Is the Era of Cheap Food Ending?

Many would be glad to see the Golden Arches topple for reasons nutritional, but some scientists think that with the human population growing and oil production past its peak, the era of cheap, abundant food is reaching its inevitable end.

Reviewing The Coming Famine, a new book by Australian scientist Julian Cribb, in the NYT, Mark Bittman summarizes:

Like many other experts, [Cribb] argues that we have passed the peak of oil production, and it's all downhill from now on. He then presents evidence that we have passed the peaks for water, fertilizer and land, and that we will all soon be made painfully aware that we have passed it for food, as wealthy nations experience shortages and rising prices, and poorer ones starve.

The problem isn't just overpopulation, Cribb contends, it's overpopulation that's soon to be matched by overconsumption—the "two elephants in the kitchen," he deems them. In his book, Bittman explains, Cribb spells out

the fate of a planet whose resources have, in the last 200 years, been carelessly, even ruthlessly exploited for the benefit of the minority. Now that the majority is beginning to demand - or at least crave - the same kind of existence, it's clear that, population boom or not, there simply isn't enough of the Euro-American way of life to go around.

And this is precisely the reason that genetically modified foods look like an increasingly attractive option. The way things are trending—both with food markets and global diets—the demand for food is quickly outpacing what agriculture and husbandry can supply.

In response to Bittman's review, Heather Horn at the Atlantic Wire rounded up some other takes on the issue of energy, overpopulation, and the food market.

Jeremy Harding, writing about the future of food for the London Review of Books, noted overpopulation, the rise in the price of energy, and a shift in global nutrition that will be impossible to sustain:

Generations that once lived on grains, pulses and legumes have been replaced by more prosperous people with a taste for meat and dairy. Crops like maize which once fed many of us directly now feed fewer of us indirectly, via a costly diversion from which they emerge in the value-added form of meat. Global production of food – all food – will have to increase by 50 per cent over the next 20 years to cater for two billion extra people and cope with the rising demand for meat.

Horn also links to economist Tyler Cowen who says that many of the people who are most concerned about the impending food shortage are "often the ones with the least economically informed answers." He does not dismiss the concerns about the food market proposed by others, like Harding, but says instead that they might be countered by new market models, like agricultural free trade.

What's clear in the debate is that our population is growing, and it's a population that's eating more than ever. And if our traditional methods of producing food can't sustain the new global diet, maybe more efficient, genetically modified foods will. [TheAtlanticWire]

Image credit Straightedge217]