Beyond the Eternal Food Fight –

Beyond the Eternal Food Fight –

January 10, 2011, 9:54 AM

Beyond the Eternal Food Fight

food pricesThe New York TimesAn index of world food prices. Click for the full graph and caption.

10:13 a.m. | Updated
Almost every time global prices surge and the media and public reach out to analysts for meaning, a decades-long food fight resumes.

The latest price surge is clearcut, bringing food costs up to or past peaks reached in 2008. With populations and appetites growing, with climate changing, Is this the edge of the cliff or just another bump in a long, climbing road?

The combatants:

– Experts who foresee calamity as fast-rising demand for food (and everything else) strains farmers’ capacity to keep up, while pulses of drought, heat or flooding, conflict, speculation or disruptive policies (the biofuel boom) cause ripples and occasional rogue waves in prices.

– Experts who repeatedly, and less sexily, note that humanity, on the whole, has always overcome shortages and found ways to produce ever more foodeven as mouths multiply and rising incomes move families up the food chainfrom grains to meats and dairy. They’re mostly not saying, “Don’t worry, be happy,” but they’re definitely not urging listeners to buy food insurance, as Glenn Beck’s show periodically does, or to gird for the collapse of modern civilization, as resource pessimists have long intoned. (That last note is primarily for those who only tend to see alarmism at one end of the spectrum.)

Wheat harvest in IndiaRuth Fremson/The New York TimesWater shortages have put the wheat harvest in northwest India at risk.

Given the new burst of concern over volatileand rising global food prices from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and various aid and environmental campaigners, late last week I sent some questions to a broad array of scholars and analysts focused on global resources and demands.

Below you can read my missive, with e-mail shorthand slightly cleaned up, followed by an exchange this query triggered between Vaclav Smil, the University of Manitoba analyst of just about everyglobal risk and trend, and Lester Brown, who heads the Earth Policy Instituteand has for decades warned of economic and environmental unraveling.

In a followup post I’ll publish the much broader discussion among others focused on this question.

First, here’s the query I sent around:

There’s been a pulse of F.A.O. concern and resulting press coverage of food prices (although I wish they’d adjust for inflation), the role of climate change, etc.

I’m trying to make sense of this for Dot Earth readers and hope, with your varied vantage points, you can help by providing your perspective.

Is this a reflection of the true limits to resources that Paul Krugman has been inching toward in the last couple of years (2008 and now) — with climate extremes essentially waves lapping over the gunwales of a leaking boat?

Or is this likely to be another temporary slosh as the uneven pulses of demand, supply and variegated conditions steadily create more pressure for productivity, which is eventually provided…?

Or will it never be possible to know the difference until it’s essentially too late?

I’ve written off and on about the challenges and paths in feeding 9 billion. What should be top of the list?

Here’s the long-distance back and forth between Brown and Smil (not done through direct e-mail exchanges but mediated by me):


I don’t think this current price rise is temporary. There will, of course, be fluctuations in the grain prices, but they will be around a rising trend. Grain and soybean prices, and food prices more broadly, are moving up. There is not anything in sight to reverse this trend. If the world were to have a poor grain harvest this year, there could well be chaos in world grain markets by late summer.

You might want to take a look at the article I did in Scientific American a couple years ago, entitled “Could World Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?

Next Wednesday, the 12th, I will be updating my thinking on this at a press teleconference to launch the new book, “World on the Edge.”


There are always speculative food price currents and undercurrents but no end of days as so many of your fellow citizens, being the most scientifically illiterate people who ever lived, think. Just look at #1, China: imports less than 5% of its food and CONSUMES more food per capita than Japan!!!

Nothing has changed since I wrote that closing chapter of my 2000 feeding the world book: if China can do it, anybody (but Somalia) can [*]. Nor is India “starving.” Any food shortages are 95%+ a matter of poor or no governance, not any “extreme” climate and “gunwale inching”… Queensland does not grow wheat in any quantity, just check the wheatland map of Australia, and as always you newsie guys have exaggerated the story, both south and north of the state are open for business; no end of Australia.


I hope Vaclav is right, but I fear he is not. What he omits in the discussion of China is that in 2010 China consumed 70 million tons of soybeans, 56 million of which were imported. In land and water equivalent, this translates into 168 million tons of grain. China’s total grain consumption is 400 million tons. The China/Japan food comparison is also a bit off because Japan long ago turned to the oceans for much of its animal protein.

Smil (after receiving Brown’s response):

Please, Andrew, leave me abandoned in this sub-Arctic wilderness [Manitoba]. In order to get to the real bottom of it these debates would need a systematic, methodical approach. Here is just the beginning of it….

Lester is correct about the Chinese soybean imports but he says nothing about why they import: 95% of those beans, much as in Japan, is not for tofu or any other direct eating but it is protein to feed their animals so they could eat in cities nearly as much meat as the Germans do; this has nothing to do with gunwales and survival, they can always eat just 20 kg rather than 60 kg and live longer for it; we have to separate crop production for excessive meat and milk from crop production for decent diets.

No land and water equivalent comparison of wheat and corn and soybeans can make universal sense. Qualities of those foods are too different for that; besides, Brazil is eager to ship more soybeans to China, no shortage of that product either. Etc etc. Simply some depth of knowledge is needed to unravel these matters and even then this knowledge can be turned this or that way (as Lester is doing and as he is saying I am doing) to come up with different interpretations.

And which one will win? Me counseling non-catastrophic perspective or one saying that we all are dead next Monday?

Revkin (to Smil):

My piece will attempt to look beyond food fights and public biases toward catastrophe (it’s not just media) and propose a way of acting — amid the waves of debate — that provides a least-regrets course forward. Presumably “business as usual” is not sufficient (for instance, today’s levels of basic R&D in agricultural sciences). But maybe so?

I don’t mean to force one more round, but if you had even 60 seconds for one more thought, that’d be great. Then it’s no longer a war of words which – as you say – is essentially hopeless given human nature and today’s information environment.

Smil’s final reply was a menu of possible food lifestyles for societies in which he identified a level that was bountiful while also easily sustained for 9 billion people seeking decent lives:

1) eating enough to survive with reduced lifespans (Ethiopia),

2) eating enough to have some sensible though limited choices and to live near-full lifespans when considering other (hygienic, health care) circumstances (as in the better parts of India today),

3) having more than enough of overall food energy but still a limited choice of plant foods and only a healthy minimum of animal foods and live close to or just past 70 (China of the late 1980s and 1990s),

4) not wanting more carbohydrates and shifting more crop production and imports to [livestock] feed, not food, to eat more animals products, having overall some 3,000 kcal/capita a day and living full spans (China now),

5) having gross surpluses of everything, total supply at 3,500-3,700 kcal/day, eating too much animal protein, wasting 35-40% of all food, living record life spans, getting sick (U.S. and E.U. today).

The world eating between levels 3-4 would not know what to do with today’s food; the world at 5 is impossible.

So while Brown and Smil have deeply divergent views on food risks and options, they do agree that today’s norms for food in developed countries won’t hold up in decades to come. These include a disregard for waste and a seeming inability in many countries to divert from overindulgence without seeing that as some kind of sacrifice. They also include long-lagging levels of investment in agricultural research.

I just found a valuable survey paper on food and population trends by Douglas Southgate, an agricultural economist at Ohio State University. He notes the remarkable 20th century drop in grain prices. [This link does not seem to be working at the moment.]

In a section of the paper citing analysis in “The World Food Economy,” a book he co-authored in 2007, Southgate concludes that a low growth scenario for population, leading to just under 8 billion people by 2050, could see a 26-percent drop in food prices even with substantial rise in consumption. But almost all other scenarios come with rising real prices for food.

His conclusion?

Demographic expansion is now slackening, due to dramatic reductions in human fertility in Asia, Latin America, and other parts of the world. However, demand for edible goods will continue to go up, mainly because improved living standards are causing per-capita consumption to rise. To avoid mounting food scarcity, the geographic expansion of agriculture at the expense of forests and other habitats, or both, effective investment in research and development, especially in agricultural biotechnology, is needed so that per-hectare yields can continue increasing.

So Southgate, too, presents a picture with no cliffs or collapses, but instead a transition to an era in which food supplies will most likely progressively tighten (unless countries get serious about a research push, which is particularly important with climate change posing fresh challenges).

This is somewhat in synch with Krugman’s thinking at the end of his most recent column on this “finite world” (which was on commodity prices generally, not food):

It is, as I said, a sign that we’re living in a finite world, one in which resource constraints are becoming increasingly binding. This won’t bring an end to economic growth, let alone a descent into Mad Max-style collapse. It will require that we gradually change the way we live, adapting our economy and our lifestyles to the reality of more expensive resources.

I sent him an e-mail asking if he could elaborate a bit on how a consciously finite, but prosperous, human economy might work. He responded with a quick riff on a transition from quantity to quality:

The way I see it, by the way, is that it’s about shifting the mix away from tons of stuff to quality. You have a small electric vehicle (powered by solar-thermal) instead of an S.U.V., but it drives itself most of the time, and has a great built-in entertainment system. You live in an apartment or townhouse instead of a McMansion, but the brain-wave controlled kitchen turns out gourmet meals on demand. And if we do the GDP accounting right, this will show up as economic growth.

So maybe it’s correct that the “top billion” need new goals for themselves, along with whatever they do to help the “bottom billion” through aid, trade, and other initiatives.

clean plate club posterThe Clean Plate Club in the war years

On a personal level, the same questions resonate in dealing with access to abundance brought about through prosperity.

In the end that’s about discipline, the kind my maternal grandfather tried to instill in us in terms of pushups, posture, leaving a room tidier than it was when you arrived and cleaning your plate (we grew up with the “Clean Plate Club” phrase reverberating in the kitchen).

This is one reason I appreciated Stewart Brand’s approach in his latest book, and particularly its title: “Whole Earth Discipline.”

There’s an apt analogy for this rigor that I also once used to describe how reporters can resist overplaying the “front-page thought” in environmental news:

In each case, it’s kind of like training yourself to reach for an apple when you crave a cookie.

And in the end that’s the kind of trait that’s related to another question I posed here awhile back:

What do we want to be when we grow up?

[Jan. 10, 5:08 p.m. | Updated Here’s a collection of additional views on meeting the global food challenge.]
[* There is at least one scenario leading toward a functional Somalia, produced by the Council on Foreign Relations last year.]