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
Tags: , , , ,

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.
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