The Coming Famine

6 10 2013

The Coming Famine is a discussion paper by Julian Cribb and Associates#

In coming decades the world faces the risk of major regional food crises leading to conflicts and mass refugee movements. This is driven primarily by emerging scarcities of all the primary resources required to produce food and a global failure to reinvest in it. This paper outlines key factors in emerging global food insecurity and proposes some solutions.

Julian Cribb

‘The Coming Famine’ published by the University of California Press and CSIRO Publishing, August 2010.

We’ve all heard by now the forecast that there will be 9.2 billion people in the world by 2050.  And current projections suggest human numbers will not stop there – it will keep on climbing to at least 10-11 billion by the mid 2060s.

Equally, the world economy will continue to grow – and China, India and other advancing economies will require more protein food.

Thus, global demand for food will more than double over the coming half-century, as we add another 4.7 billion people.  By then we will eat around 600 quadrillion calories a day, which is the equivalent of feeding 14 billion people at today’s nutritional levels.

The central issue in the human destiny in the coming half century is not climate change or the global financial crisis. It is whether humanity can achieve and sustain such an enormous harvest. #

The world food production system today faces critical constraints. Not just one or two, but a whole constellation of them, playing into one another – and serious ones.

This is the great difference from the global food scarcity of the 1960s. Then the constraints were around skills and technology – and the generous sharing of modern agricultural knowledge and technology in the Green Revolution was able to overcome them.

Today the world faces looming scarcities of just about everything necessary to produce high yields of food – water, land, nutrients, oil, technology, skills, fish and stable climates, each one playing into and compounding the others.

So this isn’t a simple problem, susceptible to technofixes or national policy changes. It is a wicked problem.

The world is haemorrhaging nutrients at every link in the chain between farm and fork. On the farm it appears that anywhere up to half of applied nutrients can be lost into soil, water and the environment.

#Our resources of mineral nutrients are starting to decline. When Canadian Patrick Dery applied Hubbert’s peak theorem to phosphorus (Figure 2) he found, to his dismay, we had passed it in 1989.

According to the International Energy Agency, peak oil and gas are due in the coming decade. These spell scarcity and soaring prices in the primary nutrients – nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) – that sustain all advanced farming systems worldwide. In food production there is no substitute for these three nutrients: they are as essential to plant growth as water and light.

At the other end of this equation we are ruining our rivers, lakes, seas and oceans in ways that prevent us from getting more food from them. Each year we pump around 150 million tonnes more nitrogen and 9 million tonnes more phosphorus into the biosphere than the earth’s natural systems did before humans appeared: we have utterly modified the planet’s nutrient cycle, more radically even than the atmosphere or fresh water cycle. That we may double our release of nutrients to the environment as we seek to redouble food output is alarming.

The rest of this fascinating paper can be read here.

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2 responses

6 10 2013
Rapideffect

The way in which we produce food is incorrect, converting fossil fuels into food is unsustainable. I follow the path of Masanobu Fukuoka, natural farming. His natural farming methods more or less require you to let nature do most of the work. You almost become a hunter gatherer with his methods!

Here are a few good videos of Alex Ojeda who uses some of Fukuoka’s methods:

6 10 2013
gbell12

Man, I’ve gotta stop reading DTM right before bed.

These concerns are exactly why we live where we do and do what we do, though I worry I’m not spending enough time preparing.

I think famines in the US, Australia, EU, etc. are unlikely. More likely is that those rich countries will use their wealth and militaries to secure food, and eventually the rest of the world’s people will get sick of it and invade us.

Sweet dreams.

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