Food – A Growing Problem

There’s one huge problem with food – with a rising global population we need more of it, and yet with climate change beginning to bite, we can grow less of it.

It doesn’t take a maths genius to tell that’s not a good combination when it comes to calories on the plate.

Right now, as I write, there is still widespread flooding across some of the UK’s most fertile farmland, so any winter crops in those areas have been lost (drowned) and it’s going to be a struggle to get machinery onto the flooded soil in time to replant with spring crops. This will, naturally enough, mean that this year’s harvest is very likely to be smaller than usual. Less harvest in means higher prices for the food we want to eat, more imports, more food miles, higher carbon emissions….

At the moment there are also drought conditions in large portions of the USA – just check the pretty colours on the USA Drought Monitor maps! – and this will severely the US harvest this year unless things turn around pretty sharply. Looking on a larger scale at the Global Drought Monitor, it’s clear that there could well be problems with harvests in a number of regions and countries around the world.

Fortunately, the 2012/13 harvest was a good one and food stocks are available (check the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s data here ) but it’s a worrying thought that the world ‘stock’ of cereal is only about a quarter of what’s used in the world each year. Bad harvests don’t necessarily mean we’re all going to starve – it does however mean the price of food will go up.

Over the next few decades, global population is forecast to reach just over 9 billion by 2050, then begin to decline towards the end of the century. At present we have 7 billion mouths to feed – and many people in the world don’t get enough to eat as it is. In the next 3 decades, we need to find enough food to feed another 2 billion people, and to ensure an adequate level of nutrition for those 9 billion people, we need to about double food production in the world.

We’re already using 40% of the world’s land for agriculture, and a lot of what’s not already cultivated is unsuitable, being desert, ice cap, tundra or forest. We don’t want to destroy forests to grow food – forests are a huge carbon sink and a vital part of the planet’s ‘lungs’, producing oxygen and helping lock up carbon dioxide from the air. Besides, what about the wildlife that lives in these un-cultivated areas? Do we exterminate them to feed ourselves? Don’t they have a right to exist? What if we drive a species extinct that then turns out to be vital for something we depend on, that we didn’t know we needed? (That’s not so far-fetched as it might sound – there’s a species of tree in Madagascar that can no longer reproduce because it relied on the dodo for germination of its seeds, and if we do continue using pesticide cocktails at the current high rates and lose the pollinating insects whose populations have crashed in recent years, we will certainly lose a lot of plants that rely on bees and other pollinators for their reproduction – including fruit bushes and trees!)

If we don’t want to clear any more of the Earth’s surface for agriculture, that leaves us with making the existing land more productive. If we look at this article from the International Food Policy Research Institute, in the past agricultural productivity has succeeded in keeping pace with population growth – but there has been a downturn in productivity growth, and indeed in productivity in some places, in recent years.

In short, we’re looking at producing more food, for more people, preferably off not-much-more land, and yet the trends at the moment are pointing in the wrong direction – down, instead of up.

What can we do, on an individual level, when it comes to food supplies? I’ve put my thoughts on food strategies here.

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