An Gorta Mór: the coming food security crisis

Ireland: the Great Potato Famine of the 19th Century

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.

And that:

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”.


15 thoughts on “An Gorta Mór: the coming food security crisis

  1. FYI, typo, first sentence, “article war[n]ing about..”
    Yesterday, I came by this interesting article from a couple years ago which looked at the GFC in relation to oil prices – one point was that China was competing for oil on the same playing field as the US, much the same as with food as quoted here.

    “Fish stocks are close to collapse, denying billions another food source.” I’d go further and say that in most oceans this has already occured – we’re only fishing in small pockets with enough supply to make the great expense of fishing viable.. and we really to too far with deep sea trolling – we know next to nothing of deep sea ecology and yet strip all edible species from deep waters wherever we can find them. I think the last straw has already occurred, we’re just not monitoring the oceans well enough to be aware of this.

    Talking of peaking oil, oil prices in a decade have tripled – if not quadrupled. I’m thinking this evening to look up oil prices over the decades – on that basic level, from a financial point of view, I suspect oil has peaked or is on that apex. It won’t get cheaper and with almost all things tied to it, we’re in for a tough time ahead.

    Another thing I worry about is that while fuel was cheap and abundant, industry has moved to where labour was cheap and environmental concerns were low – developing nations. I suspect, when industry is forced back closer to home, the damage done to those areas will be finally noted. They’ve not had any long term vision and are likely to have little left (plus a degraded environment) when industry moves on again.

    We really must put more attention into sensible planing and adaptation to human activity if we’re likely to smooth out the ride at all – and we must do this while oil is still relatively cheap because we cannot make changes without energy or by moving back to a pre-industrial society.

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      I’m currently reading “Lifeboar cities” by Brendan Gleeson, which says much the same thing.

      I’ll be writing a review of the book, however for those interested I’d recommend you Google/read the book. He has some very interesting things to say, in particular his views on urban development.

      Short story: Australians live in the cities and suburbs, thus this should be the basis of our planning. He argues that the suburbs may provide a good foundation for developing resilient communities that can absorb the multiple shocks of AGW, peak oil etc.

      Given your “Innovation Series” discussed such things, I thought I’d recommend it to you Tim.

      [Typo corrected, thanks]

  2. adelady says:

    I rather suspect that a lot of food researchers will be visiting Havana to see the urban food production system there. Losing all access to oil due to the combination of the collapse of the USSR and the continuing embargoes against Cuba, Havana’s been converted to a system of growing food on small local areas with compost instead of oil-based fertilisers.

    Cities with large suburban populations with ample unused plots, and we’re talking 5m by 5m here, not broadacre farming, will need to organise their water and energy and food supply policies around self-sufficient and community based production. Not that hard. We were doing it 40 odd years ago.

    Fruit and nut trees as roadside planting anyone?

  3. adelady says:

    Water tanks. Everything old is new again. (I’ve got one, a proper one, not one of those little pretend ones.)

  4. adelady says:

    They’re really designed for Sydney and other places with summer rainfall, so the tank is just a temporary holding device. For places with long, dry summers, you need real, honest to God water storage.

    The other thing you need , which I hadn’t thought about until I heard a radio gardening program, is to redirect water during the rainy season. The best place for water storage is the soil. Reminded me that the overflow from my granny’s rainwater tank didn’t go into the stormwater system. It ran the whole length of the backyard and finished up in a bamboo patch. There were 6 large fruit trees along that brick drain. They really didn’t need any summer watering until after fruit pick.

  5. Watching the Deniers says:

    I’ve installed a 5,000 litre tank and currently thinking about both drought proofing the garden and looking at what fruit bearing plants and/or veggies are going to be suitable.

    As they say, everything old is new again.

    In Australia, the post-war years were blessed with a couple of decades of really good rains, so naturally people thought that would be the “new normal”. Both our water usage and habits reflected the belief that there would always be enough water. Given that a) Australia is a dry continent and b) GW is going to make it drier it really is time to drop that mind set and think about life on a drier continent.

    Hey, anyone read Dune? We won’t be wearing Stillsuits, but water will come to dominate our thinking.

  6. adelady says:

    Pistachios are good. Ours do fine with virtually no summer water. Artichokes and asparagus are great. Asparagus is esp good despite needing summer watering because by then the crop is off and you can use waste water from cooking and from laundry rinse water without affecting taste or edible qualities, they actually like salt. And artichokes barely need water at all, compost is more important so long as they have enough water to just stay alive. Just don’t bother with heading lettuce or other things that are supersensitive to evenness as well as quantities of water. Join Diggers.

    The other big thing about homegrown veg, is that you pick small and gourmet size – rather than trying to grow a big head of broccoli, you just grow it big enough to pick and keep young ones coming on. So you don’t wast water on maintaining a big plant.

  7. Hoover says:

    [Comments removed due to rude and insulting nature]

    Mike @ WtD

    • Why did you let this comment go live? This guy is deliberately insulting/provocative.

      Hey, instead of calling someone an idiot, why not debate the reasoning behind why you disagree.

      You’re comment is mediocre, pointless and somewhat hypocritical as you’re accusing others of doing a poor job. The point of a good debate is to get the bottom of certain ideas. The point of a bad debate is belittlement, ego-stimulation and quite frankly base-level pecking order childishness.

      • Watching the Deniers says:

        [Good point Moth, I was released a batch of comments having been away for a few days, and did not read the whole thing]

  8. Hoover says:

    @mothincarnate It’s not a question of “getting to the bottom of certain ideas”, it’s a question of getting easily-verifiable facts right.

    The post still says “As this recent study shows, there has been a 10% decline in plant growth over the past 10 years”, which is not true.

    It’s ironic that there’s a recent satirical post on this blog, mocking people who get their facts wrong: “Here I just MAKE STUFF UP because I’M SO ANGRY!”

  9. Watching the Deniers says:

    Backing up, there has been a decline in plant growth during the last 10 years – I’d remove the reference to the % decline. My typo, which I’ll correct. I’m happy to have errors corrected, no matter the source of the correction.

    Hoover, I’m happy if you want to dbeate here – but please abide by the rules of civilised debate.


  10. @Hoover,
    it is about getting to the bottom of certain ideas and as new evidence comes to light that adds weight to the argument, we become ever more certain of our assertions. This is all part of the debate.

    Mike’s pointed out his typo, which he’s happy to fix. However your initial comment was not constructive on any level. You didn’t point out the error so much just started calling the author an idiot, so my reply to your original comment stands.

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