Flicking though the Herald Sun this morning I came across a remarkable article warning about a projected 45% increase in food prices over the coming decade.
The same story is reproduced in Adelaide Now:
CONSUMERS forced to eat more processed foods because of soaring fresh food prices face serious health consequences, science experts warn. Social science Professor Geoffrey Lawrence, from the University of Queensland Global Change Institute, said multiple factors were “conspiring” to lift the cost of healthy food by up to 40 per cent in the next decade.
The Institute is hosting a food security summit in Brisbane…
…Factor in rising costs of energy, fuel and fertiliser, climate change and water shortages and it’s easy to see there’s a problem, he said.
Another important factor driving food prices higher is demand from the developing world, “particularly South-East Asia where, in about 10 or 15 years time, there will be 250 million people who will have the same purchasing capacity as we have in Australia”.
“That’s just in Asia alone,” Professor D’Occhio said.
“The increased capacity to buy food will push prices up.”
No doubt most people will glance over it, paying little attention to what this signals. However, for those of us following the climate change debate are fully aware of the emerging crisis.
Bill McKibben in his prescient book “Eaarth” warns that it is not the rising temperatures or sea levels that will impact us first, it will be the increasing scarcity of food.
While we may not notice the rising temperatures on a day-to-day basis, we will certainly see the impact of climate change on the supermarket shelf.
As this recent study shows, there has been a 10% decline in plant growth over the past 10 years as the result of increased droughts, deforestation and land degradation. Fish stocks are close to collapse, denying billions another food source.
The agricultural and food industries are dependent for fossil fuels both for fertilisers (oil is a basic component of most modern fertilisers) and transport. With both peak oil and climate change hitting these sectors, it’s inevitable that food prices are going to go up.
For those in the developed world the days of cheap and plentiful food are coming to end. No more Californian strawberries flown in during the middle of the Melbourne winter.
For those in the developing world, it means going hungry. We’ve seen a glimpse of the future in 2008 as food riots erupted around the globe in response to rising prices.
This year, Russia put a hold on grain exports due to the loss of more than 20% of its crops - partly caused by extreme drought conditions brought on by climate change.
Governments and military are planning ahead
If you’ve not read any of the works of Canadian Gwynne Dyer, do so. His book “Climate Wars” is grim but essential reading.
Dyer writes about the security and military aspects of climate change, and has a great deal of contact with military planners around the globe. While the deniers are still trying to confuse the public about the science, the various militaries of the world are quietly planning for a future in which global warming is driver of conflicts.
Topping the list of their concerns is food security.
In an August article Dyer wrote;
Two problems are going to converge and merge in the next 10 or 15 years, with dramatic results. One is the fact that global grain production, which kept up with population growth from the 1950s to the 1990s, is no longer doing so. It may even have flatlined in the past decade, although large annual variations make that uncertain. Whereas the world’s population is still growing.
The world grain reserve, which was 150 days of eating for everybody on the planet 10 years ago, has fallen to little more than a third of that. (The “world grain reserve” is not a mountain of grain somewhere, but the sum of all the grain from previous harvests that is still stored in various places just before the next big Northern Hemisphere harvest comes in.)
We now have a smaller grain reserve globally than a prudent civilization in Mesopotamia or Egypt would have aimed for 3,000 years ago. Demand is growing not just because there are more people, but because there are more people rich enough to put more meat into their diet. So things are very tight even before climate change hits hard.
The second problem is, of course, global warming. The rule of thumb is that with every one-degree C rise in average global temperature, we lose 10 percent of global food production. In some places, the crops will be damaged by drought; in others by much hotter temperatures. Or, as in Russia’s case today, by both.
So food production will be heading down as demand continues to increase, and something has to give. What will probably happen is that the amount of internationally traded grain will dwindle as countries ban exports and keep their supplies for themselves. That will mean that a country can no longer buy its way out of trouble when it has a local crop failure: there will not be enough exported grain for sale.
This is the vision of the future that has the soldiers and security experts worried: a world where access to enough food becomes a big political and strategic issue even for developed countries that do not have big surpluses at home. It would be a very ugly world indeed, teeming with climate refugees and failed states and interstate conflicts over water (which is just food at one remove).
During the 19th Century Ireland experienced a devastating famine that killed a million people and saw just as many immigrate.
The Irish refer to the “Great Potato Famine” as the “an Gorta Mor”, or the “Great Hunger”.
Sadly famine has always been with us, however climate change will most likely increase the likelihood of even more “Great Hungers”.