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Food: Why We're in Trouble
[Commentary] The world can no longer produce enough food or fuel
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
Published 2008-06-19 07:13 (KST)   
World corn prices, at $6.73 per bushel, have almost doubled year on year, with the July 2009 contract at an all-time peak of $7.20. Wheat futures are also at all time record highs. Food price inflation in the United Kingdom is at an 18 year high. When I was watching CNN in a hotel in Seoul, South Korea, I first felt a chill implicit in a global food crisis. I'd heard similar bulletins in South Africa, but once I cottoned onto the idea that it was a global problem, with global impact, I paid attention.

Why are we paying more for food? The simple answer is the sheer number of people who eat, and drive cars, and the pollution caused by all these activities (to feed, to move) is sabotaging our capacity to produce more food than we're producing now.

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Let's start at the top. There are a lot of mouths to feed -- in fact each day we break records for the sheer number of people our planet is being asked to support. Never in the history of our planet have we had so many billions of our fellows running around. Before the advent of oil, we somehow reached 1 billion souls, and this milestone took tens of thousands of years to achieve. We've increased that number seven fold in a very short period of time, perhaps 200 years.

There are also increasing concerns that the carrying capacity of our planet has been breached -- some believe this happened in the 1980s and that human beings now require 1.4 planets to sustain our current behaviors. But whether we argue about the details or not, the fact remains that food is becoming more expensive because the demand for food has increased, and it has been difficult to maintain a growing supply.


China and India comprise about a third of the human population. Both economies have been growing rapidly, with the peasant populations becoming increasingly urbanized and arming themselves with the accoutrements of modern living: homes, furnishings, cars, electronic gadgets and so on. South Africa is another case where the uplifting of the poor has led to such a rapid rollout of new homes that the electricity grid has struggled to keep up. But what does economic uplift have to do with diet? In a word: everything.

People who live in poor, rural areas have a completely different diet and lifestyle to those with refrigerators and microwave ovens living in modern, urban areas. One of the most common changes to diet is the increased intake of meat (particularly through fast food outlets) and dairy products.

The other lifestyle change associated with urban living is more obvious -- car ownership.

Food for Fuel

It is no coincidence that food prices have increased in lockstep with fuel prices. When one considers that virtually half the cost of an ordinary loaf of broad comes from input costs for fertilizers, and the price of fertilizers has doubled recently, it becomes easier to understand how important fossil fuels are to our survival. We need fertilizer -- indirectly -- to make bread. Transport costs and refrigeration are also energy inputs that make up increasing proportions of the expenses that go into food processes.

The leveraging of these cost inefficiencies is exacerbated when crops are sidelined for biofuel production. This means the fuel costs already inherent in the system now increase the costs to simply grow biofuels, and these cost effects then cannibalize increasingly as the system shows itself to be both unsustainable and ultimately, not very efficient.

Climate Change

While some scientists and commentators debate whether climate change is even an issue, there is no debate around the fact that the weather is now impacting on food and fuel prices. Storms in the North Sea and Mexico now affect world crude prices. Heavy rains in Australia caused flooding, leading to serious long-term impacts on coal prices. South Africa has also suffered power outages due to having coal supplies waterlogged and rendered unusable. The Myanmar cyclone and the current floods in the American Midwest have wiped out or seriously jeopardized breadbaskets for Asia and the world.

Some areas like South Africa have experienced bumper crops this year. Unfortunately, the trend is the opposite -- more farmland (and even urban areas) is being lost to droughts, floods and storms.

When we realize that the green revolution basically allowed us to produce massive yields on farmland (using diesel powered machinery), and that diesel is a lot more expensive now, we can begin to see these efficiencies stepping slowly backwards.
In the future we will see more organic farming, using less machinery. Agriculture will become one of the large industries in the world again as the world un-flattens and we learn to live more locally. Long distance trucking and hauling will become less common.

We are in serious trouble when we have to depend on benign weather in order to be assured of food on the table, but that is exactly where our road is taking us.
For more about the writer, visit www.nickvanderleek.com.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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