Can science prevent the great global food crisis?

Previous agricultural revolutions have saved us from starvation – and we need another one now, says Michael Hanlon.

The storm is coming. One of the great dependables of modern life – cheap food – may be about to disappear. If a growing number of economists and scientists are to be believed, we are witnessing a historic transition: from an era when the basics of life have been getting ever more affordable, to a new period when they are ever more expensive.

For those of us in Britain, the severity of the situation is not yet fully apparent. Indeed, we are still living in something of a fool’s paradise. A century ago, people in this country spent more than half their incomes on food; for the poorer classes, that proportion was even greater. One of the most extraordinary phenomena since has been the relentless fall in the cost of feeding ourselves. Today, our shopping baskets now account for just 11 per cent of our average budget.

Globally, food is still cheap: but new data from the World Bank shows that it may not remain that way for long. A combination of factors – not all related to simple supply and demand – has seen basic prices for crops including wheat, soya and maize rise by tens of percentage points. Some foods are a third dearer in real terms than they were five years ago; after two decades of almost laughably cheap food (remember those 20p loaves of bread and £2 chickens?) supermarket shoppers are starting to feel the pinch.

In the rich world, it takes a while for food-price inflation to have an effect. But in poorer regions even modest rises can have massive consequences: it was a spike in the price of bread as much as political dissent that sparked the Arab Spring, for example.

Is disaster inevitable? Ever since the days of Thomas Malthus, who famously predicted in the 18th century that population increases would far outstrip gains in food production, those who have foreseen global famine have been proved relentlessly wrong. As the world’s population has doubled and almost redoubled (in 1900 there were about 1.7 billion people alive; this now stands at a little over seven billion), the era of mass starvation has stubbornly failed to arrive.

TDT

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8 responses to “Can science prevent the great global food crisis?

  1. Floods and droughts have ravaged the food supply for humans ever since agriculture was invented about 11,000 years ago. The population grows when food is plentiful, and diminishes when food is scarce. The industrial development of abundant energy just a couple hundred years ago permitted the transportation of food between regions on a large enough scale that food supplies are now far less affected by the vagaries of regional weather and seasonal variability. There is now enough food produced worldwide to feed the world well, and still waste some in frivolous projects like corn-fed trucking. The problem lies in distribution. The solution is to further develop the distribution network (more fuel, more vehicles, more roads and bridges) to get the food to where the people live who are enduring a local flood or drought-induced famine.
    Redistribution of wealth is destructive; it takes wealth away from those who manage it well and wastes it on those who cannot manage it at all. Even the chronically poor can manage eating. Redistribution of food is needed, along with a transportation network to handle the task.

    • “Redistribution of food is needed, along with a transportation network to handle the task.”

      Nah.

      Let the people move to where the food is. If you can’t grow food where you are, it’s time to move.

  2. “If a growing number of economists and scientists are to be believed, we are witnessing a historic transition:” If I had a nickel for every time that phrase was used, it would be an historic transition: of my finances.

    I was thinking the same basic thing, tadchem. Systematic starvation is caused by redistributive systems and remedy is prevented by restrictive systems. Green thinking is a combination.

  3. “…those who have foreseen global famine have been proved relentlessly wrong.”

    ‘Nuff said.

  4. How many people could be fed with just the wasted food in our school lunchrooms?

  5. This is one time that science CAN save us if they will shoot enough government officials.

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