The End of Food. Global age of cheap and plentiful food is coming to an end.

On NPR today author Paul Roberts discussed his new book The End of Food. It was a compelling story because it brings to light something that I have been wondering in the back of my head for a long while: Are we literally going to see the global age of cheap and plentiful food end and the system we have go off the rails? Just how sustainable is our food supply [globally] and how long can we maintain our current rate of consumption before we start seeing changes at our supermarkets? Are we already seeing changes?

In The New Yorker I saw an article called The Last Bite. Is the world’s food system collapsing?. From the article:

100 million people here, 100 million people there all being pushed to the brink of starvation. I think I have said it before in another thread - there is a new paradigm shift happening and I think it’s going on right now. Sustainable Living is going to have to be a global cooperative, the size of the human population on this planet is so large [6,515,000,000 last I checked and counting] - what happens to one population center effects another over and over, ad infinitum.

There is a bright side to all of this. Working in the green industry I see all kinds of brand new ideas and systems of sustainability being brough to light. One recent one is a young U of Wisconsin grad who developed a company called Sky Vegetables - which produces greenhouses for the tops of grocery stores - contained, large, atmosphere controlled they can grow year round in any climate. It’s one way to bring food consumtion back to eating things grown within a certain radius of your home. Like a Locavore.

Ideas like these and people thinking out of the box are what will help us in the future - What do you think?

Here’s some thinking outside the box. (Discussion in this old thread.)

That article rings a bell.


And, then again, sometimes there aren’t.

But I find the idea of an all-hydroponic-plants-and-vat-grown-meat diet interesting.

Still, the food shortages are mostly the product of bad government policies. In Egypt, the government subsidizes the price of food-which keeps it cheap-the result? People waste it. In the USA, cheap food has resulted in an obesity rate which is the highest in the world. An Haiti-the local farmers stopped growing food, because they could not compete with cheap imported rice.
Screwing with the market leads to bad results. Of course, places like Bangladesh have always been on the brink of disaster.

Me too! Big time! If you had asked me 10 years ago what I would be doing today, I would have said ‘Teaching’. However, being involved in this type of sustainability work and learning about new things everyday to help us run our societies more efficiently and sustainably is well worth it. It’s cool stuff alright!

Food’s a pretty variable commodity. There are certainly types of food production we’re using now that are not sustainable. But there are alternative food sources that will take their place if necessary.

I think the bigger issue will be what type of food we produce. We’re currently able to produce enough basic food for everyone and also produce quality food for the people who are willing and able to pay more. But at some point we might not be able to continue doing both and will have to make a choice.

The marketplace will say that if you have a choice between producing basic food for a billion people or quality food for two hundred million people who’ll pay ten times as much, then the rational choice is to produce the quality food. But that ignores the morality of not feeding that billion people (as well as the practical consequences of their reaction to that decision).

I am not sure how much I believe this. From what I’ve heard the rice shortage recently was more due to economic manipulation by first world nations than by anything intrinsic related to growth of food. The third world definitely needs to get its act together in terms of farming though. Nigeria is doing some interesting stuff giving incentives to Zimbabwe’s displaced farmers.

I read about Japan releasing stores of millions of tons of rice, affecting the price of rice immediately. Something I couldn’t quite comprehend about some weird trade deal between the US and Japan that related to subsidies of American rice farmers.

In short, I don’t buy it.

Another issue I worry about is a single company gaining a patent for a major food supply and then manipulating the market.

Soybeans is a good case in point—at one time genetically modified soybeans made up about 8% of the worlds soybean production, by the end of 2006 89% of the soybean production was genetically modified and all by one company. As I understood it all soybean farmers were buying the starters from Monsanto and they became a huge player in the field.

But in May of last year that patent was revoked.

But if Monsanto wanted to control the food supply they could have wreaked havoc on the market in my opinion. That is the scarier prospect in my limited understanding of the field.

The problem isn’t a lack of food but that millions of people are so poor that any increase whatsoever in the cost of food immediately drives them from hunger to starvation. Here in the US, a doubling of the price of rice is an annoyance. Having no other way to cope with what would otherwise be a social and political cataclysm, governments around the world subsidize cheap food, a short term strategy that only entrenches the problem in the long term. As for the developed world, I once read an article that said that the average retail price of a microwave TV dinner represented a 20X increase over the commodity price of the raw ingredients used to make it, with the difference going to various middlemen. So clearly there is a lot of room for reform.

The current food crises are based on a lot of different things, but they’re only in our public eye because they’re affecting US. This isn’t necessarily a permanent change in the food situation. A couple of good years, perhaps some changes in the (in hindsight, not all that ideal) “biofuel” subsidies and we’ll see things settle down a bit.

But people will still be starving in third world countries because they can’t afford to buy food, or because it can’t be moved properly from the production areas to the areas of need. (When your only transportation is Foot or Hoof, it hardly matters if a village 200 miles away is awash in grain, you may well starve to death if your area had a crop failure.)

Bottom line is that this is just another example of the old fallacy of predicting the future based on a current trend (Gold will hit $5000 an ounce, Housing will increase 20% per year forever, The Internet has changed the rules of Business, We’ll turn our entire food crop into Ethanol and then we’ll all starve to death.)

Increasing numbers of the world’s poor can’t buy it:

2007 :

Late 2007:

The food shortage is real, and here now. And it’s not just rice. Why is it happening?

So, the hunger in the third world has nothing to do with their rapid population increases?

It’s an articicial shortage created by capitalistic commodity speculation. There’s plenty of food, capitalists are just artificially raising the price of food. Somebody is getting rich while people starve.

Not exactly, if you read Askance’s links. The planet actually did not grow enough food this year to feed all of the human beings.

We didn’t grow enough because of artificial subsidization.

Not really, no. It’s to do with price rises for food driven by the ethanol boondoggle, oil prices, reduction in crop yields due to extreme weather and climate change, higher demand (from China and India in particular) and so on. A convergence of factors.

Yes, bring back natural subsidization! It’s so much better for us.

It is a perfect storm. Not one event in and of itself but the combination of several different events mentioned above - some with related causes, others not - and now everything is coming to a head. (On preview - what Askance said)

I have a strong feeling this will be the major foreign policy crisis that the next administration will have to deal with. Terrorism and energy supplies are definitely correlated, but this will be the primary issue. This is also one of the main reasons why I despise the current administration and the war in Iraq. The Millennium Development Goals will most likely not reach their target date of 2015 in no small measure to all the political capital and cash that the United States has pissed away over the last eight years.

I have seen no technical or financial reasons why they could not be met, but there is not enough political will to ensure their success. I sincerely hope that the next administration (which I also sincerely hope will be led by Obama) will be able to get things back on track.

A lot of organizations and other governments (and to be fair, some agencies within our own government) are doing what they can to meet the MDGs, but it will require a paradigm shift in how and why resources are used. Sustainable economic development has to be recognized as the only sane form of development. And as long as one of the world’s largest economies does not adopt that model it cannot happen.

I also agree with Hakuna Matata that patents on crops are a very bad idea. Rather than patent law and intellectual property protections encouraging innovation, it hinders further advances since only company (or company-approved) scientists can pursue further lines of inquiry. If anything should be open-source, it should be the food supply. I could live with a monopoly on operating system software. Not so much when it comes to my pantry.

And I will admit my own self-interest as a foodie in that I hope it is possible to achieve both quantity and quality, but I would be willing to live on algae and vat-meat if it meant that a few billion others could enjoy the lifestyle I have been privileged enough to have.

You don’t think it would have been better to grow more food crops than ethanol crops last year?