Zara’s Space on the Web – Musings

October 4, 2013

We don’t actually need to grow that much more food

Filed under: Economics,Food — zarazilla @ 5:46 am
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I wrote this for a forum post on the Coursera Sustainability course I mentioned in my last post and figured since I spent time on it I might as well post it here!

Basically I am arguing that the Jonathan Foley TED video “The other inconveient truth”  that we were asked to watch says that we need to grow 2 to 3 times more food because of a growing population (the estimate is population stabilizes around 2050 at around 9.6 billion people).  So what they are saying is that you need 200-300% more food for 37% more people (assuming world population is currently 7 billion).  What do they base this off of?  That most demand will come from people in developing nations eating more meat and possibly turning food into biofuels.

I disagree that everybody needs/will be eating the amount of meat people in the current developed nations are eating and that we will continue to turn food into biofuel (which gives you 1.2 units of energy for every 1 unit you put in… in other words a very poor energy ratio).

Say, for the purposes of this point, that we reach our limit of food production, due to water, space, whatever before we get to 200%.  This is essentially a limit on the supply of food, which will naturally cause the price of food to go up.  Well the price of meat will go up much more than the price of grains/vegetables, because the cost of feeding livestock is competing against the cost of feeding humans, so the cost of meat will rise as a multiple of the cost of grains/vegetables.  This will cause less meat to be bought.
So yes, food will be more expensive, but it will still be affordable, and it will not be scarce.  Meat will become a premium product, just as it used to be 40 years ago in the developed countries and just as it currently is in the developing countries.  Nobody needs to eat meat 2-3 times a day 7 days a week, although certainly the richest will continue to do so.  But the middle class may cut down on the amount of meat they eat; although they will still be able to afford it regularly.  In fact the US is currently reducing meat consumption per capita.
The main issue I see is the issue as it is today – distribution/equality.  As food prices rise, will we once again leave behind the poorest while the richest chow down on meat that’s been feed the grains the poorest should have?  There will certainly be enough to eat, but not if everybody insists on eating meat 21 meals a week.
As for biofuels… I’d certainly hope our energy needs won’t be so severe as to continue using scarce food for inefficient bio-fuels.  As food gets more expensive, the cost-effectiveness of using it for bio-fuel should decrease, leading to people producing energy from other sources.  So if we are so desperate as to use expensive food for bio-fuels, then we are in a lot of trouble indeed.  I doubt this will happen though, as the cost of renewable forms of energy have become a lot cheaper to produce and continue on a downward trend.
(TL;DR) So let’s be clear – we don’t NEED to produce 3x more food.  We only need that if we want EVERYBODY to be eating cheap meat and to continue using inefficent biofuel sources.

October 3, 2013


Filed under: Economics — zarazilla @ 2:51 pm
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While unemployed I’m refreshing my sustainability knowledge by taking Coursera’s Sustainability Course. This week the focus is on water and agriculture.  I’ve also recently sent out my (5 year old!) thesis on reducing slash and burn agriculture in Indonesia to a potential employer as a writing sample.  These two combined have got me thinking of a conversation I had in a village in Sumatra (Indonesia) while conducting research for my thesis.  I think of this conversation often and would like to share it.

Surveys over for the day, my translator and I were chatting with the local farmers who were curious about life in the UK.  One of them asked me “Are farmers in the UK struggling like us?” I laughed at first, thinking it was a joke, until I realised they were all looking at me quite seriously and my translator pointed out that the farmer was serious.

“No”, I replied. “Farmers in the west are generally rich”.

The farmer looked pleased.  “I’m glad”, he said. “They are my brothers, and I am happy they are doing well”.

I looked at him in consternation.  He was so generous, and so genuinely comforted by the fact that his ‘brothers’ in the UK were doing well, I didn’t even know whether I could, or even should, explain that they were rich because of government subsidies, and that that the food they grew, cheaper because of government subsidies, competed with the food farmers in developing countries grew, both within their own countries and in developing countries, and how this meant that his well-off ‘brothers’ in the West were actually contributing to his and fellow farmers in developing countries’ poverty. How not only that, but the ones in the West were also part of campaigns to the public to ask them to buy produce only from their countries, therefore contributing even more to developing country farmers’ poverty.

Well, after his proclamation of happiness, I couldn’t spoil that for him. But I just wished, hoped, that the very same ‘brothers’ he were genuinely happy for at least spared a kind thought for him at least once in a while.

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