Today's food crisis isn't a blip

By Paul E. Roberts
Thu May 22, 12:16 AM ET

For anyone wondering where food prices are really headed, the news that Beijing has begun buying up farmland in Africa and South America offers a troubling hint. When China began acquiring oil fields in the 1990s, it signaled both the end of China's self-sufficiency in oil and the start of a competition between China and other big oil importers that helped push crude prices to their current record levels. That the world's most populous nation now seeks to lock up pieces of foreign food production not only confirms that China has reached the end of food self-sufficiency as well, but suggests that Western hopes for a quick end to today's food-price crisis could be overly optimistic.

According to conventional wisdom, our food crunch is a temporary glitch. Because grain shortages are being caused by many factors — new demand by biofuel refineries, drought in Australia, among others — the pain can't last. Eventually, drought will abate. Biofuels programs will be reined in. Most important, farmers will plant more acres and boost global supplies, just as they always have during shortages. Food may never again be dirt cheap, but by next year, prices for key crops will swing back to a more moderate line. Right?

It's a comforting picture, to be sure. But as Beijing's real-estate spree suggests, food prices are being driven by deeper, more fundamental factors that won't be so easily resolved.

Food demand soaring

Consider how quickly food demand is accelerating. We've all heard how the developing world is rich enough to eat more meat. But the real story here isn't that global meat consumption will more than double by 2050; it's that each pound of extra meat will require, on average, at least 6 more pounds of livestock feed, meaning we'll need to substantially boost our grain output. And that's a problem, because even as demand soars, traditional methods for increasing supply are losing their punch.

No longer can farmers boost grain output simply by plowing up more land: Most of the world's readily farmable acres are already in crops, and what remains is performing other useful functions. In fact, the world is actively losing farmland — to erosion, overgrazing and development. Even in the USA, the inexorable spread of suburbs, malls and golf courses costs us nearly 2 acres of farmland for each birth or new immigrant.

Granted, the world has coped with land scarcity before. When India ran short in the 1960s and famine loomed, so-called Green Revolution technologies — higher-yield crops, synthetic fertilizers and massive irrigation — let farmers grow more bushels from the same acres. This time around, even as farmers gain powerful new technologies, they'll also be facing new constraints that will make a second Green Revolution harder to pull off.

For example, a farm built on cheap oil suffers when crude prices quadruple. But the larger problem might be the soaring price for natural gas, the main ingredient for synthetic fertilizer. The University of Manitoba's Vaclav Smil calculates that 40% of the world's calories are now produced with synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers. The idea that we must get through the next 50 years, and feed 4 billion more people, with fertilizers two to three times above today's prices, is more than a little breathtaking.

Expensive fertilizer is just the start. To grow a ton of grain, you need up to a thousand tons of water, which means our grain farmers must somehow find as much as a trillion extra tons of water — and this from a planet already seriously overdrawn on its water accounts.

A drain on water, too

Nearly one-sixth of the population of China and India are fed using amounts of water that can't be sustained. Some nations have even resorted to importing grain and soybeans rather than grow it themselves to save water. But this stopgap approach can't help hold off inevitable shortages: According to the International Water Management Institute, future farmers will need 17% more water than the world now has available. Just as nations compete for oil, China's move into foreign farms suggests competition for water isn't far off, either.

Lastly, there's climate. Even conservative scenarios suggest that in places such as Africa, where food output is already suffering, climatic shifts could make key crops, say wheat, impossible to grow. But the real story might be the damage done to grain powerhouses such as the USA and Europe, where an anticipated jump in "extreme weather events" could hurt crop yields and erode our power to export just as basket cases are most in need of our grain.

These are, of course, only scenarios based on current trends. Science could yet provide the tools to restore some of our superabundance. But given the new limits farmers face, those breakthroughs will need to be more miraculous than anything we've seen.

If we're serious about avoiding a repeat of today's food crisis, we'll need to significantly boost research in areas such as crop science, water conservation and natural fertilizers. Just as important, we'll need to recognize today's food crisis for what it is — not some once-in-a-lifetime perfect storm, but an early, and fairly tame, warning of the challenges ahead.

Paul E. Roberts is the author of the new book The End of Food.

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