global famine?

A character in a comic book (yeah, yeah, I know) claimed that, in order to keep up with global demand, the U.S. government is forced to create new (wheat, I believe) seed strains annually (to increase yield year after year, and because the previously created strains are too weak to stand up against stuff like crop disease). It is implied that if there’s ever a year where the effort fails, severe global famine will follow.

I’d never heard of this idea/concept before. What parts, if any, come close to fact? Or is it a conspiracy theory I’ve never heard of? I ask here because obviously, I don’t have the slightest idea what search terms to put into Wikipedia or Google to find anything about this.


We could, with current agricultural technology and available land, produce enough food to feed the entire world many times over. The reasons why we don’t are political and economic, not technological.

Which is not to say that agricultural scientists aren’t constantly striving to produce food more efficiently: They are, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if every year’s techniques, seeds, etc. are better than the previous year’s. But they’re doing that to produce the same food more cheaply, not to keep up with ever-growing demand.

A shocking revelation that has never graced the pages of the New York Times or the Washington Post or appeared on ABC World News Tonight or The Oprah Show, but this comic book of yours is bold enough to break the media silence! Some mishmash of sciencey sounding things (uh…well, there are different strains! And diseases!) that don’t really make much sense upon further analysis. (To increase the amount of wheat over last year’s crop, you would just plant more acreage, not fiddle with the genetic code of cereals – the world’s population didn’t skyrocket in that time. And while disease-causing organisms can mutate, ordinary old wheat has survived millennia in the face of most of the diseases it still faces today without, obviously, being driven to extinction. )

The only real question here is why are we devoting our efforts to debunking cheezy comic book plot points?

Yeah, it’s absolute rubbish. We currently produce more food than humans can physically eat, most gets ploughed back in but lots of it gets burned or dumped in the ocean.

So we’re nowhere near that close to the egde.

We do need to keep advancing to keep up with demands. It’s been estimated that if we don’t improve agricultural technology for the next 15 years we will start seeing famines, but all other statistians reject that and place it at closer to 40 years. That may seem like it’s close to the edge, but remember a few points.

Firstly we are not talking massive global disaster. If food production remains stable peopel will, naturally, start dying at the same rate that the population increases beyond carrying capacity. That still mean that tens of millions will starve to death, but it will mostly be spread out over decades. These won’t be massive global famines, they will be ongoing malnutrition deaths with a few hundred victims in each city each year. Tragic, but not catastrophic. Modern media to to the contrary the words are not synonyms.

Secondly the shortages won’t affect the developed world at all directly. It will overhwlemingly be concentrated in the poorest countries. Once again this wouldn’t make it any less a tragedy but it does make it less catastrophic. If the US or Russia run out of food the world goes to hell in a handcart. If Benin runs out of food economic and tehcnological preogress keeps ticking along and no major wars result.

Thirdly the predictions are base on absolutley no improvemnt in technology. that deosn’t just mean no new crop varieties. It means no uptake of existing tehcnology in the developing world. IOW it assumes that the rest of the world won’t approach US levels in terms of soil protection, fertilsier use efficiency and so forth. It also assumes the US won’t get any better. While it’s worth bearing in mind the cost of not improving those things, there’s little reason to believe that those things won’t improve.

This is called grain of truth syndrome. (Pause for groaning.)

The grain is that certain crops, bananas most notably, are effectively monocultures - that is, almost all the large commercial acreage of bananas are of a single type and it has indeed been affected by fungus epidemics.

Certain crops are not all crops. And different areas of the world get their calories from markedly different crops. Even in standard starches you find rice, wheat, tapioca, corn, and many more, none of which are monocultures.

There is no single crop that could cause global famine, even if it were teleported from the planet by magical fairies, er, comic book writers tomorrow. The U.S. also produces a small fraction of the world’s vegetation and the world would get by very nicely without us. Admittedly, if every crop on the entire planet were to fail simultaneously then global famine would surely follow. But nothing in the real world could cause that barring a global catastrophe that would also kill off all humans, making the need for crops rather moot.

The idea is exactly as likely as an alien developing the ability to fly, invulnerability, super-strength, and x-ray vision because of the rays of a yellow sun.

Writers. Ptah. They’ll do anything for a plot. :slight_smile:

I know, I know. But it seemed SO out of the realm of anything I’d heard before that I figured there was no way the writer made it up out of thin air, ESPECIALLY since it was an aside by a character and had absolutely nothing to do with the main plot. I thought there HAD to be some basis in it, even if, as I said, it was based on some conspiracy theory I’d never heard of.

I guess I was wrong…

This idea is very reminiscent of the flu vaccine development cycle, which is one place where scientists are engaged in an evolutionary arms race on a tight schedule. Of course, if they forecast wrong and their vaccine flops, the death toll is a lot lower than in the fictional scenario, but there are some cool elements of urgency in there that I can see many writers being tempted to use.

The US produces so much food with existing technology, most of which is not gene engineered, that it turns corn into fuel (ethanol). The idea that a handful of geniuses hold back disaster is an old conspiracy theory pattern. Its appeals to the “WHOA MAN, ITS LIKE 5 DUDES IN A ROOM DECIDING EVERYTHING!!!” crazy thinking.

>Of course, if they forecast wrong and their vaccine flops, the death toll is a lot lower than in the fictional scenario

I recently read that this years flu predictions were especially terrible and the vaccine nearly worthless. Not exactly the end of the world.

Cavendish bananas. Enjoy them before they disappear.

The article was written in 2005–four years ago. And we still have cheap cavendish bananas in every supermarket. But the demise of the cavendish shouldn’t be a cause for weeping and moaning. It’s funny, because when I was a kid you could get three kinds of apples in the supermarket: red delicious, golden delicious, and granny smith. Now you walk in and there are a dozen varieties or more.

You sometimes see red bananas, plantains, and fingerling bananas at the supermarket. But there are hundreds of varieties that could be exported to the US instead of just the cavendish. I for one welcome our new banana overlords.

A couple of flaws in the scenario.

  1. Wheat, particularly in the U.S. is one of the less hybridized crops. Wheat seed is cheap, and wheat prices are relatively low, so farmers aren’t willing to pay higher prices for wheat seed that will bring proportionately less return.

  2. Disease resistance is one of the traits plant breeders commonly look for. Besides, developing new strains doesn’t automatically wipe out older traits. I breed a high-yielding, but relatively vulnerable plant with a lower-yielding but stronger plant, because I’m looking for higher yields and more hardiness. If I get a higher-yielding plant with less resistance, I go back to the drawing board.

Here’s a current article that also addresses this question. The Global Food Crisis: The End of Plenty. The article ends thus:

Is this article overstating the case?

Yes, quite severely. But good news never made a magazine sell.
In several instances it is factually wrong, stating highly debatable fringe opinions as fact or using Michael Moore type correlation-equals-causation fallacies.

The facts:
Worldwide food production is greater than what humans can eat. Nobody is hungry because of a lack of food. Hunger is purely an economic/political problem. Not a biological/engineering one. IOW the cause and solution are contained solely within the human mind, not within the real world.

Global food production will exceed population growth and human demand for the foreseeable future

World population is growing at ~1.2 percent per annum while food production is growing at ~2.3 percent.

We are not running out of food. Quite the opposite. We are running at a massive food surplus and that food surplus gets bigger every tear and will do for the next 30 years at least.

I admit I was puzzled when someone in the article claimed that “productivity growth is only one to two percent a year” when the UNFAOs best figures say it is 2.3%. As far as I can tell from Google he was basing that 1-2% figure entirely on two years: 2007-2008. IOW he ignored the figures based on the past 40 years, used a figure base on the past 2 years and then projected that 30 years into the future. Do you need me to explain why he can’t get sensible answer doing that?

The article’s statement that “High prices are the ultimate signal that demand is outstripping supply, that there is simply not enough food to go around” is simply factually incorrect. Supply is outstripping demand. There is enough food to go around, more than enough. High prices are a sign of short term fluctuations in a market with significant futures trading and where supply takes 12 months to respond to demand. It obviously isn’t a signal that demand is outstripping supply because it is indisputable fact that supply is outstripping demand.

Similarly the article refers to “flattening yield growth” as though yield growth should or needs to continue indefinitely. Not only is that impossible, it’s pointless. The world s producing more food than people can eat and far more than people can afford to pay for. Of course yield growth is going to decline. The market is saturated. It should hardly be surprising that nobody is putting effort into producing yet more of a product that nobody wants or can afford. There are endless numbers of ways in which yeild could be increased immediately at minimal expense using current technology. But nobody will incur that expense while the world is overproducing food. If food production drops for more than 12 months then yield increases will respond instantly. It’s got nothing to do with lmitionsin the physical world. It’s entirely a matter of economic and political inertia.

Oh, and to judge the magnitude of this decline in yeild look at figure 3.5.1 here Can’t see any decline in growth? That’s because it is so tiny that it is undetacatble on trendline showing decades. The graph looks like it continues to increase. The decline is so small that there are a significant minority of statisticians who say that there is no measurable decline. Everyine agrees that it is trivial ATM though it may become significant if it continues.

I could go on picking holes in this article paragraph by paragraph but it’s not worth it. The whole thing is base don long-discredited Malthusian extrapolations that boil down to “more people means less food” with no reference to the real world.

Is this article overstating the case? Hell yeah.