The Great Food Crisis of 2011
It's real, and it's not going away anytime soon.
BY LESTER BROWN | JANUARY 10, 2011
As the new year begins, the price of wheat is setting an all-time high in the United Kingdom. Food riots are spreading across Algeria. Russia is importing grain to sustain its cattle herds until spring grazing begins. India is wrestling with an 18-percent annual food inflation rate, sparking protests. China is looking abroad for potentially massive quantities of wheat and corn. The Mexican government is buying corn futures to avoid unmanageable tortilla price rises. And on January 5, the U.N. Food and Agricultural organization announced that its food price index for December hit an all-time high.
But whereas in years past, it's been weather that has caused a spike in commodities prices, now it's trends on both sides of the food supply/demand equation that are driving up prices. On the demand side, the culprits are population growth, rising affluence, and the use of grain to fuel cars. On the supply side: soil erosion, aquifer depletion, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, the plateauing of crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries, and -- due to climate change -- crop-withering heat waves and melting mountain glaciers and ice sheets. These climate-related trends seem destined to take a far greater toll in the future.
There's at least a glimmer of good news on the demand side: World population growth, which peaked at 2 percent per year around 1970, dropped below 1.2 percent per year in 2010. But because the world population has nearly doubled since 1970, we are still adding 80 million people each year. Tonight, there will be 219,000 additional mouths to feed at the dinner table, and many of them will be greeted with empty plates. Another 219,000 will join us tomorrow night. At some point, this relentless growth begins to tax both the skills of farmers and the limits of the earth's land and water resources.
Beyond population growth, there are now some 3 billion people moving up the food chain, eating greater quantities of grain-intensive livestock and poultry products. The rise in meat, milk, and egg consumption in fast-growing developing countries has no precedent. Total meat consumption in China today is already nearly double that in the United States.
The third major source of demand growth is the use of crops to produce fuel for cars. In the United States, which harvested 416 million tons of grain in 2009, 119 million tons went to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars. That's enough to feed 350 million people for a year. The massive U.S. investment in ethanol distilleries sets the stage for direct competition between cars and people for the world grain harvest. In Europe, where much of the auto fleet runs on diesel fuel, there is growing demand for plant-based diesel oil, principally from rapeseed and palm oil. This demand for oil-bearing crops is not only reducing the land available to produce food crops in Europe, it is also driving the clearing of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia for palm oil plantations.
The combined effect of these three growing demands is stunning: a doubling in the annual growth in world grain consumption from an average of 21 million tons per year in 1990-2005 to 41 million tons per year in 2005-2010. Most of this huge jump is attributable to the orgy of investment in ethanol distilleries in the United States in 2006-2008.
While the annual demand growth for grain was doubling, new constraints were emerging on the supply side, even as longstanding ones such as soil erosion intensified. An estimated one third of the world's cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming through natural processes -- and thus is losing its inherent productivity. Two huge dust bowls are forming, one across northwest China, western Mongolia, and central Asia; the other in central Africa. Each of these dwarfs the U.S. dust bowl of the 1930s.
Satellite images show a steady flow of dust storms leaving these regions, each one typically carrying millions of tons of precious topsoil. In North China, some 24,000 rural villages have been abandoned or partly depopulated as grasslands have been destroyed by overgrazing and as croplands have been inundated by migrating sand dunes.
In countries with severe soil erosion, such as Mongolia and Lesotho, grain harvests are shrinking as erosion lowers yields and eventually leads to cropland abandonment. The result is spreading hunger and growing dependence on imports. Haiti and North Korea, two countries with severely eroded soils, are chronically dependent on food aid from abroad.
Meanwhile aquifer depletion is fast shrinking the amount of irrigated area in many parts of the world; this relatively recent phenomenon is driven by the large-scale use of mechanical pumps to exploit underground water. Today, half the world's people live in countries where water tables are falling as overpumping depletes aquifers. Once an aquifer is depleted, pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge unless it is a fossil (nonreplenishable) aquifer, in which case pumping ends altogether. But sooner or later, falling water tables translate into rising food prices.
Irrigated area is shrinking in the Middle East, notably in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and possibly Yemen. In Saudi Arabia, which was totally dependent on a now-depleted fossil aquifer for its wheat self-sufficiency, production is in a freefall. From 2007 to 2010, Saudi wheat production fell by more than two thirds. By 2012, wheat production will likely end entirely, leaving the country totally dependent on imported grain.
The Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where spreading water shortages are shrinking the grain harvest. But the really big water deficits are in India, where the World Bank numbers indicate that 175 million people are being fed with grain that is produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping provides food for some 130 million people. In the United States, the world's other leading grain producer, irrigated area is shrinking in key agricultural states such as California and Texas.
The last decade has witnessed the emergence of yet another constraint on growth in global agricultural productivity: the shrinking backlog of untapped technologies. In some agriculturally advanced countries, farmers are using all available technologies to raise yields. In Japan, the first country to see a sustained rise in grain yield per acre, rice yields have been flat now for 14 years. Rice yields in South Korea and China are now approaching those in Japan. Assuming that farmers in these two countries will face the same constraints as those in Japan, more than a third of the world rice harvest will soon be produced in countries with little potential for further raising rice yields.
A similar situation is emerging with wheat yields in Europe. In France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, wheat yields are no longer rising at all. These three countries together account for roughly one-eighth of the world wheat harvest. Another trend slowing the growth in the world grain harvest is the conversion of cropland to nonfarm uses. Suburban sprawl, industrial construction, and the paving of land for roads, highways, and parking lots are claiming cropland in the Central Valley of California, the Nile River basin in Egypt, and in densely populated countries that are rapidly industrializing, such as China and India. In 2011, new car sales in China are projected to reach 20 million -- a record for any country. The U.S. rule of thumb is that for every 5 million cars added to a country's fleet, roughly 1 million acres must be paved to accommodate them. And cropland is often the loser.
Fast-growing cities are also competing with farmers for irrigation water. In areas where all water is being spoken for, such as most countries in the Middle East, northern China, the southwestern United States, and most of India, diverting water to cities means less irrigation water available for food production. California has lost perhaps a million acres of irrigated land in recent years as farmers have sold huge amounts of water to the thirsty millions in Los Angeles and San Diego.
The rising temperature is also making it more difficult to expand the world grain harvest fast enough to keep up with the record pace of demand. Crop ecologists have their own rule of thumb: For each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum during the growing season, we can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. This temperature effect on yields was all too visible in western Russia during the summer of 2010 as the harvest was decimated when temperatures soared far above the norm.
Another emerging trend that threatens food security is the melting of mountain glaciers. This is of particular concern in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau, where the ice melt from glaciers helps sustain not only the major rivers of Asia during the dry season, such as the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers, but also the irrigation systems dependent on these rivers. Without this ice melt, the grain harvest would drop precipitously and prices would rise accordingly.
And finally, over the longer term, melting ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica, combined with thermal expansion of the oceans, threaten to raise the sea level by up to six feet during this century. Even a three-foot rise would inundate half of the riceland in Bangladesh. It would also put under water much of the Mekong Delta that produces half the rice in Vietnam, the world's number two rice exporter. Altogether there are some 19 other rice-growing river deltas in Asia where harvests would be substantially reduced by a rising sea level.
The current surge in world grain and soybean prices, and in food prices more broadly, is not a temporary phenomenon. We can no longer expect that things will soon return to normal, because in a world with a rapidly changing climate system there is no norm to return to.
The unrest of these past few weeks is just the beginning. It is no longer conflict between heavily armed superpowers, but rather spreading food shortages and rising food prices -- and the political turmoil this would lead to -- that threatens our global future. Unless governments quickly redefine security and shift expenditures from military uses to investing in climate change mitigation, water efficiency, soil conservation, and population stabilization, the world will in all likelihood be facing a future with both more climate instability and food price volatility. If business as usual continues, food prices will only trend upward.
Why world food prices may keep climbing
Posted: 10 March 2011 Author: Lester Brown
In February, world food prices reached the highest level on record. Soaring food prices are already a source of spreading hunger and political unrest, and it appears likely that they will climb further in the months ahead.
As a result of an extraordinarily tight grain situation, this year's harvest will be one of the most closely watched in years. Last year, the world produced 2,180 million tons of grain. It consumed 2,240 million tons, a consumption excess that was made possible by drawing down stocks by 60 million tons. To avoid repeating last year's shortfall and to cover this year's estimated 40-million-ton growth in demand, this year's world grain harvest needs to increase by at least 100 million tons. Yet that would only maintain the current precarious balance between supply and demand.
To get prices back down to a more acceptable level, it would take perhaps another 50 million tons for a total increase of 150 million tons. Can the world boost this year's grain harvest by 150 million tons or even 100 million tons? It is possible, because we have had annual harvest jumps of 150 million tons twice over the last two decades, but this year it does not appear likely.
In assessing the world grain harvest prospect, we focus on the big three grains-rice, wheat, and corn-that together account for nearly 90 percent of the harvest. Barley, oats, sorghum, rye, and millet make up the remainder.
We start by looking at rice because, as an irrigated crop, its production fluctuates little. The average annual gain in the world rice harvest, which totaled 452 million tons last year, has been 7 million tons. Let's assume that we get a 10 million ton gain in rice this year.
Wheat, now the world's leading food grain, is much more difficult to assess because so much of the harvest is rain-fed, making yields as variable as the rainfall. But since most wheat is winter wheat, which is planted in the fall, is dormant in winter, and resumes growth in early spring, we know that this year the wheat area planted is up by 3 percent. We also have an early sense of the crop's condition.
We begin with the big four wheat producers-China, India, the United States, and Russia-which collectively produce half the world's wheat. China, the leading wheat producer, was until very recently suffering the worst drought in its winter wheat-growing region in 60 years. Although rain and snow in late February and early March rains and snow have lessened the drought effect, we could easily see China's wheat harvest drop from 115 million tons last year to 110 million tons this year. India officially expects an 82-million-ton harvest, up 1 million tons from last year.
In the United States-the third ranking wheat producer-the southern Great Plains are suffering from drought. As of the end of February, the U.S. winter wheat crop condition was among the worst in the last 20 years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the harvest will drop from 60 million tons to 56 million, and this may be conservative.
Russia's wheat harvest should be up sharply from last year's heat-devastated crop of 42 million tons. But last fall it was too dry to plant one fifth of its winter wheat, which means many more farmers will plant lower-yielding spring wheat-wheat that is planted in the spring and is harvested in the late summer or early fall. With a little luck, Russia should harvest roughly 58 million tons of wheat.
Adding in the rest of the world's expected wheat production, can we match last year's world wheat harvest figure of 645 million tons? We should exceed it. The International Grains Council estimates this year's harvest at 672 million tons, up by 27 million tons over 2010. This contrasts with the Canadian Wheat Board estimate of 653 million tons, a gain of only 8 million tons. For calculation purposes, let us assume that this year's wheat harvest is up by 20 million tons for a total of 665 million tons.
Now for corn. Two countries tell the story here: the United States and China, which produce 40 and 20 percent, respectively, of the 814-million-ton world corn harvest. Combining the expected 4 percent increase in U.S. planted area with a 10-ton-per-hectare yield, the U.S. corn harvest could increase by 25 million tons. China's corn harvest, which has fluctuated around 165 million tons for the last three years, is not likely to increase given its tight water situation. For the remaining 40 percent of the corn harvest, we will assume a gain of 15 million tons. All together this takes the world harvest up by 40 million tons.
Let's review the global numbers. It will take 100 million tons of additional grain just to maintain the current precarious situation and close to 150 million tons to restore some semblance of stability in the world grain market. We can count on a 10-million-ton increase in this year's rice harvest. We are hoping for a 20-million-ton rise with wheat and a 40-million-ton jump in corn. Let us also assume that minor cereals increase by 10 million tons over last year. This would give us a total increase of 80 million tons, not enough to prevent further price rises.
Estimating world grain production is becoming more complex and difficult. On the demand side of the equation, there are three sources of growth: the addition of 80 million people per year, some 3 billion people moving up the food chain consuming more grain-intensive livestock products, and the massive conversion of grain to fuel ethanol in the United States.
On the supply side, there was a time when grain production was on the rise almost everywhere. That world is now history. In a number of countries, grain harvests are shrinking because of aquifer depletion and severe soil erosion. Rising temperatures are also taking a toll. And some agriculturally advanced countries have run out of new technology to raise land productivity.
In 18 countries containing half the world's people, overpumping for irrigation is depleting aquifers. Among the countries where harvests are falling as aquifers are depleted are Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq. World Bank data for India indicate that 175 million people are being fed with grain produced by overpumping, which by definition is a short-term phenomenon. The comparable number for China is 130 million people.
In some countries such as Mongolia and Lesotho, grain production has fallen by half or more in recent decades as severe soil erosion has led to wholesale cropland abandonment. In North Korea and Haiti, soil erosion is undermining efforts to raise output.
In several agriculturally advanced countries, the backlog of unused technology has largely disappeared. Japan's rice yield per acre has not increased for 16 years. China's rice yield, now approaching that in Japan, may also be about to level off.
In France, Europe's leading wheat producer, yields have been flat for a decade. Wheat yields have also plateaued in Germany and the United Kingdom. In Egypt, Africa's leading wheat producer, wheat yields have been flat for six years.
At this point, it seems unlikely that we will get the 100-million-ton grain harvest increase this year that would be needed just to maintain the current rather precarious situation. Instead, it looks more likely that we will reduce stocks further. It may be somehow possible to avoid a rise in world food prices in the months ahead, but at this point it seems unlikely.
Copyright © 2011 Earth Policy Institute