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The Great Food Crisis of 2011

January 30, 2011 • Farming Practices, Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Lester Brown, President of Earth Policy Institute, for the following three press releases.
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THE GREAT FOOD CRISIS OF 2011*
By Lester R. Brown
www.earth-policy.org/plan_b_updates/2011/update90
January 14, 2011

As the new year begins, the price of wheat is setting an all-time high in the United Kingdom. Food riots are spreading across Algeria. Russia is importing grain to sustain its cattle herds until spring grazing begins. India is wrestling with an 18-percent annual food inflation rate, sparking protests. China is looking abroad for potentially massive quantities of wheat and corn. The Mexican government is buying corn futures to avoid unmanageable tortilla price rises. And on January 5, the U.N. Food and Agricultural organization announced that its food price index for December hit an all-time high.

But whereas in years past, it’s been weather that has caused a spike in commodities prices, now it’s trends on both sides of the food supply/demand equation that are driving up prices. On the demand side, the culprits are population growth, rising affluence, and the use of grain to fuel cars. On the supply side: soil erosion, aquifer depletion, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, the plateauing of crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries, and-due to climate change -crop-withering heat waves and melting mountain glaciers and ice sheets. These climate-related trends seem destined to take a far greater toll in the future.

There’s at least a glimmer of good news on the demand side: World population growth, which peaked at 2 percent per year around 1970, dropped below 1.2 percent per year in 2010. But because the world population has nearly doubled since 1970, we are still adding 80 million people each year. Tonight, there will be 219,000 additional mouths to feed at the dinner table, and many of them will be greeted with empty plates. Another 219,000 will join us tomorrow night. At some point, this relentless growth begins to tax both the skills of farmers and the limits of the earth’s land and water resources.

Beyond population growth, there are now some 3 billion people moving up the food chain, eating greater quantities of grain-intensive livestock and poultry products. The rise in meat, milk, and egg consumption in fast-growing developing countries has no precedent. Total meat consumption in China today is already nearly double that in the United States.

The third major source of demand growth is the use of crops to produce fuel for cars. In the United States, which harvested 416 million tons of grain in 2009, 119 million tons went to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars. That’s enough to feed 350 million people for a year. The massive U.S. investment in ethanol distilleries sets the stage for direct competition between cars and people for the world grain harvest. In Europe, where much of the auto fleet runs on diesel fuel, there is growing demand for plant-based diesel oil, principally from rapeseed and palm oil. This demand for oil-bearing crops is not only reducing the land available to produce food crops in Europe, it is also driving the clearing of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia for palm oil plantations.

The combined effect of these three growing demands is stunning: a doubling in the annual growth in world grain consumption from an average of 21 million tons per year in 1990-2005 to 41 million tons per year in 2005-2010. Most of this huge jump is attributable to the orgy of investment in ethanol distilleries in the United States in 2006-2008.

While the annual demand growth for grain was doubling, new constraints were emerging on the supply side, even as longstanding ones such as soil erosion intensified. An estimated one third of the world’s cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming through natural processes-and thus is losing its inherent productivity. Two huge dust bowls are forming, one across northwest China, western Mongolia, and central Asia; the other in central Africa. Each of these dwarfs the U.S. dust bowl of the 1930s.

Satellite images show a steady flow of dust storms leaving these regions, each one typically carrying millions of tons of precious topsoil. In North China, some 24,000 rural villages have been abandoned or partly depopulated as grasslands have been destroyed by overgrazing and as croplands have been inundated by migrating sand dunes.

In countries with severe soil erosion, such as Mongolia and Lesotho, grain harvests are shrinking as erosion lowers yields and eventually leads to cropland abandonment. The result is spreading hunger and growing dependence on imports. Haiti and North Korea, two countries with severely eroded soils, are chronically dependent on food aid from abroad.

Meanwhile aquifer depletion is fast shrinking the amount of irrigated area in many parts of the world; this relatively recent phenomenon is driven by the large-scale use of mechanical pumps to exploit underground water. Today, half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling as overpumping depletes aquifers. Once an aquifer is depleted, pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge unless it is a fossil (nonreplenishable) aquifer, in which case pumping ends altogether. But sooner or later, falling water tables translate into rising food prices.

Irrigated area is shrinking in the Middle East, notably in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and possibly Yemen. In Saudi Arabia, which was totally dependent on a now-depleted fossil aquifer for its wheat self-sufficiency, production is in a freefall. From 2007 to 2010, Saudi wheat production fell by more than two thirds. By 2012, wheat production will likely end entirely, leaving the country totally dependent on imported grain.

The Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where spreading water shortages are shrinking the grain harvest. But the really big water deficits are in India, where the World Bank numbers indicate that 175 million people are being fed with grain that is produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping provides food for some 130 million people. In the United States, the world’s other leading grain producer, irrigated area is shrinking in key agricultural states such as California and Texas.

The last decade has witnessed the emergence of yet another constraint on growth in global agricultural productivity: the shrinking backlog of untapped technologies. In some agriculturally advanced countries, farmers are using all available technologies to raise yields. In Japan, the first country to see a sustained rise in grain yield per acre, rice yields have been flat now for 14 years. Rice yields in South Korea and China are now approaching those in Japan. Assuming that farmers in these two countries will face the same constraints as those in Japan, more than a third of the world rice harvest will soon be produced in countries with little potential for further raising rice yields.

A similar situation is emerging with wheat yields in Europe. In France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, wheat yields are no longer rising at all. These three countries together account for roughly one-eighth of the world wheat harvest. Another trend slowing the growth in the world grain harvest is the conversion of cropland to nonfarm uses. Suburban sprawl, industrial construction, and the paving of land for roads, highways, and parking lots are claiming cropland in the Central Valley of California, the Nile River basin in Egypt, and in densely populated countries that are rapidly industrializing, such as China and India. In 2011, new car sales in China are projected to reach 20 million-a record for any country. The U.S. rule of thumb is that for every 5 million cars added to a country’s fleet, roughly 1 million acres must be paved to accommodate them. And cropland is often the loser.

Fast-growing cities are also competing with farmers for irrigation water. In areas where all water is being spoken for, such as most countries in the Middle East, northern China, the southwestern United States, and most of India, diverting water to cities means less irrigation water available for food production. California has lost perhaps a million acres of irrigated land in recent years as farmers have sold huge amounts of water to the thirsty millions in Los Angeles and San Diego.

The rising temperature is also making it more difficult to expand the world grain harvest fast enough to keep up with the record pace of demand. Crop ecologists have their own rule of thumb: For each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum during the growing season, we can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. This temperature effect on yields was all too visible in western Russia during the summer of 2010 as the harvest was decimated when temperatures soared far above the norm.

Another emerging trend that threatens food security is the melting of mountain glaciers. This is of particular concern in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau, where the ice melt from glaciers helps sustain not only the major rivers of Asia during the dry season, such as the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers, but also the irrigation systems dependent on these rivers. Without this ice melt, the grain harvest would drop precipitously and prices would rise accordingly.

And finally, over the longer term, melting ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica, combined with thermal expansion of the oceans, threaten to raise the sea level by up to six feet during this century. Even a three-foot rise would inundate half of the riceland in Bangladesh. It would also put under water much of the Mekong Delta that produces half the rice in Vietnam, the world’s number two rice exporter. Altogether there are some 19 other rice-growing river deltas in Asia where harvests would be substantially reduced by a rising sea level.

The current surge in world grain and soybean prices, and in food prices more broadly, is not a temporary phenomenon. We can no longer expect that things will soon return to normal, because in a world with a rapidly changing climate system there is no norm to return to.

The unrest of these past few weeks is just the beginning. It is no longer conflict between heavily armed superpowers, but rather spreading food shortages and rising food prices-and the political turmoil this would lead to-that threatens our global future. Unless governments quickly redefine security and shift expenditures from military uses to investing in climate change mitigation, water efficiency, soil conservation, and population stabilization, the world will in all likelihood be facing a future with both more climate instability and food price volatility. If business as usual continues, food prices will only trend upward.
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2010 HITS TOP OF TEMPERATURE CHART
By Alexandra Giese
www.earth-policy.org/indicators/C51/temperature_2011
January 18, 2011

Topping off the warmest decade in history, 2010 experienced a global average temperature of 14.63 degrees Celsius (58.3 degrees Fahrenheit), tying 2005 as the hottest year in 131 years of recordkeeping.

This news will come as no surprise to residents of the 19 countries that experienced record heat in 2010. Belarus set a record of 38.7 degrees Celsius (101.7 degrees Fahrenheit) on August 6 and then broke it by 0.2 degrees Celsius just one day later. A 47.2-degree Celsius (117.0-degree Fahrenheit) spike in Burma set a record for Southeast Asia as a whole. And on May 26, 2010, the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan hit 53.5 degrees Celsius (128.3 degrees Fahrenheit)-a record not only for the country but for all of Asia. In fact, it was the fourth hottest temperature ever recorded anywhere. (See data at www.earth-policy.org/indicators/C51.)

The earth’s temperature is not only rising, it is rising at an increasing rate. From 1880 through 1970, the global average temperature increased roughly 0.03 degrees Celsius each decade. Since 1970, that pace has increased dramatically, to 0.13 degrees Celsius per decade. Two thirds of the increase of nearly 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in the global temperature since the 1880s has occurred in the last 40 years. And 9 of the 10 warmest years happened in the last decade.

Global temperature is influenced by a number of factors, some natural and some due to human activities. A phenomenon known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation is characterized by extremes in Pacific Ocean temperatures and shifts in atmospheric patterns. The cycle involves opposite phases, both of which have global impacts. The El Niño phase typically raises the global average temperature, while its counterpart, La Niña, tends to depress it. Temperature variations are also partly determined by solar cycles. Because we are close to a minimum in solar irradiance (how much energy the earth receives from the sun) and entered a La Niña episode in the second half of 2010, we would expect a cooler year than normal-making 2010’s record temperature even more remarkable.

Since the Industrial Revolution, emissions from human activities of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide have driven the earth’s climate system dangerously outside of its normal range. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen nearly 40 percent, from 280 parts per million (ppm) to almost 390 ppm. As the atmosphere becomes increasingly overloaded with heat-trapping gases, the earth’s temperature continues to rise.

Even seemingly small changes in global temperature have far-reaching effects on sea level, atmospheric circulation, and weather patterns around the globe. Climate scientists note that increases in both the frequency and severity of extreme weather events are characteristics of a hotter climate. In 2010, the heat wave in Russia, fires in Israel, flooding in Pakistan and Australia, landslides in China, record snowfall across the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and 12 Atlantic Ocean hurricanes were among the extreme weather events. The human cost of these events was not small: the Russian heat wave and forest fires claimed 56,000 lives, while the Pakistan floods took 1,760.

Although the weather of 2010 seems extreme compared with that of earlier years, scientists warn that such patterns could become more common in the near future. And while no single event can be attributed directly to climate change, NASA climate scientist James Hansen notes that the extreme weather of 2010 would “almost certainly not” have occurred in the absence of excessive greenhouse gas emissions. Warmer air holds more water vapor, and that extra moisture leads to heavier storms. At the same time that precipitation events are becoming larger in some areas, climate change causes more intense and prolonged droughts in others. By some estimates, droughts could be up to 10 times as severe by the end of the century.

Like a growing number of extreme weather events, an increase in the number of record-high temperatures-and a concomitant decrease in the number of record lows-is characteristic of a warming world. For instance, while 19 countries recorded record highs in 2010, not one witnessed a record low temperature. Across the United States, weather station data reveal that daily maximum temperature records outnumbered minimum temperature records for nine months of 2010. Over the last decade, record highs were more than twice as common as record lows, whereas half a century ago there was a roughly equal probability of experiencing either of these.

Temperatures are rising faster in some places than in others. The Arctic has warmed by as much as 3-4 degrees Celsius (5-7 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 1950s. It is heating up at twice the rate of the earth on average, making it the fastest-warming region on the planet. Disproportionately large warming in the Arctic is partially due to the albedo effect. As sea ice melts, darker ocean water is exposed; the additional energy absorbed by the darker surface then melts more ice, setting in motion a self-reinforcing feedback.

In 2010, Arctic sea ice shrank to its third-lowest extent on record, after 2007 and 2008, and also reached what was likely its lowest volume in thousands of years. At both poles, the great ice sheets are showing worrying signs: recent calculations reveal that Greenland is losing more than 250 billion tons of water per year, and 87 percent of marine glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula have retreated since the 1940s. There is enough water frozen in Greenland and Antarctica to raise global sea levels by over 70 meters (230 feet) if they were to melt entirely.

Unless global temperatures are stabilized, higher seas from melting ice sheets and mountain glaciers, combined with the heat-driven expansion of ocean water itself, will eventually lead to the displacement of millions of people as low-lying coastal areas and island nations are inundated. Sea level rise has been minimal so far, with a global average of 17 centimeters (6 inches) during the last century. But the rate of the rise is accelerating, and some scientists maintain that a rise as high as 2 meters (6 feet) is possible before this century’s end.

It is not only coastal populations that are threatened by rising global temperatures. Higher temperatures reduce crop yields and water supplies, affecting food security worldwide. Agricultural scientists have drawn a correlation between a temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius above the optimum during the growing season and a grain yield decrease of 10 percent. Heat waves and droughts can also cause drastic cuts in harvests. Mountain glaciers, which are shrinking worldwide as a result of rising temperatures, supply drinking and irrigation water to much of the world’s population, including hundreds of millions in Asia.

More than any natural variations, carbon emissions from human activities will determine the future trajectory of the earth’s temperature and thus the frequency of extreme weather events, the rise in sea level, and the state of food security. The 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that the earth would warm 1.1-6.4 degrees Celsius (2-11 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. Yet a rise of 2-3 degrees Celsius will make the earth as hot as it was 3 million years ago, when oceans were more than 25 meters (80 feet) higher than they are today. Subsequent research has projected an even larger rise-up to 7.4 degrees Celsius-if the world continues to depend on a fossil-fuel-based energy system. But we can create a different future by turning to a new path-one with carbon-free energy sources, restructured transportation, and increased efficiency. By dramatically reducing emissions, we could halt the rapid rise of the earth’s temperature.
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WORLD ON THE EDGE
When Will the Food Bubble Burst?

By Lester R. Brown
www.earth-policy.org/books/wote/wotepr
For Data
For Food Situation Presentation
January 12, 2011

“Our early 21st century civilization is in trouble. We need not go beyond the world food economy to see this. Over the last few decades we have created a food production bubble-one based on environmental trends that cannot be sustained, including overpumping aquifers, overplowing land, and overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide,” notes Lester R. Brown, author of World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (W. W. Norton & Company).

“If we cannot reverse these trends, economic decline is inevitable,” notes Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental research organization. “No civilization has survived the ongoing destruction of its natural support systems. Nor will ours.

“The archeological records of earlier civilizations indicate that more often than not it was food shortages that led to their downfall. Food appears to be the weak link for our global civilization as well. And unlike the recent U.S. housing bubble, the food bubble is global.”

“The question is not whether the food bubble will burst but when,” says Brown. While the U.S. housing bubble was created by the overextension of credit, the food bubble is based on the overuse of land and water resources. It is further threatened by the climate stresses deriving from the excessive burning of fossil fuels. When the U.S. housing bubble burst, it sent shockwaves through the world economy, culminating in the worst recession since the Great Depression. When the food bubble bursts, food prices will soar worldwide, threatening economic and political stability everywhere. For those living on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder, survival itself could be at stake.

The danger signs are everywhere. In the summer of 2010, record high temperatures scorched Moscow from late June through mid-August. Western Russia was so hot and dry in early August that 300 to 400 new fires were starting every day.

“The average temperature in Moscow for July was a scarcely believable 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm. Watching the heat wave play out over the seven-week period on the TV evening news, with the thousands of fires and smoke everywhere, was like watching a horror film. Over 56,000 people died in the extreme heat. Russia’s 140 million people were in shock, traumatized by what was happening to them and their country,” says Brown in World on the Edge.

The record heat shrank Russia’s grain harvest from roughly 100 million tons to 60 million tons. This 40-percent drop and the associated grain export ban helped drive world wheat prices up 60 percent in two months, raising bread prices worldwide.

Crop ecologists estimate that for each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the norm during the growing season, grain yields decline by roughly 10 percent. In parts of Western Russia, the spring wheat crop was totally destroyed by the crop-withering heat and drought. As the earth’s temperature rises, the likelihood of more numerous, more intense heat waves increases.

“How much time do we have before the food bubble bursts?” asks Brown. “No one knows. If we stay with business as usual, the time is more likely measured in years than in decades. We are now so close to the edge that politically destabilizing food price rises could come at any time.”

For example, Brown notes that if the 2010 heat wave centered in Moscow had instead been centered in Chicago, it could easily have reduced the U.S. grain harvest of 400 million tons by 40 percent, or 160 million tons. World carryover stocks of grain for 2011-the amount remaining in the bin when the new harvest begins-would have dropped to an all-time low of 52 days of consumption, well below the 62-day carryover that set the stage for the tripling of world grain prices in 2007-08.

“In short,” Brown says, “if the July temperature in Chicago were to average 14 degrees above the norm, as it did in Moscow, there would be chaos in world grain markets.” Grain prices would quickly climb off the chart. Food prices would soar worldwide. Many grain-exporting countries, trying to hold down domestic food prices, would restrict or even ban exports, as they did in 2007-08.

Oil-exporting countries would try to barter oil for grain. Low-income grain importers would lose out. Instead of being dominated by scenes of smoke and fire in Moscow, the TV evening news would run live footage of food riots in low-income grain-importing countries and carry reports of spreading hunger, falling governments, and failing states. With governments collapsing and with confidence in the world grain market shattered, the global economy could start to unravel.

Rising temperatures are not the only threat to world food security. So too is the depletion of aquifers from overpumping for irrigation. In Saudi Arabia, grain production is collapsing as aquifer depletion has reduced its wheat harvest by two thirds in three years. It is not alone. The Middle East is the first geographic region where the grain harvest has started to shrink as aquifers are depleted and as irrigation wells go dry.

On a far larger scale, a World Bank study indicates that 175 million people in India are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. For China, the equivalent figure is 130 million people. Countries can overpump in the short run, but not over the long run.

And there are signs that a combination of trends, including aquifer depletion and the paving of millions of acres of cropland for new cars, is about to force China to import massive quantities of grain, much as it already does for soybeans. When this happens, China will necessarily turn to the United States, which is far and away the world’s largest grain exporter. For American consumers, for whom food security has never been a major issue, the prospect of competing for the U.S. grain harvest with 1.4 billion Chinese consumers with fast-rising incomes is a nightmare scenario.

“The new reality,” says Brown, “is that the world is only one poor harvest away from chaos. It is time to redefine security. The principal threats to our future are no longer armed aggression but instead climate change, population growth, water shortages, spreading hunger, and failing states. What we now need is a mobilization to reverse these trends on the scale and urgency of the U.S. mobilization for World War II. The challenge is to quickly reduce carbon emissions, stabilize population, and restore the economy’s soils, aquifers, forests, and other natural support systems. This requires not only a redefining of security but a corresponding reallocation of fiscal resources from military budgets to budgets for climate stabilization, population stabilization, water conservation, and other new threats to security.”

For decades, we environmentalists have talked about saving the planet. Now it is civilization itself that is at stake.


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