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.

Notes:

  • 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

Contents

  1. Has food production peaked in the developed nation (i.e., the OECD)?
  2. Even if OECD productivity (and hence production) has peaked, does that mean peak food?
  3. What about peak water?
  4. What about peak oil?
  5. 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:

European Union
Cereals,Total
52,141
Least Developed Countries
Cereals,Total
17,689
World
Cereals,Total
35,393
Northern America
Cereals,Total
59,333

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:

Articles about food on the FM website:

  1. Important news about the global food crisis!, 1 April 2008
  2. A view from Indonesia of the food crisis, 3 April 2008
  3. Stratfor warns about the global food crisis, 18 April 2008
  4. What you probably do not know about China’s food crisis, 21 April 2008
  5. Higher food prices, riots, shortages – what is going on?, 29 April 2008
  6. A modest proposal for solving the global food crisis, 30 April 2008
  7. Weekend reading about the Food Crisis, 17 May 2008
  8. Teach a man to fish, and you understand what we have done wrong in Haiti, 23 May 2008
  9. “Food scares are exaggerated, but good copy for the media”, 28 May 2008
Advertisements

13 thoughts on “Is global food production peaking?

  1. FM and I agree about many things. But we also disagree. This is one case. And true to FM’s principles we have had several ‘back channel’ converstions about this issue. And true to our principles we put both cases forward to everyone for you to work out.

    And I and FM encourage everyone to do their own research. Firstly I will make the point I dont expect a collapse in agricultural production, maybe a dip and a plateau? But my personal beliefs are that a hundred million starving in a 3rd World country is wrong, or our poorest starving people in the 1st World is equally wrong. To my argument:

    Well firstly there has to be a peak of some kind someday. Nothing is infinite. (Except as Einstein said: “there are 2 things that are infinite, the Universe and Human stupidity … and I’m NOT sure about the first one”). The real issue is there a peak (which doesn’t necessarily mean a collapse after the peak, a plateau is quite possible) under the current Worldwide agriculture system.

    Note our current Worldwide agricultural systems can change, but of course this takes time. So is a plateau possible, possibly followed by a rise (say) in 10 years to another level? Then can it be maintained indefinitely?

    Well we have a range of factors at work, some have been already stated by FM, but there are a few other dynamics as well:

    (1) Peak Oil. This does not mean oil suddenly runs out tomorrow, just that production peaks and steadily becomes more expensive, basically because all the easy stuff is used up first and what remains is more expensive to extract. Agriculture runs on diesel. Price of that goes up then the price of food goes up, alternatively farmers go bankrupt.
    (2) Peak water. Over use of water, the classic example is aquifers, keep taking water out faster than they are replenished then the water table declines. This is not a factor for many places but it is in Western Australia, parts of India and China (and some others as well). But you can overuse rivers as well, destroying the hydrological systems and then suffer a significant water availability loss.
    (3) Land. Overused (or poorly used) land can degrade due to salinity or top soil loss. The American dust bowl is one of the classic examples. Land clearing typically means tearing up forests in marginal land that requires massive fertiliser inputs .. and often has limited lifespan.
    (4) Urbanisation. Most cities around the World are there because of their proximity to water and good land. Steadily increasing city spread uses up often very good land.
    (5) Peak fertilisers. The 2 most common ones are rock phosphorus and Nitrogen. The first dug out of the ground, the second largely comes from natural gas. Common sense says eventually reserves will be ran down and become more expensive.
    (6) Greater demand per person. Firstly from the ever increasing population, but also from formerly poor countries now becoming richer (e.g. China) and increasing their consumption of food per person.
    (7) Governments. The huge subsidies, in particularly the EU and the US has created massive distortion in crop choice and land usage.
    (8) The IMF. Forcing ‘globalisation’ (which it is not and I’ll do a post on this at another time) on regional farmers, disrupting traditional, and often quite sustainable, agriculture. In some cases in Africa local production has been destroyed by US/EU Govt subsidised produce.
    (9) A WMD, GM seeds. Now GM has a fantastic potential, unfortunately it is the monopoly of a few agri-business companies, which use that to maximise their profits, Monsanto is the Goldman Sachs of the seed industry. Parallels to Mark Taibbi comments on GS abound.
    (10) Monocultures. Taking wheat as an example only a few strains are used throughout the World. This naturally means there is increased vulnerability to diseases (worst look up the Irish Famine). Because there is so little genetic diversity a disease can take out huge amounts of production. There is currently a rust working its way throughput Africa and the Middle East.
    (11) Cuts in R&D. I laugh at those clowns who say science and technology will solve everything. Then of course cut it.. The drive towards ‘privatisation’ destroyed research budgets all around the World. The IMF was a World leader in killing research dollars in African countries. Heck, even here in Australia, the current Govt in its 1st budget cut agricultural research. Look up the numbers and weep.
    So taking these all into account we have a dysfunctional, unsustainable system driven by short term profits.. Bit like the Worlds financial system just before the GFC.

    And this dysfunctional system is breaking down. Food reserves have been declining for 5 years. In 2008/09 rice was rationed even in the US!

    Food prices skyrocketed. It was so bad that the FAO (look it up) convened a special conference in food security. And we wait with baited breath for the 2010 food production figures, with many droughts and freezing weather in different places. And no reserves! Interesting (and possibly thinning)times.
    .
    .
    FM reply: This is good news! We can all rest easy if this is the best case that can be made for “peak food.” It’s a collection of stories, most (except for the few I mentioned in the post) either irrelevant or without analytical foundation. I’ll mention just two.

    (1) The most nutty is “peak nitrogen”, as the Haber–Bosch process manufactures it from the air. Haber and Bosch were awarded Nobel prizes for this in 1918 and 1931.

    (2) “Common sense says eventually reserves will be ran down”
    With the development of rock fracturing and horizontal drilling in shale, we may be on the verge of massive expansion of exploitable natural gas reserves (see Wikipedia). These deposits are commonplace around the world. “Eventually” could be several decades away, during which we can develop substitutes.

    Like

  2. In Germany and Austria farmers are paid not to produce, the cultivable land shrinks, forrests grow, population is stable, so a stagnating production is not alarming IMHO. My issue with “modern” agriculture is the extinction of many old breeds of livestock, crops and fruits, which could hurt in futre as useful genetic information is lost.
    .
    .
    FM reply: The intesting thing about this is why you believe agricultural experts are unaware of such an obvious problem? They’re not, and there are extensive programs available to prevent this loss of genetic information. For an introduction I recommend the Wikipedia entry about Seed Banks.

    Like

  3. I live in Ohio. I’ve watched corn being grown intensively throughout the center of the state for 50 years. As I understand it, the yield per unit of fertilizer used is shrinking. If this is true, it means that the organic content of the soil is being exhausted. So, how many years can you continue to do this until the soil is nothing but inorganic matter? Think Cedars of Lebanon.
    .
    .
    FM reply: Sensible practices (e.g., crop rotation) and artifical fertilizers prevent the soil from becoming “nothing but inorganic matter.” This is nothing new, and has been deeply studied for generations. It’s an example of “people in this field I know nothing about are such fools.” That is almost never the case. Formulating the issue in this way merely flags that you need to do additional research.

    Like

  4. Ulenspiegel,

    I believe we do the same here with certain crops, paying farmers not to grow to keep the price up. Also, we had enough spare corn here to turn much of it into fuel. If peak food is even possible we’re quite far out from it.
    .
    .
    FM reply: I believe that most research shows that we do NOT have enough spare corn to significantly replace transportation fuels without greatly increasing food prices. The great hope for biofuels is cellulosic ethanol and growing algae or yeast. For more about that see the studies under “biofuels” on the FM reference page Peak oil and energy – studies and reports.

    Like

  5. I think that “Peak Food” is the wrong way to frame the issue. It’s not a question of running out of food, but rather the dysfunction of the current system being perpetuated indefinitely. The industrial food system is simply not addressing the valid ecological and long-term concerns surrounding water scarcity, soil health, diminishing returns on fertilizer and pesticides, dependence on fossil fuels, lack of genetic diversity, and extreme concentration of ownership.

    Big agribusiness shows no interest in addressing these issues in a comprehensive way; their response, typical of most large corporations, is the “build our way out” of the problem (further pull down aquifers, further pesticide applications, more genetic engineering, more conglomeration), rather than any sort of fundamental redesign or precautionary principles. Eventually, just as the energy sector hit a technological wall using the “build out” philosophy, we will start seeing diminishing marginal returns on investment. Some people argue we’re already seeing this, most clearly in the dramatic decline in effectiveness of pesticides and fertilizers since their advent post-WWII.

    Humans are not as smart as we presume to be; the current structure of industrial agriculture assumes that we can engineer our way out of all our problems by increasing the proportion of technological inputs. This is fundamentally unsustainable. Additionally, the serious players in this market-space have no interest in reforming or doing things differently, as they profit from the broken status-quo. I repeat, the issue in not a “peak”, but rather what are the long-term implications of continuing to double-down on a patently unsustainable arrangement, both ecologically and socially?
    .
    .
    FM reply: And what is the basis for your confident assurance that we cannot “engineer our way out of” the food problem? Esp as this looks to be a problem for the next decade (10 years out), or perhaps the one after that.

    “the dysfunction of the current system being perpetuated indefinitely.”
    What “dysfunction”? The current system is imperfect, as have been all agricultural systems since we first scattered grain on the dirt to see what happened. But neither have any of those systems been static.

    Like

  6. #2 I think this is an excellent summary . Problem is , I think some beleive in perpetual motion machines. As in ,you have dynamo on your car wheels , which produces electricity , which runs your car . But in a way , the earth seems to act like a perpetual motion machine , because of the massive time scales involved.

    Just as much of the Middle East depletes aquafers filled thousands of years ago , we live off the energy of a cooling core and a cooling sun . So I wonder if we should think about mass and energy balance of the earth . It may make more sense to hand-build sand dams than tap deeper aquifers with oil driven machinery ; to grow legumes with sunlight , than make nitrogen fertilizers with nuclear generated electricity.
    Also , I like the theory that viruses have given our DNA the additions which have allowed the evolution of complexity . But the use by businesses ,of human adenoviruses in GM developement is surely risky .Safer improvements can be acheived through selection .
    .
    .
    FM reply: It’s not an “excellent summary” only in the same sense as is Cinderella — because most of it is factually wrong.

    Like

  7. I don’t think corn based ethanol will impact the supply demand equation so much, I just mean to say we burned a lot of it last year and the price of my cornflakes was not impacted.

    We have about a billion years before the sun gets too hot for liquid water on the earth’s surface. Artificial meat can free up a lot of land to grow more crops. I have a hard time believing we can’t exploit the asteroid belt (enough mineral wealth there to cover everyone on earth in bling bling) in 20 years. IMO all the doomsters around here and elsewhere need to have a little more faith in humanity.
    .
    .
    FM reply: If you look very far ahead (in your examples, many generations) and assume continued technological progress, it’s easy to dismiss all our current problems. I don’t see the utility in this, as it provides no operational or policy insights for us or our children.

    “cornflakes was not impacted”
    The cost of the corn in corn flakes is tiny. The effect in Mexico, where they consume corn with far less processing, was large.

    “We have about a billion years before the sun gets too hot for liquid water on the earth’s surface”
    What is the meaning of this? It seems unrelated to any actual current issues.

    Like

  8. FM wrote “The intesting thing about this is why you believe agricultural experts are unaware of such an obvious problem? They’re not, and there are extensive programs available to prevent this loss of genetic information. For an introduction I recommend the Wikipedia entry about Seed Banks.

    I know that there are large seed banks, I have collegues who collaborate with a German one. The problem is that these often have not conserved local varieties of livestock and fruits, here the damage has already been done.

    Biofuels production in developed countries will not compete with food production IMHO, because it is much cheaper to improve the energy efficiency than substituting oil with biofuels. The problem could be the export of cheap agricultural products (food) by developing countries, that then are converted into biofuels.
    .
    .
    FM reply: Thanks for the additional color about the seed banks.

    Like

  9. They aren’t rotating the crops, FM. Driven up I-71 between Cincinnati and Columbus lately?
    .
    .
    FM reply: This is just false. From memory, aprox 60% of the US corn crop is grown on rotations of corn-corn-soybeans or corn-soybeans. The rest is either continuous corn or some other rotation (e.g., oats, alfafa). The fraction of continuous corn has risen during the past few years, since the government subsidies for corn-ethanol have distorted prices.

    Like

  10. Do you even grow your own veg ?
    .
    .
    FM reply: My wife does, as a hobby. Of course it provides only a fraction of our veggie consumption.

    Like

  11. Ah , I thought you were a woman , FM . I suppose you never know what that tomato cost to grow , since she doesnt charge her time ; and any purchases she makes , she scratches off the price tag and tells you the cost after subtracting the date and dividing by two .
    .
    .
    FM reply: People seldom do a hobby to generate income, since taking even a minimum wage usually pays more. But you are right, since she does most of the shopping I have little idea what things cost.

    Like

Leave a comment & share your thoughts...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s