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Analysis/Comment Last Updated: Jan 2, 2011 - 3:19 PM


Global Food Crisis: Malthus, Food Price Surge, Climate Change and a 42% rise in World Population by 2050
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Apr 20, 2008 - 9:55 AM

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Global Vegetation - - Food, fuel and shelter: vegetation is one of the most important requirements for human populations around the world. Satellites monitor how "green" different parts of the planet are and how that greenness changes over time. These observations help scientists understand the influence of natural cycles, such as drought and pest outbreaks, on vegetation, as well as human influences, such as land-clearing and global warming. Photo: NASA

Global Food Crisis: Socrates is reputed to have said that the best sauce for food is hunger and a few millennia later in 1798, English economist Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, earned posterity for his prediction that population would continually increase faster than the food supply, causing chronic food shortages.

Since 1950, the earth's population has risen by more than four billion people, to 6.6 billion and UN projections put world population at 9.2 billion by 2050. The world currently faces a food crisis before the full impact of climate change and a 42% rise in population. The Malthusian vision may yet be vindicated.

Most economists today are lucky that their predictions don't even have a shelf life. In the modern age of punditry, a brass neck is a lot more important than prescience. Malthus' gloomy prediction earned him the revulsion of people like his contemporary, writer William Hazlitt, who wrote: when...that curious divine who surely has done more to discredit Christianity with the poor than all infidel writings put together, published his Essay on Population, he made himself conscience-keeper to the rich and great, especially to those of them who are not of a giving disposition, all in coining or at least popularizing for their use the magical phrase or formula 'surplus' or 'redundant' population. While Malthus failed to foresee the impact of human ingenuity, he did recognise that sufficiently high incomes may be enough by themselves to reduce fertility. Neither did his well-known gloomy prediction, bestow the tag "dismal science" on economics. That honour goes to Thomas Carlyle, who in 1849 attacked John Stuart Mill and his fellow political economists for their "dismal" support for emancipation, and their insistence that former slaves, women, even the Irish, were all equal.

There was an estimated 1 billion on the planet when Malthus penned his famous essay - up from 310 million in 1000 AD and 300 million in 0 AD. In the period to 1924, when the population grew to 2 billion, there was a remarkable advance in technology and fall in the death rate through improved hygiene. American historian David Christian says that in the last two centuries, humans have learned to tap the huge stores of energy buried millions of years ago in the fossilized bodies of ancient plants and microorganisms, and available today in coal, oil, and natural gas. These statistics indicate the astonishing ecological power acquired by our species in the course of its history.

An example of human ingenuity in the area of food production, is the work of 94-year old American, Norman Borlaug.In an age when so many genuflect at the altar of vacuous bimbos like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, we still have in our midst a remarkable man, now unknown to most of the world, who is said to have "saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived."

From his work in Mexico in the 1940's to the introduction in the 1960's, of disease and pest resistant wheat in India, Pakistan and onward to other countries in Asia, coupled with related research on producing high yielding rice seeds, Borlaug's Green Revolutionresulted in huge jumps in output. In the late 1960s, famine was a serious threat in Asia. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich also said, "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971." He insisted that "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980."

The world's 1950 grain output of 692 million tons came from 1.7 billion acres of cropland, the 1992 output of 1.9 billion tons from 1.73 billion acres -- a 170% increase from one percent more land. "Without high-yield agriculture," Borlaug says,"either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized through drastic expansion of acres under cultivation -- losses of pristine land a hundred times greater than all losses to urban and suburban expansion."

Professor M.S.Swaminathan, President, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences of India, said at a Congressional Gold Medal award ceremony in July 2007: "The impact of the Borlaug-led Green Revolution symphony will be clear from the fact that during 1964-68,Indian farmers increased wheat production in four years by an order greater than that achieved during the preceding 4000 years."

Borlaug's revolution depended on genetic engineering and in recent years some well-fed peoplein the developed world in particular, have opposed genetically modified (GM) foods while supporting the use of food crops for biofuel production. Anti-US multinational sentiment has been a factor in the opposition to GM foods but in tropical countries, increasing agricultural productivity can be a matter of life and death. - -Developing Countries led growth of biotech/GM agriculture in 2007

Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who heads the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, has warned that potential for danger from the rapidly growing biotechnology industry was increasing exponentially and urged creating global safeguards.  Annan says biotech crops are unsafe, untested and likely to enslave poor farmers to mega-corporations and expensive seeds. Annan says: ‘’We in the alliance will not incorporate GMOs in our programmes. We shall work with farmers using traditional seeds known to them.’’

President George W. Bush stands with Dr. Norman Borlaug during the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony honoring the doctor's efforts to combat hunger Tuesday, July 17 , 2007, at the U.S. Capitol. "Norman Borlaug's life has taken him from laboratories in America and Mexico to dusty villages throughout the developing world," said the President in his remarks. White House photo by Chris Greenberg - - Famine in the mid-1800s forced hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens to take a sad and desperate journey to America -- and turned the Atlantic Ocean into what an Irish poet called "a bowl of bitter tears." More than a century later, wrenching images of emaciated children in Ethiopia rallied the world to the tragedy of famine. Hunger continues to cast its miserable shadow across much of the developing world -- robbing villages of children, and forcing human beings to make desperate and daily searches for food and clean water.

Wealthy and prosperous nations have a moral obligation to help poor and struggling people find their own paths to progress and plenty. To whom much is given, much is required, and we've been given a lot here in America. It's the calling of our conscience, and it's a compelling national interest. A quote that Dr. Borlaug made reference to when he received the Nobel Prize says it well: "You can't build peace on empty stomachs."

Borlaug fears that the former UN bureaucrat's prescription, would be a devastating failure, especially if the world relies more on biofuels."Our planet has 6.5 billion people," Borlaug says. "If we use only organic fertilizers and methods on existing farmland, we can only feed 4 billion. I don't see 2.5 billion people volunteering to disappear."

To feed everyone with organic and traditional farming,we would have to plough millions of acres of forests and other wildlife habitat,he calculates. If, instead, we continue to use commercial fertilizer and hybrids, and have strong public support for both genetic engineering (GE) and traditional research,"the Earth can provide sufficient food for 10 billion people."

Historian David Christian writes that just to keep their bodies functioning, humans need about three thousand calories of energy a day. Ten thousand years ago, there may have been six million humans, each consuming at least this much energy, but not much more. Today, there are one thousand times as many humans (more than six billion), so we can be sure that our species now consumes at least one thousand times as much energy as we did ten thousand years ago. At the same time, each modern human consumes on average about fifty times as much energy as our ancestors did ten thousand years ago. If these figures are correct, they suggest that, as a species, we now consume about fifty thousand times as much energy as our ancestors once did. They demonstrate a control over energy that no other species can match. The equivalent graph for chimpanzees (or, for that matter, for any other nonhuman animals) would show no significant change in either total or per capita energy consumption over the last one hundred thousand years or more.

Christian says that increasing human control over the energy and resources of the biosphere has measurable consequences for the entire biosphere. If one organism hogs so much of the energy needed to sustain the biosphere, less will be available for other organisms. So it is no surprise that as humans have flourished other species have withered.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, UN activist and head of the Earth Institute at New York's Columbia University, in his recently published book -Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet- recommends a target population of no more than eight billion by mid-century compared with the UN projection of 9.2 billion. For that to happen, a focused effort is required in the poorest parts of the world, mainly Africa, where fertility rates are higher than elsewhere - - See Slate Magazine'se-mail discussion between Jeffrey Sachs and the Financial Times' Martin Wolf.

Two out of three inhabitants of Sub Saharan Africa are under 25 years of age and in India, population rose by 21.34 % between 1991 - 2001.

The developing world has five-sixths of the world's population.

As developing countries continue to develop, led by India and China,  there will be an acceleration in the attrition of the world's natural resources. The change in food diets in prospering Asian countries is one reason for the rapid surge in food prices.

Sachs forecasts that in the 21st century,the world's economic centre of gravity will shift to Asia which will produce more than half the world's income. US dominance will end.

He says that America traditionally has sought to protect its way of life through militarization but he argues that any US desire for global stability at this point would be better served by spending on foreign aid.

Sachs says that in the past half century, the U.S. has spent $17 trillion on its military, $2.3 trillion on aid.

Investments to alleviate world suffering and support sustainability, claims Sachs, requires no more than the 0.7% of GNP already pledged, but not delivered, by the world's well-off countries - - OECD says that Development Assistance from the 22 top donors fell by 8.4% in real terms in 2007.

“In much of the poorest parts of the world, the potential for significant increases in food production is very real,” said Sachs said this week.

Jeffrey Sachs

Citing the example of Malawi, a country that moved from a disastrous harvest in 2005 to a maize surplus the following year, he said supplying farmers with cheap seed and fertilizers along with low-technology items, such as treadle pumps, could have a bigger impact than traditional food aid.

At a cost of $60 million (€38million), the government of President Bingu wa Mutharika launched a farm subsidy programme for more than 1m maize farmers to pre-empt a looming famine. Production more than doubled by 2006 and is this year set to be 50% above a five-year average.

Sachs, who calls for funding an African “Green Revolution”in Common Wealth, told the Financial Times:“It wouldn’t break anybody’s bank to fund the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Sachs told the FT that donor countries, influenced in part by powerful farm lobbies, had focused on shipping food to needy nations rather than doing more to help them feed themselves.

He said it was evident from gatherings of international finance ministers, meeting amid growing concerns about food supplies, that they were only now becoming aware of the possibilities of self-help.

“If we just keep growth barreling along we will find it is undercut,” he said referring to the problems of global warming and energy prices that were exacerbating the food crisis. “We need to relieve pressure on the physical environment with improved technologies.”

Sachs wrote in Time Magazine in March, that to make the right choice, we must understand four earth-changing trends unprecedented in human history:

  • First, the spread of modern economic growth means that the world on average is rapidly getting richer in terms of incomes per person. Moreover, the gap in average income per person between the rich world, centered in the North Atlantic (that is, Europe and the U.S.), and much of the developing world, especially Asia, is narrowing fast. With well over half the world's population, fast-growing Asia will also become the center of gravity of the world economy.
  • Second, the world's population will continue to rise, thereby amplifying the overall growth of the global economy. Not only are we each producing more output on average, but there will be many more of us by midcentury. The scale of the world's economic production by midcentury is therefore likely to be several times that of today.
  • Third, our bulging population and voracious use of the earth's resources are leading to unprecedented multiple environmental crises. Never before has the magnitude of human economic activity been large enough to change fundamental natural processes at the global scale, including the climate itself. Humanity has also filled the world's ecological niches; there is no place to run.
  • Fourth, while many of the poor are making progress, many of the very poorest are stuck at the bottom. Nearly 10 million children die each year because their families, communities and nations are too poor to sustain them. The instability of impoverished and water-stressed countries has ignited a swath of violence across the Horn of Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. What we call violent fundamentalism should be seen for what it really is: poverty, hunger, water scarcity and despair.

Food Price surge - a Temporary Phenomenon?

"Poor people are suffering daily from the impact of high food prices, especially in urban areas and in low income countries," said World Bank Group President Robert B Zoellick last week, adding "in some countries, hard-won gains in overcoming poverty may now be reversed."

According to Rising Food Prices: Policy Options and World Bank Response, increases in global wheat prices reached 181% over the 36 months up to February 2008, and overall global food prices increased by 83%. Food crop prices are expected to remain high in 2008 and 2009.

The bank's  policy note points out, while households that are net producers may benefit from higher prices, price increases for staple foods will increase poverty in several countries.

Source: World Bank

The price of rice from the biggest exporter Thailand has risen 150% in the past 10 months and this week, the biggest importer, the Philippines, said it would commit $1 billion to become self-sufficient in rice production through improved irrigation and banning property developers from buying choice farmland. The population of the Philippines is estimated to have increased from 6 million in 1900 to 91 million in 2007.

Malaysia has said that it plans to spend $1.3bn to achieve food security and turn the Borneo state of Sarawak into a “rice bowl” for the nation, in response to surging agricultural prices and fears of shortages.

The plan to stockpile food and increase domestic production of rice, fruits and vegetables would bring Malaysia closer to self-sufficiency, Abdullah Badawi, Prime Minister, said at the weekend.

Malaysia's rice  production meets only about two-thirds of the 2 million tonnes required annually by the country’s 27 million people.

Last month, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), which is based in Bangkok,said in its annual report: Chronic neglect of the agricultural sector in Asia and the Pacific is condemning 218 million people to continuing extreme poverty, and widening the gap between the region’s rich and poor.

“Governments must show greater political will to address decades of policy neglect and failure in the agricultural sector,” said Noeleen Heyzer, UN Under-Secretary-General and the Executive Secretary of ESCAP.“It is simply unacceptable that at a time when the economic growth of Asia and the Pacific has surpassed all expectations, we are not doing all that we can to improve the lives of more than 200 million people living in such poverty.”

Also in March, theEuropean Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) held a conference in London with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)to discuss how unused agricultural land in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union countries could be brought back into use to alleviate the worldwide food crisis.

Experts estimate that up to 10% more arable land may be found in Brazil and Sub-Saharan Africa but reducing the rain forest would add to greenhouse gas emissions.

US stocks of wheat are at a 60-year low and world rice stocks are at a 25-year low. Poor weather patterns such as a long drought in the wheat-growing region of Australia, has cut output.

The rise in the price of oil has resulted in the US diverting 20% of its maize/corn production for biofuels and the European Union 68% of its vegetable oil production. The switch has boosted prices, reduced the supply of the crops available for food and encouraged the substitution of other agricultural land from food to biofuel production.

In the long-term biofuel production using non-food crops may be viable, but the use of food crops in the US in particular has been both shortsighted and a cave-in to the farm lobby.  President Bush wants the US to produce 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels by 2017.

The rise in biofuel production in India and China may lead to shortages of water. A report says that both China and India are focusing on maize and sugarcane, which require large amounts of water, to boost biofuel production - - Almost all biofuels used today make global warming worse; Director of Irish State research agency Teagasc says using crops for biofuel "exciting development"

Supply and demand factors have triggered rising food prices. Rising consumption in Asia has been a big factor and China has accounted for up to 40% of the increase in global consumption of soyabeans and meat over the past decade. As mentioned above, weather and biofuel production has impacted the supply side.

Food prices surged in the 1970's and mid 1990's but the supply response this time may take much longer and with a 42% rise in world population projected by 2050, the long-term will present serious challenges. The world's resources are not infinite. High fuel and food prices are already triggering unrest across the globe and apart from the end of the disinflationary impact of cheap goods from China, central banks are likely to keep interest rates higher than they would otherwise be, because of high food prices. The US Department of Agriculture says that an average household in India spent 32% of its income on food last year compared with 6% for a household in the United States. The figure for Indonesia was 43% and 36% for the Philippines. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the percentage can be as high as 70%.

Crucially, even where food is not a big factor in the household budget, it can have a disproportionate impact on inflation expectations. A consumer survey in Germany found that if the rate of price increases is well above the 2% mark throughout 2008, which would be considerably higher than originally assumed, private consumption in real terms would only rise by up to 1% during the remainder of this year.

Population Rankings by Country for each year from 1950 to 2050 - US Census Bureau

Population Growth over Human History

World Bank Population Page

 UN World Population Prospects

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