Monster food prices cometh

Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) was a political economist whose theories influenced much political and economic thought in the years surrounding and following their publication. One of his most catastrophic predictions, the Malthusian theory of population (also called the Malthusian catastrophe or Malthusian disaster) was that the carrying capacity of agricultural land would be outstripped by the growth of population, therefore leading to a radical increase in food prices, political unrest and general chaos. He assumed, given the information he had on hand about agricultural practices, that crop yields would remain stable whereas the growth of population would follow an exponential curve. Even as more land came under production, the rapid growth rate of population would outstrip the capacity of the land to produce enough food to feed these new mouths, leading to major economic and social problems.

Malthusian catastrophe - population growth outstrips agricultural production capacity

However, thanks to scientific and agricultural innovations, food production has thus far outpaced population growth. Economists and politicians have derided the Malthusian theory for years (it has even earned the name of Malthusian Fallacy), assuming that modern science would forever provide the increases in agricultural production needed to sustain an ever-growing population. The 1960′s Green Revolution, the advent of modern industrial agricultural methods, the use of chemical fertilizers, the development of genetically modified crops and the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides have allowed for the dramatic increases in crop yields between Malthus’ own 18th century and today, forestalling the catastrophic outcomes predicted by the Malthusian theory of population.

Despite, or perhaps because of the fact that the industrial model of agriculture has managed to sustain such a heady growth of population since the 1800′s (from approximately 1 billion to over 6.5 billion worldwide today), we have come to ignore how precarious our worldwide food situation has truly become. Several convergent factors now render this situation even more unstable – we may yet see the advent of the Malthusian prophesy…or at least significantly higher food prices and subsequent socio-political instability.

The industrial model of agriculture relies on two basic premises. Firstly, the commodification and compartmentalization of food production – where producers, produce and animals are treated like replaceable machine parts, independent and interchangeable. Secondly, the exploitation of “free” natural systems (commonly called resources to reduce their value in the eyes of consumers) and cheap “inputs” of chemicals, fuel and manpower. As we approach the natural limits of the food production system on Earth, these assumptions will become unsustainable.

The natural plant world is a complex system, where millions of organisms support each other and feed each other in a never-ending web of life. The compartmentalization of the industrial model breaks this system wide open, extracting resources at a rate that pulls down the capital of the natural system. The most flagrant example is how the planting of annual grains in an intensive monoculture system has rapidly eroded the topsoil in agricultural areas. Topsoil, a living ecosystem that takes thousands of years to build, has been depleted in a few centuries by our reliance on annuals and monocultures. The thinning of the topsoil reduces its water retention capacity and fertility.

As a result, farmers increase irrigation to compensate for the reduced water retention and increase the application of chemical fertilizers to provide the soil with the lacking nitrogen, potassium and phosphate. The heavy application of chemical fertilizers is reliant on an abundant source of inexpensive petrol both for its nitrogen component and for its application. Petrol, a resource whose cost of extraction, whose availability, whose environmental cost and whose cost at the pump is only climbing. As if that were not enough, the phosphate component of fertilizer is either mined or extracted from animal carcasses. Along with petrol, mined phosphate is also rapidly becoming more expensive and scarce. The cost of doing business as usual is quickly increasing.

As the soil’s water retention capacity decreases, much of the irrigation water, pulled from the delicate underground water table at a rate faster than it can replenish itself, runs off fields to find its way into our streams and rivers, laden with much of the applied fertilizer. Additionally, the increased rate of irrigation leads to gradual salination of the soils (as the plants take up the water they need and leave the mineral salts behind), until the soils can no longer sustain plant growth. In several industrialized nations, as well as “Green Revolution” states such as India, underground water stores are getting shallower – making access more difficult and further concentrating the mineral salt content of the water pumped from the aquifers. The legacy of the Green Revolution is rapidly becoming one of salty sterile soils, depleted aquifers and ocean “dead-zones” where fertilizer runoff has resulted in oxygen depletion and the death of sea life.

In the past, when agricultural civilizations depleted such “natural resources” in their local area, they either died of famine or packed up and moved elsewhere. In a world where we are approaching limits of agricultural exploitation, when we poison or deplete our land – where will we move?

As food retailers and processors gain more and more economic control over farmers and primary producers, the economics of food is turning upside-down. Moving agriculture from a living, dynamic system into a market-driven commodity where uniformity of product and production capacity are demanded from farmers, no matter the environmental cost. Whereas agricultural markets were traditionally production dependant – consumers paid market value for whatever was available at the time of harvest, modern market structures impose retail demands on a natural system. No matter the weather, the season or the economy, we dictate that our tomatoes be ripe, red and uniform in January. As larger retailers (i.e. Walmart, ADM, Cargill) increasingly dictate prices to producers, the cost of produce has become decoupled from the cost of production, often with farmers loosing in the bargain. Farmers are forced to take what should be a natural system of growth, death and regeneration and artificially conform it to unsustainable standards of production and uniformity. Farmers, once over 50% of the population, are now nothing more than a token few interchangeable cogs in the industrial machine.

Additionally, increased reliance on genetically modified organisms, seeds with legal patent protection and restricted ownership rights belonging to large industrial corporations makes farmers economically dependent on these large corporations. Legally obstructed from growing their own seed for crops, farmers in many cases face an equivalent to indentured servitude to the seed companies.

Global population increases coupled with greater prosperity in populous countries such as Brazil, China and India provide a market ripe with possibility for Big Food. Using techniques honed in North America and Europe, Big Food urges consumers in these emerging economies to convert from their traditional foodways to a western “first-world” diet. This not only means eating more processed food, but usually includes eating greater numbers of animals. Just as in North America and Europe, a flesh-heavy diet drives factory farming, factory fishing and overfishing practices.

Vegans and vegetarians rightfully argue that the feeding of annual grain crops to animals in feedlots (and fish farms), most of whom are not suited to such calorie dense and starchy feed has many negative consequences. Sick animals and fish, a reliance on prophylactic antibiotics with all the downstream effects that this entails and a heightened demand on the artificially cheap (read – subsidized) production of annual grains are but a few of these negative effects. The hidden costs of the the industrial agricultural model are being felt in our hospitals (anti-biotic resistant strains of bacteria), in our waterways (toxic farm runoff) and in our food (eating sick animals = sick people). Moreover, overfishing and the toxic effects of farm runoff and poorly managed aquaculture are having the same effect on wild fish as on the sick farmed varieties.

Recent articles in the New York Times, Foreign Policy and Grist/Mother Jones highlight the short term economic costs of these policies. With global population slated to reach over 7 billion before 2020 and pressures rising on agricultural production – Thomas Malthus may yet have the last laugh. In any case, we should brace ourselves for significantly higher food costs (budget around 30-40% of your income) in the next few years.

World Population - with projections from U.N. 2004

What can be done? Many possible options offer paliative “Band-Aid” solutions. However, the only long-term solution is population control coupled with sustainable agricultural practices. However, government policies to directly curb reproduction rates are highly unpopular and have only been successfully implemented by authoritarian governments – since any democratic government proposing such measures would quickly lose popular support.

Investing in the education of young women and girls has shown dramatic effects in reducing the number of children per family in developing nations. Conversely, in countries where the education rate of young women is already high, tax and career support (e.g. paid maternal leave) promoting child bearing is highly popular, and is rationalized as a way to maintain the tax base (protect retirement plans) and local culture in the face of immigration or assimilation (as in Québec). When food prices begin to rise and political upheaval such as that exhibited in the recent events in the Middle East starts to spread around the globe, young couples must seriously contemplate before bringing children into this world – especially second or third children. For those of you thinking of having children in the near future, keep these thoughts in mind – and remember that one more child will become one more teenager with an appetite to match. With food prices predicted to double or triple in the next 3-5 years, that extra mouth could become a surprising economic burden…

  • Instapaper
  • Share

This entry was posted on 26/11/2011 at 12:15 PM and is filed under Blogue. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.