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2010: The year to really start worrying about food security

FoodIt started already last year, but 2010 is shaping up to be the year in which the issue of food security takes on a greater sense of urgency. Why? Because policy-makers have connected the dots about where current trends are taking us, and it’s scaring them silly.

Consider the factors affecting food production: Climate. Water. Land. Fertiliser. Energy. Now consider the trends affecting those factors:

  • A warming climate might be great for, say, British grape-growers who see a bright future for wine production. (UK vintners are already seeing record harvests, while long-established French wine-makers are seeing yields begin to wither as temperatures rise.) But global warming is also expected to bring stronger heat waves, more drought and more extreme rainfall to many agricultural regions. That’s a recipe for hurt at harvest time.
  • Droughts aren’t good for crops, but neither are record wet spells. Extremely wet conditions in the US Midwest last fall, for example, delayed harvests to the point that some 30 per cent of North Dakota’s corn remained in the fields by the time a Christmas blizzard put an end to harvest time completely.
  • Good land for farming is getting harder to come by, and not just because of development. Agricultural practices, overgrazing and deforestation have caused the planet to lose about 30 per cent of its productive cropland in recent decades. And rising sea levels will eat up farms, too, as they’re already doing in low-lying places like Bangladesh.
  • Nitrogen-based fertilisers enabled the “Green Revolution” that boosted global food production in the last century, but that benefit came with a double bill now demanding to be paid. One is for the fossil fuels needed to make fertilisers: more expensive or harder-to-obtain oil will mean more expensive or harder-to-obtain fertilisers. And two is the major havoc that our fertiliser dependency is wreaking on the Earth’s nitrogen cycle.
  • And then, finally, there’s energy. Here we are, maybe (or maybe not) crawling into a recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, yet oil is still trading for more than $80 a barrel, hardly the measure of “cheap.” If and when a true recovery gets under way, that price is likely to rise even more. (Jeff Rubin, former chief economist for CIBC World Markets and author of “Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller,” predicts $100 oil by year’s end.)

Oh, and of course there’s population growth to consider too: by 2050, the world is expected to hold some 9 billion people, compared to 6.8 billion today.

Add all these things together, and it’s no wonder the people in charge are getting beyond nervous about food security.

So what’s the answer? (You can offer your own suggestions here.) In the UK, which just released its Food 2030 strategy, officials outline a wide range of solutions ranging from encouraging people to eat more healthfully and waste less food to investing more in agricultural research, including the potential for and safety of genetically modified foods (more on that to come in a future post). While there’s no doubt a great many things need to change to ensure our future food security, it’s less certain at the moment where the biggest bang for the buck will lie.

Hilary Benn, the UK’s Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, says that, for him, his view of food security changed dramatically in 2008, when a combination of drought, poor harvests and record-high oil prices led to skyrocketing food costs and even riots in parts of the world.

“Right across the globe, the future we started to glimpse two years ago is now well and truly upon us,” he said during a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference this week. “Now it’s only in the last few decades that we have felt able to take food supply for granted, but the truth is now apparent.

“We cannot take it for granted any more.”

1 Comment

  • John Ludi
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    An additional important factor for you: Here in the states (and I assume in the UK, from all I’ve been hearing) we are having an incredible squeeze on lending on all levels, which has been ongoing for over a year. This has put a lot of farmers in quite a bit of a bind as they depend on that lending backbone. In a year like the one we just had, the combination of the weather and lack of loans is creating the opportunity for a “perfect storm”. I would not be at all surprised to see food shortages as early as the end of this year. At the very least, prices are going to be interesting to watch.

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