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New Geopolitics of Food

A few months ago I have listened to a pretty interesting interview with Lester Brown (a founder of Earth Policy Institute and a prolific author, among other things) on the NPR program called Fresh Air. Thanks to the awesome powers of our connected world the recording is still available here. Then, I have revisited the subject a couple of days ago when a conversation with a coworker prompted me to look a few things up and I came across an article in Foreign Policy magazine that was probably a precursor to that interview. I am not sure if I agree with all the views and theories expressed, I simply don't know enough about the subject matter to form a solid opinion, but it certainly was educational. Check it out, judge for yourself.

09/06/2011: I kept thinking about the subject of security of World's food supply on and off. Obviously, this is a complex problem that needs a comprehensive solution. Here's a short quotation from aforementioned article by Lester Brown - "The world now needs to focus not only on agricultural policy, but on a structure that integrates it with energy, population, and water policies, each of which directly affects food security".

It seems like the food, particularly grain, supply is being squeezed from all directions (some are not entirely obvious), here are a few examples and interesting numbers (from the same article):

  • Rapidly rising world population - "each night, there are 219,000 additional people to feed at the global dinner table"
  • Accelerated rate of consumption - "a decade ago, the growth in consumption was 20 million tons per year. More recently it has risen by 40 million tons every year"
  • Expansion of the middle class in developing countries - "some 3 billion people are also trying to move up the food chain, consuming more meat, milk, and eggs. As more families in China and elsewhere enter the middle class, they expect to eat better. But as global consumption of grain-intensive livestock products climbs, so does the demand for the extra corn and soybeans needed to feed all that livestock"
  • Shrinking croplands due to neglect and mismanagement - "Wang Tao, a leading Chinese desert scholar, reports that each year some 1,400 square miles of land in northern China turn to desert. In Mongolia and Lesotho, grain harvests have shrunk by half or more over the last few decades. North Korea and Haiti are also suffering from heavy soil losses"
  • Falling water tables due to overpumping and depletion of aquifers (and it take about 1,000 tons of water to grow 1 ton of grain) - "World Bank reports that 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced by overpumping... An estimated 130 million Chinese are currently fed by overpumping"
  • Climate changes - "for every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the growing season optimum, farmers can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields"
  • Conversion of grain to ethanol - "in 2010, the United States harvested nearly 400 million tons of grain, of which 126 million tons went to ethanol fuel distilleries (up from 16 million tons in 2000)"
So, is there any hope left? Well, it looks like we find ourselves on desperate ground and therefore we have to mobilize all of our resources and fight to win and to survive (Sun Tzu says).

09/12/2011: And here's yet another factor that may have a limiting effect on the world's food supply:

  • Dwindling supply of phosphorus - mining phosphorus for fertilizer is consuming the mineral faster than geologic cycles can replenish it. Readily available global supplies may start running out by the end of this century. Moreover, reserves of phosphorus are even less evenly distributed than oil’s, raising additional supply concerns. A single country, Morocco, possesses an estimated 40-75% of the world's phosphate reserves. Why is this important? - 
    1. Phosphorus is essential for life. As phosphate, it is a component of DNA, RNA, ATP, and also the phospholipids that form all cell membranes.
    2. It is one of the three nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) that enabled (and continues to enable) agriculture to increase its productivity to support growing world population.
10/12/2011: Looks like it is turning into a monthly thing, updating this post that is. Who knows, eventually it may turn into an essay of some sort or feed into a research paper :) The following information came to me by the way of NPR broadcast, which I later followed on online - "Facing Planetary Enemy No. 1: Agriculture":
  • Consider: Cropland and pasture now cover 40 percent of our planet's land surface; farming consumes nearly three-quarters of all the water that humans use for any purpose; farming accounts for a third of all the emissions of greenhouse gases that humans release into the environment. (Those greenhouse emission come from clearing forests or grassland for crops, the emissions of methane from rice paddies, and the conversion of nitrogen fertilizer into nitrous oxide - a powerful greenhouse gas.)
The outlook is grim, but researchers propose a five-point plan for feeding the world while protecting the planet - "International team crafts plan to feed world and protect planet":
  1. Halt farmland expansion. Reduction of land clearing for agriculture, particularly in tropical rainforests, achieved using incentives such as payment for ecosystem services, certification and ecotourism. These incentives can yield huge environmental benefits without dramatically cutting into agricultural production or economic well-being.
  2. Close yield gaps. Many parts of Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe have substantial “yield gaps”– where farmland is not living up to its potential for producing crops. Closing these gaps through improved use of existing crop varieties, better management and improved genetics could increase current food production nearly 60 percent.
  3. Use inputs more strategically. Current use of water, nutrients and agriculture chemicals suffer from what the research team calls “Goldilocks’ Problem”: too much in some places, too little in others, rarely just right. Strategic reallocation could substantially boost the benefit we get from precious inputs.
  4. Shift diets. Growing animal feed or biofuels on top croplands, no matter how efficiently, is a drain on human food supply. Dedicating croplands to direct human food production could boost calories produced per person by nearly 50 percent. Even shifting non-food uses such as animal feed or biofuel production away from prime cropland could make a big difference.
  5. Reduce waste. One-third of the food farms produce ends up discarded, spoiled or eaten by pests. Eliminating waste in the path from farm to mouth could boost food available for consumption another 50 percent.
An online version of the article covering this and much more is available at - "Solutions for a cultivated planet".

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