The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has released a new Food Outlook, and the news isn't great.
Global wheat and rice production have both suffered setbacks this year as Russia has suffered from drought and Pakistan from floods. Poor cassava harvests in Asia are also a concern, given that cassava is the staple food of nearly a billion people. Tight supply has caused prices to rise for these and other food commodities.
The fear is that we'll face another global food crisis like the one that caused riots in several countries in 2008. The FAO suggests it's not time to panic yet, but a little worry would be appropriate:
Amid fears of a repeat of the price surge experienced in 2008, FAO expects supplies of major food crops in 2010/11 to be more adequate than two years ago, mainly because of much larger reserves. The fact that supplies of rice, wheat and white maize, the most important staple food crops in many vulnerable countries, are also more ample lessens the risk of a repeat of the 2007/08 crisis in the current season. Nonetheless, following a series of unexpected downward revisions to crop forecasts in several major producing countries, world prices have risen alarmingly and at a much faster pace than in 2007/08.
... With the pressure on world prices of most commodities not abating, the international community must remain vigilant against further supply shocks in 2011 and be prepared.
The last time I wrote about fears of another global food crisis, commenters suggested a couple of interesting links: Raj Patel writing in the Guardian about the persistence of global hunger and its links to international trade policies, and Robin Pagnamenta of The Times (England) pointing out that some crops that would in the past have been used as food are now going to biofuel instead.
I would like to know both of your thoughts on finding the balance between global hunger and environmental integrity. The Green Revolution in the middle of the last century was great at helping solve problems concerning world food supplies, but are the negative environmental impacts of industrial farming being taken into account when measuring its success? After al, it was questionable practices in fertilizer, hybrid seeds, irrigation of fresh water and pesticides that lead to such a revolution and allowed our human population to continue to grow at an unsustainable rate. And my last question is this, what amount of food would each human have to consume (if distribution were not a problem) for the world to be fed adequately with responsible farming practices?
Let's hope 2011 is a good year for food growth; otherwise the prospects look bleak, especially for the poorest people in the poorest countries.
Ellen: I share your concerns and would add that the GR did a couple of more things. It converted a large fraction of the globe's lowland areas from forest to cropland. It also boosted population a great deal. These led to our current conundrum, how to repeat the GR at a much larger scale when new, fertile, lowland areas that contributed so much to the past GR are pretty much exhausted. There is a third problem that interacts with the other two; most agricultural productivity goes to the wealthiest people. The poor, who are the descendants of those displaced from their agricultural endeavors during the last GR, have to be brought into the solution. Big problems.
As Don says, one of the big problems is with the distribution of the food that's grown - a disproportionate share of it goes to the wealthy. Another distribution issue is how much grain goes to feed livestock, when it would be much more efficient to feed the grain directly to people. So, the amount of food each human would have to consume varies depending on what kind of food it is.
I hope during the next century we'll see agricultural innovations that increase food production without creating additional environmental problems. I'm encouraged by efforts to use water more efficiently in agriculture and ideas like vertical urban farming. But we'll still need to address the current lopsided distribution of food.