In 2008 a sharp climb in food prices on the global markets caused economic chaos across the world. Wheat prices rose 130%, soya spiked 87% and rice shot up 74% in just 12 months.
On British breakfast tables, that meant a 45% rise in the price of a four-pack of croissants. In Egypt, the world’s biggest wheat importer, it meant many couldn’t eat and triggered riots.
Consumers globally are vulnerable to a complex and highly globalised food supply chain. Here in the UK, we import 40% of the total food consumed and the proportion is rising.
We are in what writer Kalle Lasn terms “ecological debt” – if most western industrialised nations were cut off from global trade “they would immediately collapse, their resource bases far below what is necessary for their populations to survive.”
Perhaps that doesn’t worry you: We can’t all exist in a state of crude autarky or revert to being subsistence farmers. Yet most analysts are aware that we are teetering on the brink of a monumental crisis when it comes to food security – one that could be truly cataclysmic.
Do I read too many dystopian novels? Perhaps, but their narrative staple of ferocious competition for primary resources and fragile access to food, energy and water in the face of easily disrupted distribution networks, rampant biodiversity loss and disease are now staples in the news too.
Here’s how the sober partners at think tank The Munden Project put it (their partners work in environmental sector risk assessment, drawing on signficant expertise in commodities trading and systems analysis).
We are in an increasingly interconnected world, one based on the assumption that we can quickly deliver food, energy, fiber or medicine across great distances. Our view is that these systems are every bit as fragile… as the financial system was in 2007.
We therefore expect, within no more than 15 years, for there to be a major, systemic breakdown in how we deliver basic goods (such as food or energy) that will demand immediate action.
The “Three Ds” of work are typically known as “dirty, dangerous and difficult”. The fragile food supply chain has “four Ds” which could be crudely summarised as “demand, distribution, diesel and disease”…
It is no secret that the global population is growing fast. That means more mouths to feed. Analysts estimate that the world needs to bring around 10.3m hectares of new land a year into food production “just to keep stocks steady”.
Changes in eating habits are also having massive impact. Worldwide meat production has tripled over the last four decades and increased 20 percent in just the last 10 years.
More than two-thirds of all agricultural land is devoted to growing feed for livestock, while only 8 percent is used to grow food for direct human consumption.
The global livestock industry uses dwindling supplies of freshwater, destroys forests and grasslands, and causes soil erosion, while pollution and the runoff of fertilizer and animal waste create dead zones in coastal areas and smother coral reefs. There also is concern over increased antibiotic resistance, since livestock accounts for 50 percent of antibiotic use globally, according to the FAO’s Livestock, Environment and Development initiative.
Few of us in the west are likely to give up our bacon and eggs, but if everyone in the world ate as much meat as we did, we’d need two-thirds more arable land than the world has got. And even the land that is free is increasingly being used to grow crops for biofuels… Which brings us to the next big problem.
“People will wonder why every new recession is a bit worse then the previous one” Richard Heinberg. “The End of Suburbia”
Well, crude oil really. The fuel strikes of 2000 in Britain made many realise how dependent our food supplies were on smoothly flowing supplies of petrol. With depots blockaded, supermarket shelves were empty in a flash, deliveries halted, panic buying ratcheted up, ambulances struggled to get people to hospital. As the government later put it after some head-scratching:
The disruption in the energy sector created a chain reaction among other critical infrastructure sectors such as transportation, health care, food distribution, financial and government services due to their interconnectivity and interdependencies.
Any major and sustained disruption to energy and our imports stutter badly. If they dry up for a protracted period, a lot of people would starve to death.
For behind the always full supermarket shelves meanwhile, as the UK’s Global Food Security group notes, lies a supply chain sensitive to economic and environmental events and exposed to volatile global markets for products like animal feed that have strong impacts on supermarket prices.
Of those “economic and environmental events” the oil markets are one of the most influential. Senior IMF research economist Samya Beidas-Strom has pointed out that the food crisis was exacerbated by many forms of export restrictions by major food exporters – but “energy prices played a big role in the last crisis”.
Our declining arable land and growing demand for food is echoed in the energy sector, where finite supplies of easily accessible crude are diminishing. The “Arab Spring”s relationship to an apparent “fossil fuel autumn” was no coincidence.
It came as financial analysts Raymond James issued a report stating that global production of petroleum had peaked in the first quarter of 2008, in “a paradigm shift of historic proportions”. Crude demand falls during an economic contraction – with many believing that provides a timeless self-correcting mechanism, driving down prices.
(The relationship between energy prices/peak oil and the rest of the economy is fairly succinctly summed up by this cartoon, which shows how peak oil doesn’t have to mean a linear growth in wholesale oil prices – a timely reminder as analysts get bearish on crude… But meanwhile, despite weak economic growth, demand for agricultural commodities remains robust. People have to eat…
Cartoon by John Kinhart and half-inched from The Oil Drum.
With agriculture so dependent on crude – whether to fuel agricultural machinery, ship crops or produce vast quantities of pesticides and artificial fertilisers – it is distribution that is another weak link in the chain that “delivers” the goods we depend on.
Smelling the weakness (and the profits) the multinationals that dominate global grain trading have tightened their grip on the global supply chain amid recent price volatility. Just four companies – ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Dreyfus – already control up to 90% of global trade.
Farmers are often dependent on the grain trading companies for their seed and fertilisers as well as providing a buyer for their crops. “It (grain market consolidation) has a negative impact, both on the many producers that feed into this very small number of traders and on the other end on their customers and ultimately consumers,” said Jodie Thorpe, policy adviser for Oxfam.
“Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less dependent on nature’s services in a world of close to seven billion people”.
Achim Steiner: UNEP Executive Director
It is disease and decline in biodiversity that is the final and perhaps most worrying weak link in the global food supply chain. That our soil, species and sustenance are all at risk has not gone unnoticed by scientists and increasingly the wider public – not least a sharp fall in the populations of insect pollinators, such as bees, moths and butterflies.
In the UK alone, bee populations have collapsed by 10-15% in just two years (with the decline nowhere near halted). A third of crops are pollinated by insects, and further declines could lead to higher food costs and potential shortages. (Honey bee colony declines in recent years have reached 10 to 30 percent in Europe, 30 percent in the United States, up to 85 percent in Middle East, says scientist Peter Neumann, one of the authors of the first ever UN report on the issue…)
And while the EC is set to vote for a ban on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides widely blamed for the collapse (although the UK’s environment secretary told the chemicals company Syngenta that he was “extremely disappointed” by the proposed ban and said “the UK has been very active” in opposing it) loss of habitat, another key factor, is unlikely to stop soon.
Crop scientists meanwhile, facing a rise in plant pathogens like “wheat rust”, fear the “Ug99” fungus could wipe out more than 80% of worldwide wheat crops, with its capability of infecting a healthy crop in hours and “turning it into a useless mulch in days”. Wheat crops are no joke, accounting for a fifth of humanity’s food, second only to rice as a source of calories in the diets of developing country consumers and first as a source of protein, providing 21% of food calories and 20% of protein to 4.5 billion people in 94 developing countries.
With virulent new mutations of wheat rust emerging, the threat is growing. The variant of Ug99 identified in Kenya, for example, went from first detection in trace amounts in one year to epidemic proportions the next year. GM crops were believed by many – not least the companies promoting their product – to have been the answer to food security and threats such as wheat rust. But as Dan Basse, president of AgResource, one of Chicago’s most respected commodity analyst companies and GM grower himself, told the Guardian:
Superweeds are coming on so fast with GM that US farmers are going to have to go back to more traditional cultivation methods [as opposed to the practice with GM seeds of not tilling the soil and simply spraying to control pests] – but they don’t have the capacity to do that.
Biodiversity is considered by many to prove a better bulwark against disease. But with extinction rates high and the use of monocrops widespread (the FAO estimates that 75 percent of crop diversity was lost between 1900 and 2000) there seems little hope currently of increased biodiversity being taken seriously as an answer. It ought to be:
Transmission rates in communities depend heavily on the level of species richness. In diverse ecosystems, pathogens are more likely to find themselves in unsuitable or “dead-end” hosts that wont (or cant) transmit the disease. Additionally, since there is more heterospecific contact where diversity is high, transmission rates generally decline in diverse ecosystems.
And meanwhile despite despite consumer resistance, it is increasingly hard to keep GM crops out of the food chain, with Tesco having recently announced that it could no longer confirm its poultry feed was GM-free and other supermarkets already having caved in to industry pressure,
That may infuriate consumers, but it is at the production end that the real concerns are. Both superweeds and a corresponding more intensive use of arguably carcinogenic glyophosate herbicides are a result of increased GM crop growing, which – for example in the case of GM Alfafa, a perennial used primarily for animal feed – has raised significant fears of contamination of other crops.
Never mind, biotech profits were at a record high last year.
In a world of finite resources but one based around the notion that perpetual growth is the only way forward, it is clear that something is going to give. Quite how fast and hard it gives remains to be seen, but the omens are not looking good.
There are other ways: Biologist Mae Wan Ho of the Institute of Science in Society, for example, has been developing the notion of sustainable systems as organisms. How that works in food production I sketched out here.