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The Hungry Planet

by Jerome a Paris Sun Sep 3rd, 2006 at 04:42:57 PM EST

As stocks run out and harvests fail, the world faces its worst crisis for 30 years

Food supplies are shrinking alarmingly around the globe, plunging the world into its greatest crisis for more than 30 years. New figures show that this year's harvest will fail to produce enough to feed everyone on Earth, for the sixth time in the past seven years. Humanity has so far managed by eating its way through stockpiles built up in better times - but these have now fallen below the danger level.

Food prices have already started to rise as a result, and threaten to soar out of reach of many of the 4.2 billion people who live in the world's most vulnerable countries. And the new "green" drive to get cars to run on biofuels threatens to make food even scarcer and more expensive.

Go read the rest (from the Independent).


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It is not just that people in rich countries eat too much, and those in poor ones eat too little. Enormous quantities of the world's increasingly scarce grain now goes to feed cows - and, indirectly, cars.

(...)

 As people become better-off, they eat more meat, the animals that are slaughtered often being fed on grain. It takes 14kg of grain to produce 2kg of beef, and 8kg of grain for 2kg of pork. More than a third of the world's harvest goes to fatten animals in this way.

Cars are a new concern, the worry arising from the present drive to produce green fuels to fight global warming. A "corn rush" has erupted in the United States, using the crop to produce the biofuel, ethanol - strongly supported by subsidies from the Bush administration to divert criticism of its failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

Just a single fill of ethanol for a four-wheel drive SUV, says Brown, uses enough grain to feed one person for an entire year. This year the amount of US corn going to make the fuel will equal what it sells abroad; traditionally its exports have helped feed 100 - mostly poor - countries.

From next year, the amount used to run American cars will exceed exports, and soon it is likely to reduce what is available to help feed poor people overseas. The number of ethanol plants built or planned in the corn-belt state of Iowa will use virtually all the state's crop.

This will not only cut food supplies, but drive up the process of grain, making hungry people compete with the owners of gas-guzzlers. Already spending 70 per cent of their meagre incomes on food, they simply cannot afford to do so.

Famine is an efficient market clearing mechanism, as we know.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Sep 3rd, 2006 at 04:45:02 PM EST
Your first bold point is the best reason to promote vegetarianism or at least greatly reduced meat consumption. Sadly I think many, many 3rd worlders will die before there is significant economic or political pressure to change production patterns.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Sun Sep 3rd, 2006 at 05:36:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It is not just that people in rich countries eat too much...

Brand-new factoid of the day, fresh from a calculation based on CDC data:

Americans are gaining weight at a rate of about 1/2 million pounds per day.

(That's based on the increase in average weight, and the assumption that trends from the last decade or so are continuing.)

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Sun Sep 3rd, 2006 at 06:41:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yeah, and I'm one of them! But it's not because I'm eating cows or even more food. I eat less than I ever did (except when I was a skinny 10 yr old who hated all food.  It's mainly caused by my sitting in front of this silly machine for the hours I used to exercise.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sun Sep 3rd, 2006 at 10:58:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
New figures show that this year's harvest will fail to produce enough to feed everyone on Earth, for the sixth time in the past seven years.

The conventional wisdom was that the world produces more than enough food to feed everyone, and Amartya Sen has argued that famines are caused by unresponsive political systems, not by lack of food.

Does the article explain the causes of this food shortage? I'll go and find out.

Nothing is 'mere'. — Richard P. Feynman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Sep 3rd, 2006 at 04:49:38 PM EST
famines are caused by unresponsive political systems, not by lack of food.

those unresponsive political systems would be the ones producing cash crops to be traded to the first world rather than staple foods for the local populace?

or would that be the ones that force their farmers to grow patented foodstuffs with terminator genes so that the farmer is forced to buy his seedcrop again the next year?

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Sun Sep 3rd, 2006 at 06:35:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Nice snark. The soudbite version of Sen's conclusion is "there has never been a famine in a democracy".

Nothing is 'mere'. — Richard P. Feynman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 03:10:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But what if your democracy has come to expect fresh strawberrys all year round? can you see a democracy failing over the removal of aircraft to fly the fresh strawberries in from Israel during the winter?

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 07:39:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I can imagine bread riots but not winter strawberry riots.

Nothing is 'mere'. — Richard P. Feynman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 12:00:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I was just wondering, at what point would something be declaerd as a famine in a democracy, From a modern first world perspective, would food rationing as in the second world war be classed as famine?

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 01:18:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You get a famine when people die of malnourishment in large numbers. Food rationing during wartime is an example of an effective government policy to avert a famine in the face of food shortages.

Nothing is 'mere'. — Richard P. Feynman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 01:20:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Making cars more fuel-efficient, and eating less meat would help but the only long-term solution is to enable poor countries - and especially their poorest people - to grow more food. And the best way to do that, studies show, is to encourage small farmers to grow crops in environmentally friendly ways. Research at Essex University shows that this can double yields.

Of course, that might involve, (shock, horror) trade barriers to protect those small farmers from large agri-businesses in the US, EU and Australia...

So, that won't be happening any time soon.

Most interesting to me is that an awful lot of people of a certain type (many of whom are economists) always like to point to the failure of the Malthus predictions.

Of course, now it seems like those predictions were just delayed by oil-based fertilizer revolution.

Add this in to the graph showing both rise in living standards and volume of oil extraction and we have some unpretty pictures of a low-oil future.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Sun Sep 3rd, 2006 at 04:52:30 PM EST
Smith, Ricardo, James and John S Mill, Jevons... were all essentially Malthusian.  

Nothing is 'mere'. — Richard P. Feynman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Sep 3rd, 2006 at 04:57:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I should note I draw the conclusion about "Malthus prediction perhaps merely delayed by oil" not from the harvest failures reported at the top of the article, but this bit:

That, says Brown, is what has been happening to the world's harvests as a whole. Between 1950 and 1990 grain yields more than doubled, but they have grown much more slowly since. Production rose from around 630 million tons to 1.78 billion tons, but has only edged up in the past 15 years, to around 2 billion tons.

"The near-tripling of the harvest by the world's farmers was a remarkable performance," says Brown. "In a single generation they increased grain production by twice as much as had been achieved during the preceding 11,000 years, since agriculture began. But now the world has suffered a dramatic loss of momentum."

The more immediate problems of the failure of the harvests once again highlight the difficulty that can occur when we overconcentrate on "efficiency" (which is of course a major benefit put forward for the market solutions in food supply) vs what might be termed "robustness."

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Sun Sep 3rd, 2006 at 05:34:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"Resilience" may be a nicer word than "robustness", but I agree completely. I had an idea for a diary called "against efficiency" around the idea that designing systems for efficiency makes them less robust. I never got around to it because the idea stayed undeveloped in my head...

Nothing is 'mere'. — Richard P. Feynman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 03:17:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Do it - I think it is a fundamental concept that we need to push for the energy sector. Deregulation absolutely goes around robustness, something which is vital in the electricity business.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 04:34:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And not only for energy. On the one hand "lean" competitive efficiency; on the other robust, resilient, durable, environmentally and humanly sustainable systems. There are key elements here for offering policy alternatives and a new way of talking about things.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 04:47:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
absolutely!  I have been chewing at the "efficiency" shibboleth for several years now.

the first question is efficient at what.

the next question is efficient for whom.

back to the old orchard analogy:  the most "efficient" way to harvest the apples is to cut down all the trees, thus bringing the apples to ground level so no one has to climb up and down ladders (minimising labour = "efficiency").  however, this is a poor way to manage an orchard.  and it is essentially how industrial capitalism has been managing the planetary commons since inception:  liquidation, accelerating in pace and expanding in scope over time.

"efficient" fishing that destroys fisheries.  "efficient" logging that clearcuts forests and destroys watersheds.  "efficient" farming that destroys topsoil and depletes fossil water.  "efficient" machinery that relies on irreversible drawdown of petroleum reservoirs.  and so on.

meanwhile gross inefficiencies remain grossly profitable:  billions have just been made by US and multinational companies simply by destroying Iraq in order to pretend to rebuild it.  the grossly inefficient highway/automobile system is more profitable (spawning off endless sub-industries) than the more efficient rail/canal system.  and now, the pollution and depletion of global water resources by grossly inept and inefficient practises is being made profitable by privatising water and selling it, having fouled and wasted enough of it to raise the market value.

anyway, it's too late for me to focus as closely on this as I would like, but amen to the notion that "efficiency" (of the Taylorised, monocultural, industrial model) is the reverse of "robustness" (robust living systems are complex, diverse, self-organising, fractal, etc as has been said in some previous threads).  robust systems are efficient at living, not efficient at generating "profit" to be looted.  micropolyculture is incredibly efficient at generating food per acre;  cash cropping is incredibly "efficient" at extorting market value out of land and people's hides.

if feeding people is the object of the game then industrial agriculture is grossly inefficient.  if making gouging profits is the object of the game then industrial agriculture is very good at maximising central control, minimising labour input, and creating artificial scarcity to drive prices up.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Sep 5th, 2006 at 12:45:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't believe it. The world still has a surplus of food. What it doesn't have is the political will to distribute it fairly.

Even if supplies are currently down, this could be remedied in one growth cycle if the US put all its non-productive land back into cultivation.

Will this still be the case 20 years from now when the world has added another billion people? I doubt it.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sun Sep 3rd, 2006 at 05:30:22 PM EST
Producing more, with current agricultural methods, and distributing the excess, is not the solution. The US and EU already do this to some extent, and the subsidised low-price crops (including free handouts of US rice, for example), have the effect of driving local farmers in poorer countries out of business by bringing prices down, while helping to maintain local ruling classes, who control import and distribution.

What's needed (put simply) is thriving agriculture in poor countries with food production controlled by the poor themselves so that they can eat what they produce. And that's a local and regional political problem.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 02:19:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
but the elites in those poor countries, as in the first world, do not want the peasants to have food self-sufficiency and food security.  hungry people are more willing to become cannon fodder, or wage-slave labour in FTZ maquiladoras, than adequately-nourished people with land and food security.  the Enclosures and the factory system, they go hand in hand:  the process that started in the 1600's rolls on.  the consolidation of land ownership and forcing peasants off the land guarantees the pool of expendable cheap labour that the industrialist requires to maximise profit and return those magnificent rates to the shareholders, upholding the never-ending myth of "wealth creation" by creating poverty and despair.

I will note in passing that those areas of India where the "green revolution" was most "successful", i.e. where industrial farming has displaced traditional polyculture, are those with the highest rates of female infanticides and farmer suicides.  the "green revolution" has accomplished its long-term goal -- to destroy the smallholder and hand over control of the land and the agricultural process to corporate power, foreign investors, and local comprador elites.  there are times when feudalism looks humane by comparison.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Sep 5th, 2006 at 12:55:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It is my understanding that:

1) Female infanticide is best (anti)correlated with
female literacy rates in India.

2) Suicides by farmers are high in Tamil Nadu, Andhra
Pradesh (southeast) and lately  Maharashtra (west).
The numbers seem to follow natural calamities.

3) The Green revolution was most widespread in the
Northern states of Haryana and Punjab.

perhaps i am mistaken ?

sidd

by sidd on Tue Sep 5th, 2006 at 03:14:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What was it called ? "Soilent Green" maybe... That movie with Charlton Heston...
And Arthur.C. Clarke again with "Deep Range"... Or how to herd whales instead of cows (and milking them)!

Anyhow those corn/ethanol farmers will be out of water before we're out of oil! I'm still a bit surprised as we do have to leave in fallow quite a lot of fields because of overproduction that would hit prices...!

In further countries, where war is raging, I can understand that the quotas will not be met (that's an euphemism ), and China has problems on that part!
But to call for a world famine is surprising... Unless it is linked with global warming previsions ?

Another flying saucers brainwash scare ???
Let's ask tropical countries to grow more cane, and to rehabilitate those old ruined distilleries to care about ethanol !
Let's stop growing corn and feed soybeans to the cows (poor things)!

And let's get thinking about water...

"What can I do, What can I write, Against the fall of Night". A.E. Housman

by margouillat (hemidactylus(dot)frenatus(at)wanadoo(dot)fr) on Sun Sep 3rd, 2006 at 06:00:54 PM EST
So every time I fill up my Suburban, a third world kid starves to death.

So I should buy birth control stocks?

Align culture with our nature. Ot else!

by ormondotvos (ormond.otvosnospamgmialcon) on Sun Sep 3rd, 2006 at 07:13:27 PM EST
Another way of putting it is

By insisting that all birth control aid is abstanence based, by the laws of economics  there will be competition for all the corn. this will keep the price of biodiesel artificially high and so the oil barons will keep rolling in the dough. That Cheney is cunning ;-)

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Sun Sep 3rd, 2006 at 07:39:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is from New Scientist of last January.
The room is a "doomsday vault" designed to hold around 2 million seeds, representing all known varieties of the world's crops. It is being built to safeguard the world's food supply against nuclear war, climate change, terrorism, rising sea levels, earthquakes and the ensuing collapse of electricity supplies. "If the worst came to the worst, this would allow the world to reconstruct agriculture on this planet," says Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an independent international organisation promoting the project.

New Scientist has learned that the Norwegian government is planning to create the seed bank next year at the behest of crop scientists. The $3 million vault will be built deep inside a sandstone mountain lined with permafrost on the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitsbergen. The vault will have metre-thick walls of reinforced concrete and will be protected behind two airlocks and high-security blast-proof doors. It will not be permanently manned, but "the mountains are patrolled by polar bears", says Fowler.

Will we need this sooner than anyone expected?

by das monde on Sun Sep 3rd, 2006 at 09:31:53 PM EST
for anyone not familiar with lester brown, i highly recommend checking him out at big picture tv.  
by conchita (sharondotlynchatverizondotnet) on Sun Sep 3rd, 2006 at 10:39:52 PM EST
According to WorldMapper:

Over the ten year period from 1990 to 2000, the number of people in the world that lived on an inadequate amount of food increased from 840 million to 858 million. Due to the population increases over this period, the percentage of the population that is undernourished simultaneously decreased from 16% to 14%.

Of all the people living in Central Africa, over 60% are undernourished. The Democratic Republic of Congo has the highest levels of undernourishment: 3 in every 4 people there are undernourished.

Reducing the proportion of undernourished peoples is an aim of Millennium Development Goal 1.



Out of the Dark Age came the most magnificent thing we have in our society: the recognition that people can have a society without having a state.
by marco on Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 01:37:04 AM EST
i never really understood why pretty much noone  eat insects, they are no that different than seafood.

The nutritional value of insects is quite amazing (~600kcal/100g) and of high quality. Furthermore, the method to grow this kind of food is simple, efficient and very well understood, widely use (you can find  insect in any pet shop).

why are we not using our wastes or other sources to process this very energy efficient method of nutrition, processed as nutrition powder or other form ?

Many human would be better of to get access to this kind of resources instead of suffer of malnutrition, and the world would be better of as well if we would be able to give up our very inefficient way to produce our food, the quantity of energy wasted to get a kilogram of beef meat is truly unacceptable and not sustainable.

http://www.food-insects.com/

by fredouil (fredouil@gmailgmailgmail.com) on Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 01:44:02 AM EST
btw
i ate insects, and it is quite good, worm tastes very often like cheese, other type have some nice and crispy nuts taste.
by fredouil (fredouil@gmailgmailgmail.com) on Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 01:46:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You'd have to feed the insects with higher quality food than untreated waste. You are what you eat, or what what you eat ate.

I have heard the snails that are eaten in France are fed "nice" food for a while to prepare them for human consumption, is that correct?

Nothing is 'mere'. — Richard P. Feynman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 03:13:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes... In a way !  We feed them with aromatic plants till:
a- They are purged of whatever they ate before
b- They will have a good taste

But, alas, they don't like garlic, so we have to add it in the cooking !

All those snail's shells banging against each other makes a tremendous noise... Specially when sleeping not far at night !

"What can I do, What can I write, Against the fall of Night". A.E. Housman

by margouillat (hemidactylus(dot)frenatus(at)wanadoo(dot)fr) on Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 05:59:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm surprised no one has yet pointed out the obvious, that there is a growing quantity of available food-supply:

Soylent Green.

by Lupin on Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 03:03:07 AM EST
In our work on biofuels, we pinpointed the competition (likely to increase) for arable land between food production (grain, vegetables, fruit), animal feed production (for meat and dairy), and biofuels feedstock production. Something has to give there, even if set-aside land (fallow) is brought into use.

Interesting to see that Lester Brown is credited with founding the Worldwatch Institute, which is referred to in the above-linked diary. The WI's report on biofuels (pdf) is generally favourable, even for first-generation biofuels (ie food crops used as feedstocks). Strange.
 

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 03:44:19 AM EST


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