Peak Food

The growing challenge of feeding civilization

By Darrin Qualman

February 2007

We are now consistently consuming more food than we produce. The implications of this fact will shake the industrial food system to its very roots.

Illustration by Alain Goncalves

HUMANITY IS IN THE FASTEST, most sustained food supply drawdown in the 46-year period for which we have data. Moreover, excepting the World Wars, it is probable we�re seeing the fastest, most sustained drawdown in a century, maybe longer.

Worldwide, in six of the past seven years, we consumed more grain than farmers produced. We’ve cut supplies in half over that seven-year period, reducing our grain-on-hand from a 115-day supply to a 57-day supply.

World grain supplies have now fallen to levels not seen since 1973. The problem isn’t merely that supplies have returned to record lows, but rather that there is every indication that they will continue falling. The steep, consistent, and unprecedented decline evident over the past seven years indicates not just the vagaries of weather or production cycles, but rather a systemic problem at the core of our food system that, left unchecked, will lead to significant shortages. These shortages have already begun to manifest themselves; they will intensify over the next two to five years.

“The steep, consistent, and unprecedented decline of world grain supplies over the past seven years indicates a systemic problem at the core of our food system.”

1973 all over again?

GRAIN SUPPLIES HAVE fallen back to 1973 levels; but 2007 is not 1973. In 1973, nearly half of western Canadian cropland was fallow—-left un-seeded every second year. Now, we seed and harvest nearly every acre every year. In 1973, farmers were using relatively modest amounts of fertilizer and pesticides. Today, farmers around the world are using high-tech seeds, a long menu of pesticides, and mega-tonnes of fertilizer. Since 1973, worldwide use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer has risen dramatically. According to University of Manitoba professor Dr. Vaclav Smil, humans are now producing so much fertilizer that the amount of nitrogen cycling in the biosphere is double pre-industrial levels. Nitrogen fertilizer is made directly from natural gas. In a very real sense, we’re turning fossil fuels into food.

In 1973, we had “excess capacity” in our food production system. Between 1973 and 1986, we used that capacity to ramp up production (see graph). Today, we have little excess capacity to fall back on. Further, the 1973 grain supply trough was created partly through government policy efforts to curb production, including a paid land set-aside program in Western Canada—-Operation LIFT. In contrast, our current shortfall comes amid efforts to maximize production.

In 1973, most countries had yet to encounter water supply limits, and global climate change lay far in our future. Today, both water scarcity and climate change threaten food production.

In 1973, there were abundant stocks of cod off Canada’s Grand Banks, the world’s oceans were teaming with fish, and catches were rising. Today, nearly one-third of ocean fisheries have collapsed (declined to less than ten percent of their original yield). That figure is projected to reach two-thirds in just 20 years (see Nature, May 15, 2003). That grim outlook is corroborated by a recent study that projects the collapse of all fish stocks by 2048 (see Science, November 3, 2006) Wild-caught fish tonnage has been declining since the late-1980s; the slack has been taken up by often environmentally damaging fish farming. We’re past “peak fish.”

In spite of unprecedented and unsustainable efforts to maximize food production through industrial means, we are not keeping up with current levels of consumption. And we have not even begun to take seriously the implications of climate change or energy and water scarcity. On the production side, our current model is in deep trouble.

A growing population and a static land base

GLOBAL POPULATION IS INCREASING by 73 million people per year. That’s the equivalent of adding the population of North America to the planet every six years. According to UN estimates, we’re on track to add six or seven of those North-American-population-equivalents before numbers level off.

Despite claims of vast uncultivated land in Brazil and elsewhere, cropland additions (often gained at the expense of rainforests, savannahs, and wildlife habitat) are only just keeping up with losses (to erosion, salinization, urbanization, etc.). UN data shows that global arable (cultivated) land area has remained relatively stable over the past decade at 3.46 billion acres. Further, the data shows a slow but consistent decrease in arable acreage since 2001. After centuries of expansion, our cropland base has reached its limit.

In per-capita terms, however, our land base is quickly shrinking. In part because of rapid population growth, the amount of cropland per person has been falling for decades. In both absolute and per-capita terms, we’re past “peak land.”

It is critical that we understand the implications of this: for decades we’ve skirted the problem of declining per-capita cropland area by injecting increasing amounts of fossil-fuel-derived nitrogen into our soil, making one acre produce as two. Energy depletion and the need to deal with climate change, however, will soon rein in our use of fossil-fuel-derived nitrogen. The magnitude of the challenge this will create cannot be overstated.

What about prices?

BEFORE WE TAKE A MORE COMPLEX look at population growth and food consumption, let’s look briefly at grain prices and the plight of family farms.

According to supply and demand theory, when demand exceeds supply, prices should rise. But despite grain demand outstripping supply, prices remain near record lows. When adjusted for inflation, grain prices are at levels comparable to the 1930s.

In the 52 years between 1933 and 1985, the inflation-adjusted price of wheat never once dipped below seven dollars per bushel. In the 21 years since 1985, however ,the inflation-adjusted price has remained below the seven-dollar mark every year but one. Today, wheat sells for four dollars per bushel; the inflation-adjusted price of wheat in 1973 topped $21 per bushel.

Similarly, prices for barley, corn, canola, and other grains and oilseeds are half to one-third the “normal” values of the 1933 to 1985 period.

Current grain prices don’t reflect supply and demand; they reflect, rather, a dramatic power imbalance in the marketplace. Our agri-food chain stretches from oil wells at one end to drive-through restaurants at the other. Every link of that chain is controlled by a few corporate giants; the only exception is the family farm link. Further, every link is characterized by record or near-record profits; the only exception, again, is the family farm link, where farmers are shouldering near-record losses. Market power, not supply and demand, determines prices and profits within the global food chain. For that reason, record low supplies can coexist with record low prices.

Population and consumption: a more complex picture emerges

FOOD SUPPLIES ARE SHRINKING AND population is increasing. When thinking about global population, however, the dangerous notion that people in the developing world are becoming too numerous and eating up all our food—-which will likely gain currency as this problem intensifies—-must be challenged, for it is both infantile in its oversimplication and inherently racist in its conception. Rather than blame others, we North Americans must look at our own food overconsumption and its significant role in fueling global food insecurity.

In North America, we grow a lot of corn and soybeans. We consume little of this corn directly. Instead, much of it is fractionated�split into starches, oils, and sweeteners. We use those corn sweeteners to produce colas and doughnuts and other food-value-reduced “snack” foods. Even as we subtract food value by processing, we increase calorie intake. “Corn-fed” North Americans are ballooning as obesity rates rise. World-wide, the number of overweight people now rivals the number of mal-nourished people.

The balance of the North American corn crop is fed to pigs and cattle. Estimates vary, but our feedlot-finishing system for beef requires approximately 4.8 kgs of grain protein to produce a kilogram of beef protein. It’s not that beef production is inherently bad—-humans have raised cattle for millennia because grazing cattle can convert grasses and shrubs into human food. The problem with North American cattle production, rather, is our choice to maximize production by feeding grain to cattle rather than letting them graze.

Pig production is even more inefficient. Because we raise hogs in confined barns, the hogs never graze. It takes approximately 6.9 kgs of high-quality grain protein to produce one kilogram of pork protein.

Much of the North American barley crop is also fed to animals, as is a significant part of the wheat crop. Nearly half the soybean crop is fed to animals (mostly to chickens), and much of the rest is turned into oils to deep-fry fast foods.

To this overconsumption, over-processing, and inefficient livestock feeding, we North America are now introducing yet another way to consume the world’s food supplies: ethanol and biodiesel. What we can’t eat or feed to livestock, we’ll pour into our SUVs. Before we point fingers at population growth elsewhere, we should acknowledge that we’re consuming food as if we each had three stomachs.

Towards some solutions

OVERLY SIMPLISTIC ANALYSES OF THE looming food shortage can lead to wrong-headed, even dangerous, ideas for what to do about it. Our governments and their corporate partners—-already committed to high-tech, high-input, high-energy-use production systems�will be inclined to use any talk of food shortages as a pretext to further rev-up production in developed countries, to use more inputs and fossil energy, to push industrial agriculture to produce still more, and to dump more export grain onto world markets. This approach is not only not a solution—-it’s a giant step in the wrong direction.

The solution, rather, is to strengthen local food production systems around the world—-to foster a diversity of food production models, each one tailored to its landscape and region and, for that reason, input and energy efficient. If we are to add an additional three billion people to the global population, as UN estimates suggest we will, then continued production in North America and other developed nations will, of course, be needed. But we must stop forcing this production onto other nations in the name of “free trade”; our current export-maximization model only destabilizes and undermines production in other nations.

As we approach ecological and energy-supply limits, we must concede that our high-input, high-energy-use food production systems are the least efficient in the world. Food can be grown with less energy and fewer greenhouse gas emissions in developing nations using labour- and skill-intensive traditional methods. And local food takes far less energy to transport, refrigerate, distribute, and retail than imported or processed food. With ecological and energy limits now pressing down on us, it would be a disaster to make the world even more dependant on globally transported maximum-energy-use food supplies.

We also must concede that high-tech, high-input, high-energy-use industrialized agriculture is the least profitable production system in the world. In nearly every country where farmers produce in this way—-the US, EU, Canada, etc.—-multi-billion-dollar subsidies are needed to keep farmers on the land. Canadian and US farm subsidies total $50 to $100 per acre. Our input-overdependant farmers are losing money. On the other hand, most peasant farmers, using hoes or draft animals, saving seeds, and using natural fertility processes, are making positive returns. We must stop allowing export production from our money-losing, inefficient food production systems to flood into other nations and critically injure their own highly efficient and profitable production systems.

Diversity, resilience, energy-efficiency, local self-reliance, justice, and food sovereignty: these are the principles that must guide us as we grapple with multiple food system pathologies. The rapid drawdown of food and energy supplies currently underway mean we must act quickly.

Darrin Qualman is the Director of Research for the National Farmers Union.

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The folly of biofuels

Proponents of the status quo would have us believe that we can:

1) solve the world’s existing hunger problems,

2) feed an additional 2.5 to 3 billion people,

3) proliferate a meat-based diet,

4) restore sustainability and reduce fossil fuel use in our food production systems, and

5) power the world’s growing car fleet by turning food into fuel.

Biofuels are made from grains and oilseeds that are themselves largely the creation of fossil fuels—-in the form of fertilizers, chemicals, and tractor and truck fuel. Bio-fuels are an energy shell game—-they are a way of turning energy into food into energy. Biofuels are a desperate attempt to keep our car culture going by diverting part of our energy-augmented food supply to create a food-augmented energy supply.

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