Is global food production peaking?
Summary: Peak food would be bad news, since the world’s population will increase for a few more generations, until falling fertility sends it crashing down. But there is little evidence of this, and much suggesting that food production can greatly increase.
- This is just a sketch, not an analysis. Please post in the comments any references to real research on this topic.
- The invention of effective contraceptive for women has, with other factors, crashed fertility to near (or below) replacement levels in most of the world. The invention of an effective male contraceptive might crash it even more — perhaps imperiling the existence of the human race.
- To see the facts, see the FOODSTAT database of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization
- Has food production peaked in the developed nation (i.e., the OECD)?
- Even if OECD productivity (and hence production) has peaked, does that mean peak food?
- What about peak water?
- What about peak oil?
- For more information
(1) Has food production peaked in the developed nation (i.e., the OECD)?
This fear re-surfaces throughout history, and has again with the public of “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?“, Lester Brown, Scientific American, May 2009. It’s probably a false alarm again. For example, US agricultural productivity continues to rise. Such as corn yields, which have risen linearly (with no slowing) since WWII, from 20 bu/acre to 160. Genetically engineered crop might produce another green revolution (like all progress today, accompanied by forecasts of doom by greens).
As for today, the headlines signal that we are not yet at Peak Food: “Wheat Price Tailspin Accelerating Signals 13% Drop on Record Harvests“, Bloomberg, 1 November 2009 (wheat is the world’s most-planted crop):
Global output rose 12% to a record 682.3 million metric tons in the year through May and will total 668.1 million in the current season, the second-most ever, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said October 9.
… “Inventories are more negative for wheat than just about any other commodity in the world,” said John Brynjolfsson, the chief investment officer of hedge fund Armored Wolf LLC in Aliso Viejo, California. “There is a glut.” Stockpiles worldwide will jump 12% by the end of May to 186.7 million tons (6.9 billion bushels), or almost 19 times more than what’s harvested in Kansas, the USDA estimates. Leftovers from this season’s crop will equal 29% of what’s needed in the current marketing, the biggest buffer since 2003, when the grain was 31% cheaper. While demand is the highest ever, the supply of inventories from last year plus what is produced in the coming season will be a record 834.9 million tons, the agency estimates.
… Whatever happens in the U.S., bigger crops in Canada, the European Union, the former Soviet Union and Argentina will help compensate, said Dan Cekander, the director of grain research at Newedge LLC in Chicago. In the European Union, stockpiles rose 48 percent in the year that ended May 31. Russian and Canadian farmers harvested bigger crops from a year earlier, USDA data show.
(2) Even if OECD productivity (and hence production) has peaked, does that mean peak food?
This is like saying we’re at peak oil because US oil production has peaked. No. Compare yields (in Hg/Ha) from diferent regions (from the FAO website), and see the potential for improvement in yields — as less developed nations adopt modern methods and (esp) invest more capital into their farms:
|Least Developed Countries||
Real food prices hit record lows around 2005. As prices have risen since then, capital investment in agriculture has soared. It’s hit record high levels in China, Brazil, and Russia.
(3) What about peak water?
That is a problem, as many sources are at risk. Such as depleting aquifers (for a look at this in the US, see “Saving the Ogallala Aquifer“, Jane Braxton Little, Scientific American, March 2009 — subscription only). The problem is wide than just aquifers being depleted. For example, California stopped diversions from the Sacramento River to the Central Valley, as the San Francisco Bay ecosystem is dying.
Offsetting that is the inefficient way we use water. Pollution, for one. Second, any free resource will be scarce. This is basic economics. Both these things are fixable, with a modest effort. For more about this see There is no “peak water” crisis (19 June 2008).
(4) What about peak oil?
Thanks to the massive surge of capital invested into energy during the last decade – and reduced demand from the global recession — we have ample energy supplies for the next few years. It’s too early to make forecasts beyond that, since the world is rapidly changing. Here are just to of the many factors in motion.
(1) Deposits of natural gas in “tight” deposits (e.g., shale and coal beds) might be a major game-changer. These deposits are almost ubiquitous around the world. We don’t yet know their potential, but it could radicaly change the world’s energy future.
(2) New technology. Cheap solar and fusion (i.e., the Polywell), to name my two favorite candidates (there are others). In the medium-term — 10-30 years — these might change the world. Note this is also the most likely horizon for peak oil.
(5) For more information
See these FM reference pages:
- about Food – articles about this global crisis
- about Peak Oil and Energy – my articles
- some Peak oil and energy – studies and reports
Articles about food on the FM website:
- Important news about the global food crisis!, 1 April 2008
- A view from Indonesia of the food crisis, 3 April 2008
- Stratfor warns about the global food crisis, 18 April 2008
- What you probably do not know about China’s food crisis, 21 April 2008
- Higher food prices, riots, shortages – what is going on?, 29 April 2008
- A modest proposal for solving the global food crisis, 30 April 2008
- Weekend reading about the Food Crisis, 17 May 2008
- Teach a man to fish, and you understand what we have done wrong in Haiti, 23 May 2008
- “Food scares are exaggerated, but good copy for the media”, 28 May 2008