Home > Economics - General > Can we feed the world? Will we?

Can we feed the world? Will we?

February 10th, 2011

I’m in Melbourne for the conference of the Australian Agricultural & Resource Economics Society (in fact, I’m currently President-elect of the Society[1]. There have been a couple of great papers on long-term food supply from Phil Pardey and Tom Hertel. So, this seems like a good idea to write down some thoughts about (what ought to be, at any rate) the central issue of agricultural economics – whether the global food system can produce enough food for the world and deliver it to those who need it. I’m hoping to refine this in response to comments – I’ll mark major changes but will otherwise adjust as I go.

Can we feed the world? Will we?

The world’s population is rapidly approaching 7 billion, of whom around 1 billion regularly go hungry. UN projections suggest that the world population is likely to peak at around 9 billion in 2050 (though this number could be in a range from 8 to 10 billion). So, if nothing else changes then to feed those currently hungry and supply the current average to the extra 2 billion or so, we would need to increase global food output by 50 per cent over the next 40 years. The good news is that, based on 20th century experience, that ought not to be hard. The required rate of growth of output is 1 per cent a year, while the rate of multifactor productivity growth in agriculture has been about 2 per cent a year. [2] So, if historical rates of productivity growth continue, and other demands were unchanged, the problem of feeding the world can be solved with our existing arable land and with a continued decline in the number of people working in agriculture.
That was the good news.

The bad news comes in two parts.

First, there are a lot of reasons to think that productivity growth may have slowed, and is likely to slow further. These include
* Public R&D efforts have declined, and the private sector hasn’t been an adequate substitute. GM crops (largely the product of private companies) have some benefits, but haven’t yet been the panacea that is sometimes claim
* Some agricultural systems (most fisheries, agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, a lot of irrigation) have been operated on an unsustainable basis
* Energy is a significant input (though not as important as is sometimes supposed) and energy costs are bound to rise
* Efforts to mitigate climate change may reduce output and/or productivity
* Climate change will have a net adverse effect on productivity, particularly if warming exceeds 2 degrees

The second part of the bad news is that there will be more demand growth mainly from:

* People in middle-income countries who want to eat more meat and fruit/vegetables and less rice and wheat
* Biofuels either derived from food products or competing with agriculture for land

Taken together, these problems make the task of feeding the world much more difficult, but not impossible. To list some of the obvious responses
* The decline in public R&D spending can and should be reversed, and there is plenty of room for more private efforts such as those of the Gates Foundation – the sums involved are tiny relative to total world income
* Huge improvements are possible in Africa from better education, communications, transport, adoption of modern practices and technology, along with some focused R& D efforts. The problems of irrigated agriculture are fixable, as my work on the Murray-Darling Basin has shown. Unsustainable fishing can be replaced, to a substantial extent by aquaculture, as discussed in this Scientific American article.
* Currently, around 30 per cent of food output is lost to various forms of waste. Some of this is inevitable but much, particularly in distribution chains, could be avoided
* People in developed countries often eat more than is good for them, and the wrong kinds of foods. A simple shift from (grain-fed) beef to chicken would require less grain as feed, cut methane emissions and promote better health

For an economist, it’s natural to consider the role of prices in this. If demand grows faster than supply at current prices, then prices will rise. Some of the resulting adjustments, such as an increase in inputs to agriculture, and more expenditure on R&D will be broadly beneficial. Others, such as lower consumption in poor countries (demand for food in rich countries is not sensitive to prices) will not. Broadly speaking, people on low initial incomes will eat more (or less) food if their income grows faster (slower) than food prices. So, a more equitable distribution of global income would mean less people going hungry, even if the rate of growth of productivity slowed down.

I’ll try to write some more later, but my main message is simple. We can feed the world if we make the right choices. There is no greater moral obligation facing the world as a whole and particularly those of us who are well-fed and live in wealthy countries.

fn1. I’m assured that this position doesn’t call for administrative skills, which I conspicuously lack, as evidenced by the fact that I previously had two instances of footnote 1.

fn2. That shouldn’t be surprising, if you think about it. Food supply per person grew substantially over the 20th century, which implies that production growth outpaced population growth, and most of the production growth was due to productivity, not extra inputs. Population growth is slowing, so if productivity growth continues at the historical rate, the growth in food per person will accelerate.

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  1. Boz
    February 10th, 2011 at 14:11 | #1

    I like the pun on your poor administrative skills – having two footnote 1’s.


  2. may
    February 10th, 2011 at 15:06 | #2

    the fastest(?) growing industry in Australia is the organic food industry.

    here in the west the introduction of patented seed owned by the stateless corporate entity monsanto is in the process of eliminating any organic produce of the cruciferae type.

    Steve Marsh an organic grower has had his crop contaminated by patented property and has lost organic certification,thereby losing his premium price and his market.
    His buyers have lost their supply of certified produce .
    the source of contamination is being supported by monsanto in the suit for compensation brought by Steve Marsh.

    the state government decreed distance of 5 metres was sufficient to prevent wind borne cross pollination and the source of the contamination has said they were within the letter of the law.

  3. Two Bob
    February 10th, 2011 at 15:12 | #3

    The conversion of grain to ethanol is perhaps taking five percent of total world cereal grain production, a major factor in any supply/demand situation. When droughts etc decreases world production as now, the impact on food security of this five percent increases.
    The difference between grain ethanol and other discretionary grain use such as meat production is that wealthy countries subsidise and mandate the grain ethanol. In Australia’s case the 38c/litre is $140 per tonne of grain processed for ethanol. The poor of the world cannot compete for their food.
    The question is how far will the wealthy countries go it finding fuel for their cars? They can afford to subsidise the conversion of 10/15/20 percent of the worlds grain. What is to stop them? Increased grain production will not meet this demand.
    Where is the political will to stop this, I cannot see it. Where is the realisation in the media, the public of what is happening? Do we really have to have millions starving on our doorstop to see the problem? Will we just let them starve and drive on?
    We are converting grain to ethanol for no good reason. It is uneconomic, does not abate greenhouse gasses.

  4. David Lansley
    February 10th, 2011 at 16:48 | #4

    While I have no doubt there is considerable food lost post harvest, I am a bit wary of the often quoted c30%, simply because there does not seem to be good data behind it. For example, post harvest storage losses are often said to be in the range of 15-30%, but the only rigorous review of the evidence I have come across found that there wasn’t much evidence, and what there was suggested losses of the order of 11%. Similarly with supermarket food – there are estimates of 30%+ being wasted, but even if accurate, these estimates typically refer to developed country behaviour. What happens in the rapidly growing emerging economies is increasingly important, and may be quite different to the rich western country experience.

  5. Sam
    February 10th, 2011 at 17:16 | #5

    It seems to me the best way to reduce hunger in the world is to support family planning. Maybe we can feed the whole world at a population of 10 billion, but it would be a whole lot easier if it were only 8 billion, and less damaging to the environment. Condom factories take up a lot less space than farms.

  6. Alice
    February 10th, 2011 at 17:37 | #6

    Which is exactly why we should close the free trade doors and stop these “global parasites” like Monsanto. Who ever said Monsantos freedom to do business anywhere it liked in the world (and shiut down organic business in the process) was good for the global economy needs to be put up against a wall and shot.

  7. Alice
    February 10th, 2011 at 17:39 | #7

    Monsanto makes its business by making poor farmers pay twice as much for seeds that only last a season and cannot be harvested and used for the next crop…

  8. Fran Barlow
    February 10th, 2011 at 18:14 | #8

    @Two Bob

    While I certainly agree that resort to ethanol from cereals is a poor use of resources (at least if we aren’t talking about residues after food production) I always find the broader claim that ethanol-for fuel causes hunger more than a little suspect. There are far worse (from the POV of food reserves) uses of the the cereals (mainly corn aka maize) than ethanol. High fructose corn syrup, CAFOs, packaging etc … The state subsidies should of course be withdrawn, but it’s wrong to point to corn-based ethanol as the most significant driver of higher food prices. In essence, that simply provides cover for US agribusiness.

  9. may
    February 10th, 2011 at 18:36 | #9


    dear Alice,
    while one can see and sort of sympathise with the shotgun remedy,it never actually stops the up and comers from doing the same thing.

    and anyway,why should they be allowed to die their way out of their responsibility.

    make them pay.

    Tassie is still ,years after trials of patented plant material,in the process of eliminating the continuing results of contamination.

    another worry is the responsibility of owners who bought land after (years?) contamination occurred.

    do they have to pay the patent owners’ for any patented plants discovered on their property?
    are they liable for continuing contamination via wind borne pollination of other property owners’ plants?
    if other property owners find (or have found) contamination on their property,what are the liabilities?
    if any one purchases land and subsequently finds contamination,is their a case for compensation?
    what are their liabilities?

    this is such a new area of law that trespass doesn’t come anywhere near covering it.

    the whole situation is a tin of worms.

  10. may
    February 10th, 2011 at 18:43 | #10

    Alice :Monsanto makes its business by making poor farmers pay twice as much for seeds that only last a season and cannot be harvested and used for the next crop…

    that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    the plants are designed to survive massive doses of poison so herbicide use can be increased to saturation point.
    increased sales.
    any weeds that do survive saturation doses of poison are the ones to breed.
    with canola these weeds are wild turnip and wild mustard.
    cruciferae….. cabbage,broccoli,cauliflower,mustard,turnip,canola (rapeseed)and on and on.

  11. Alice
    February 10th, 2011 at 18:59 | #11

    Oh let me guess May – Monsanto sells the herbicide as well? Pay to plant, pay to spray and pay to harvest but none of you can do next year without paying…
    Evil bunch of bastards. They, Monsanto, will contribute nicely to world poverty and deaths by putting farmers out of business across the globe (those farmers who cant afford Monsanto products year after year – imagine the deals they have done with petty government officials – sickening) and we opened our global markets to these dictators?

    And even if we didnt want their genetically modified seeds they got them in by pressure on governments …according to Monsanto ..both bees and the wind can only travel 5 kilometres so that cross pollination doesnt occur outside this distance?

    What garbage – Monsanto have already polluted thiusands of acres in Canada with their genetically modified seeds…people’s crops who didnt even want Monsanto derivatives on their land.

  12. Alice
    February 10th, 2011 at 19:05 | #12

    At risk of breaching my post limit …its quite clear that Monsanto is attempting a monopoly over who is responsible and who gets remunerated for feeding the world…(Monsanto as long as people can pay – because they sure as hell wont be able to grow their own).

  13. Peter T
    February 10th, 2011 at 19:38 | #13


    Surely the question is not whether we have enough food, but whether we can put in place the institutional, administrative and logistic arrangements to do so. Simply relying on increased production, given the multiple stresses we face, will probably not do the trick.

    Precedents – the UK in World War 2 fed people better than previously on much less food (although at some cost to ecosystems), via efficient rationing, and the Soviet Union fed most people something despite very restricted supplies and multiple competing urgent demands on the systems involved (such as rail and industrial inputs). In the same war the Indian administration failed to feed Bengal when rice imports from Burma halted, and some millions died. Latter down to maladministration plus a degree of high level indifference.

    I don’t see a global rationing system arriving any time soon. And I don’t see high level commitment to meeting the challenges.

  14. Joe
    February 10th, 2011 at 19:55 | #14

    For a pessimist’s (realist’s?) view on the matter, have a look at the book The End of Food by Paul Roberts.

  15. Salient Green
    February 10th, 2011 at 20:04 | #15

    In the first place, a population of 9 billion spells disaster for the natural world and the Human race, no matter how many advances in food science improve production.

    Shortages of phosphate and potassium, antibiotic resistance, pollution, energy costs, water shortages, will all lead to increased costs of poorer quality food.

    I don’t believe the world will achieve a population of 9 billion. I believe the costs of overpopulation will be seen to outweigh the benefits well before then, certainly before 2020.

    The world could easily feed 9 billion and many more by ripping into it’s remaining natural forests, massive rollout of unmentionable power stations, raping and pillaging the natural world to an even greater extent. But it couldn’t do it for long, couldn’t do it sustainably.

    As a primary producer, I am encouraged by an increase in resistance to corporate food production and welcome farmers markets, locavores, demand for organic produce.

    I have seen first hand the benefits of research on Integrated Pest Management, or Biological Control of pests. Sometimes it requires incredibly clever people to solve a problem and sometimes it doesn’t, but usually it requires some dollars and a goal and great things will be achieved.

    Directing research dollars into ‘sustainable’ food production is imperative. Controlling weeds is organic/sustainable agriculture’s biggest bugbear, followed by insects and fungi. These problems are solvable but are being held back by the rampant market economy we now have which favours the cheapest solutions over the best solutions.

  16. rojo
    February 10th, 2011 at 20:44 | #16

    I believe bio-fuels are injecting sorely needed profitability back into farming. Declining terms of trade, as input costs rose while commodity prices stagnated, has seen farmers opt for simpler production systems like animal grazing rather than merely cover production costs cropping. Cutting inputs invariably puts a cap on yield.

    Bio-fuels also by necessity create stockpiles of grain in order to keep the factories running year round. We then have stockpiles that can be commandeered for food, and lessen the need for a “just in case” stockpile for food that costs money to hold.

    One thing I would take from the current commodity cycle is that wheat prices in 2008 when they doubled world production only went up about 10%(from memory). The fallout though is that every other commodity has to fight for area, and commodities are having a catch up phase in the inflation stakes.

    We also have crop yields that are a lot closer to theoretical yield maximums than they were at the start of the green revolution.

    Agriculture has reached the efficiency limits of machinery to a certain extent, we can do more with an individual wheat harvestor for instance, but the machine principles and losses have changed little over the last 20 years.
    Farmers are more labour and cost efficient but that doesn’t necessarily equate to yield.

    A major issue is the decline of area available for farming as urban sprawl and the mining footprint continues to expand. The arable area per capita continues to decline.
    Irrigation water supplies are being reduced either as unsustainable groundwater extractions or by reallocation to environmental needs. A concern because I’ve read 40% of the food supply is from irrigated agriculture.

    I think we can feed the population, but it may be as a result of rationing. First world countries can’t expect to eat like kings as others go hungry. Nor can we really expect to drive our cars on the hungry stomachs of others.

  17. Robert Merkel
    February 10th, 2011 at 21:26 | #17

    If I recall correctly, there’s been a considerable amount of agricultural land in the United States and western Europe that’s been taken out of production over the last century and reverted back to forest.

    Secondly, as noted, the developed world is wealthy enough to feed much of its grain crops directly to warm-blooded animals, at a huge efficiency cost, or pour it into cars.

    As such, I can only conclude that we don’t have problem with global food production. We have a problem with equitable food distribution.

  18. Andrew
    February 10th, 2011 at 21:47 | #18

    Hi John

    You conclude your article with:

    I’ll try to write some more later, but my main message is simple. We can feed the world if we make the right choices. There is no greater moral obligation facing the world as a whole and particularly those of us who are well-fed and live in wealthy countries.

    I interpret what you are saying as: no matter how many people there are in the world, it is our moral obligation to feed them. My question is: does this moral obligation last indefinitely, i.e. do we continue feeding everyone, no matter: how many people there are and their aspirations are for a lifestyle as good as that of Australia’s? Simply put, is there a limit to population growth?

  19. Ikonoclast
    February 10th, 2011 at 22:42 | #19

    I think we have a moral obligation to stop pretending that growth can continue indefinitely.

    Overshoot has already occurred and a mass die-off of humans is inevitable. Since we have proven unable to voluntarily limit our numbers, natural processes will do it for us.

    Peak conventional energy production is here now. We have failed to ramp up alternative sources in time. Extra energy (apart from the sunlight) is a vital input to modern industrialised food production. Less useable energy will mean less food almost immediately.

    Parts of Africa and the Middle East are entering collapse right now.

  20. sam
    February 10th, 2011 at 22:47 | #20

    @Salient Green
    I would raise one very small objection. The world won’t run out of potassium as a resource because there is plenty of it in seawater. Now you might say that the world shouldn’t (or couldn’t) desalinate enough seawater to extract sufficient potassium, but we would start to run short of fresh water (and hence be forced to desalinate as much as we could) before potassium was a problem. in the jargon, potassium is not a rate limiting factor. Phosphorus of course is completely different. Peak Fertiliser will come about because of Peak Phosphorous and Peak Oil; there will never be a massive and sustained potassium price shock.

    This of course doesn’t disrupt your general argument, but I thought I’d add my two cents.

  21. Charlie
    February 10th, 2011 at 22:54 | #21

    I attended an interesting presentation in Wagga Wagga last year at which it was claimed that since evidently 80% of most food consists of carbohydrates (i.e carbon + water) (the lecturer showed slides of breakfast cereals’ mandatory composition listings), the crops needed to feed 9 billion people in 2050 will need more atmospheric CO2, not less than there is now for our 7 billion.

  22. rojo
    February 10th, 2011 at 23:38 | #22

    John, this is a book available on line that was recommended to me today, I haven’t had more than a skim but it focuses on farm productivity. Title says it all really. It may be of interest to you if you haven’t already come across it.

    The Shifting Patterns of Agricultural Production and Productivity Worldwide.


  23. February 11th, 2011 at 00:48 | #23

    John I’m a little taken aback that you didn’t even mention GM crops which are surely a source of major productivity growth if properly handled. Anyway, that’s turned up in the comments.

  24. gerard
  25. BilB
    February 11th, 2011 at 04:06 | #25

    Nicholas G,

    GM crops are a can of worms not to be counted upon. For instance, crops modified to manufacture their own pesticides are now contaminating waterways with their pesticide over production. A GM crop that would be very interesting would be water weed modified have the properties of oil producing algae making it commercially viable to cut/harvest. But could we really risk releasing such a thing if it ultimately turned out not to work as predicted?

    Food production comes down to choices. For Australia our choice to date has been to render the most furtile lands useless to agriculture with real estate pricing competition. For instance a 200 acre chunk of land in Oberon recently sold for 6 million dollars. This now puts pressure on the agricultural commercial returns for surrounding lands. At that pricing level agriculture cannot even return sufficient for half of the interest payments for the land. NSW best dairy country in the coastal south of the state is under intense real estate pricing pressure.

    We have as a community allowed the worst of regional development practices to run unabated for the purpose of greed driven wealth accumulation. There are solutions and this great architect… http://www.malcolmwells.com/ … had many of them, way ahead of our Global Warming induced need.

    The fact is we are not desperate enough yet to “take the cure”. Give it another twenty years.

  26. Greg
    February 11th, 2011 at 06:55 | #26

    Two Bob’s comment about subsidies is a good one — a big part of the “bad news” is US and EU subsidies. Its even more evil sibling is excessive regulation of food production in South Asia. And the third evil triplet is excessive concentration in the middle. Just a handful of global players control prices for many important commodities.

    This is the original “global warming” – selfish action by powerful interest groups in the rich world are hurting hundreds of millions of poor people.

    I’m surprised an economist doesn’t mention these econ 101-type issues. Fixing them would be far more beneficial than “more R&D’ or “expanding into Africa”.

  27. Greg
    February 11th, 2011 at 06:58 | #27

    s/ are / is / in para 2.

  28. Ikonoclast
    February 11th, 2011 at 07:06 | #28

    This is an interesting link on energy and (indirectly) on its relation to food.


    I suspect that even this analysis is too conservative. The absolute energy peak is shown as about 2015. I think this absolute energy peak has already occurred or will occur by about 2012. It is very difficult to winnow out all the unfounded optimism and downright false reporting about reserves that goes on in the US and the Middle East.

    The relative energy peak (average per capita energy) is shown as 2010.

    As energy sources (particularly in diesel and gasoline form) are vital to modern agriculture, transport and services, these shortages will have real and immediate physical effects on our economy, inducing real shortages of material goods and enormous financial disruption. The financial disruption will further perturb the system and multiply our problems.

    If you look at the IEA’s World Energy Outlook, you will see the Pollyanna absurdity of official analysis. This absurdity is standard in all official views of world outlook (corporate and governmental) under late stage corporate capitalism. It is frightening that the world is being run by people this stupid and this dishonest.


    The graph on slide 8, World Energy Production by Type, has a completely spurious segment added to balance the world energy outlook. This is “crude oil – fields yet to be developed or found”. Notice the suspicious way it lifts itself and the segments below it to the horizontal, thus allowing the growth above the line to amount to growth in overall energy supply. Would you buy a used car from these people? The stupidity and dishonesty is so obvious that a graph-literate 10th grader could pick it out.

  29. BilB
    February 11th, 2011 at 07:29 | #29


    You are totally wrong about EU farm subsidies. These subsidies were about preserving farm land and the unique Eropean landscape. Thaey have alrgely achieved their objective and it should not be surprising that they are now called an environment subsidy.

    The important thing that has been achieved is the preservation of open landspace, extremely important if Europe needs to feed itself from its own territory, a highly probable future consequence of Global Warming.

    Australia would have done well to have adopted some form of the same principle.

  30. Donald Oats
    February 11th, 2011 at 07:45 | #30

    If biofuels become popular enough for a substantial industry to build up around it – it is already large on many measures, I know – then there will no doubt be a serious drive for Monsanto and other ag companies to modify the grains genetically. Afterall, if genetic modification works for food, which has one set of objectives, then it should also work for biofuels which have some distince objectives compared to food-use grains/plants.

    I would imagine that while the resistance to GM crops is visible if not effective (unfortunately – afterall, patented crops contaminating other crops should be able to be resolved in favour of the contaminated crop, not in favour of the GM producer), resistance to GM biofuel crops will be far less visible and even less effective. Why? Because fuels drive economies, quite literally, and governments will defend that. Food is likely to become a secondary issue if biofuels become sufficiently large scale.

    I’m probably wrong but it’s an interesting thought…

  31. BilB
    February 11th, 2011 at 08:02 | #31

    Following further on, regarding EU farm subsidies, there is an argument to be made that in preserving Europe’s landscape and village community structure, EU subsidies are substantially responsible for Europe’s now 400 million population’s far smaller contribution to CO2 atmospheric accumulation and therefore Global Warming, when compared to the US and Australia. With the avoided environmental damage credit to EU farm subsidies any negative impact will be far outweighed.

  32. derrida derider
    February 11th, 2011 at 11:17 | #32

    God there’s some wilful ignorance above, full of words like “evil bastards”. It’s tone is just like the fact-free hysteria you can find on any RWDB site.

    “Monsanto makes its business by making poor farmers pay twice as much” – no-one’s forcing anyone to do anything; if those seeds aren’t worth it then farmers won’t buy them. BilB bemoans agricutural land being tied up by people buying acreages for non-food uses, then in his very next comment defends EU subsidies on the ground that they create “open space” set aside from farming. The line that GM foods need to be “drenched in poison” – in fact GM cotton has already cut insecticide use in that industry by 85% worldwide and has allowed much more sustainable “no till” practices. Monsanto is winding down its own investment in pesticides on the assumption that other GM crops will greatly reduce demand for them.

    I think simple price mechanisms will deal with many of the barriers John has identified. The only, if important, exceptions are that markets left to themselves do not properly price in sustainability of a method or resource. But in many markets that’s specifically addressed by interventions to build that cost into prices (eg water rights). Still, with things like fish there’s a real problem.

  33. iain
    February 11th, 2011 at 11:33 | #33

    First things first, you need to get soil (particularly topsoil) across the planet improved. And there is little chance of that happening in the near or mid term. Biochar is one of the few opportunities that addresses both food production and climate change and should be given top priority.

    Secondly you need appropriate water supplies to be improved. Again there is little chance of this happening anytime soon.

    After that, you need to consider how cities and transport can be reorganised around food systems (and not the other way around). Again there is precious little planning being made in this regard.

    Talk of GM products, fertilisers, and other technology silver bullets etc. saving the day, need to be balanced with the reality of the “green revolution” actually hitting against environmental limits.

  34. Salient Green
    February 11th, 2011 at 13:00 | #34

    Sam, I don’t think there will ever be a need to obtain K from seawater but in an energy constrained future the uneven distribution of K in the crust could produce shortages in some countries but not in the near future I agree.

  35. Chris Warren
    February 11th, 2011 at 13:31 | #35

    If 1 billion are going hungry, then presumably this is how the developed world wants it to be.

    Why would any economist want to give food to the poor if they see greater value selling it to the toffs residing in the streets of London and New York. Which bit of economic theory includes selling goods to underbidders?

    Why would some rancid entrepreneur in the Philippines produce food for the poor, if dollars can be made exporting product to Australia and New Zealand?

    Isn’t agricultural economics a misnomer on the world stage/ where food is distributed more by politics and based on capitalist incentives.

    Capitalism = gluttony for the few and starvation for the many. It’s just a pity that the starving billions are in far-off lands where they do not impinge too much on Australian academic considerations of these issues.

    The only long-term solution (apart form population controls) is to ensure every nation or groups of similar nations have food self-sufficiency, and this requires political reforms – including strict guidelines for monsters like Monsanto.

  36. Sam
    February 11th, 2011 at 14:46 | #36

    John, if you’re after some practical suggestions I’ve always thought closing the nutrient cycle would be a good idea. Specifically, we should hygienically extract fertiliser from human waste and apply it to crops. This would reduce dependence on “fossil nutrients” (especially phosphates), and also reduce marine pollution.

    This almost has to be a government project. There are many good reasons why the private sector won’t do this on it’s own.

    1 Governments around the world by and large own the sewerage systems.
    2 Price shocks from nutrients running low won’t happen for a while, and the private sector heavily discounts long term problems.
    3 Pollution costs aren’t properly internalised.

  37. gerard
    February 11th, 2011 at 14:49 | #37

    I think simple price mechanisms will deal with many of the barriers John has identified.

    No doubt. The problem is the hundreds of millions of people being ‘priced out’ of food as these simple mechanisms work their magic. Let them eat dirt.

  38. Paul Norton
    February 11th, 2011 at 15:02 | #38

    Sam #36, you’re talking about metabolic rift.

  39. BilB
    February 11th, 2011 at 15:04 | #39

    Sam, if you look up the NASA Omega project, it aims to do just that, and produce biofuels with out consuming land space at the same time. Floating algal oil farms that use the outflow form sewerage treatment will become the future standard for the world’s cities’ sewerage waste treatment end cycle, if NASA’s team of scientists close the loops. So far it is looking extremely promising.

  40. may
    February 11th, 2011 at 15:27 | #40

    @derrida derider

    agnotology is the word for culturally induced ignorance.

    “nobody making Indian farmers pay twice as much”

    simplistic and derisive response to a situation brought about by commercial promises that had and are having unforseen(?) consequences.

    unforseen consequences seem to be a constant in the patented plant material market.

  41. Sam
    February 11th, 2011 at 15:38 | #41

    @Paul Norton

    Cool, what do you know!

  42. Alice
    February 11th, 2011 at 17:12 | #42

    Interesting article Gerard – what can I say about IMF applause as countries open their doors to floods of cheap imported food products (being snarky I could say – well its a globalisation textbook proper thing to do because the manufacturers across the globe of these cheaper food imports obviously have more comparatve advantage than our local producers and someone somewhere in some time and in some dream will benefit…whilst our own domestic food production atrophies and people leave farms that have been producing for a hundred years.

    and then when they have drifted to the cities in search of a new career, along comes global food import inflation (to add to to dual insults of house price inflation and wage stagnation).

    When there are fewer food producing countries (and the IMF is still clapping with one hand in its pocket saying “we welcome this move to efficiency”) and our own foodbowl resembles unkempt bush scrub or is fractured badly from underground coal mines where we do have a competitive advantage – just not much of the income….

    As someone famous once said “freedoms just another word for nothing left to lose.”

  43. Freelander
    February 11th, 2011 at 18:41 | #43

    As usual the unfettered market comes to the rescue.

    The whole world hunger problem can be solved by transferable property rights in labour. An old idea, whose merits are nowadays significantly under-appreciated.

    All units of labour, which presumably would be owned by their highest value users, would, while not decommissioned, be kept well fed. To not keep a unit well fed would impact on efficiency. That said, the occasional unit on the decommissioning path might find its ration optimally downsized. That too might be most efficient. Though this aspect of decommissioning might, imaginably, be less than pleasant, any unpleasantness would be transitory.

  44. Alice
    February 11th, 2011 at 19:11 | #44

    Freelander – you know what happens if you cant afford to feed your cattle any longer. You do the most humane thing you can and cart them off to the meatworks for whatever you can get. Efficiency means you have to be cruel to be kind… and if you lose a few along the way well there are also efficient breeding programs that can be undertaken later. On the great trajectory towards penultimate efficiency us humans must realise we are in fact labour units and get used to it…

  45. Donald Oats
    February 11th, 2011 at 22:06 | #45

    If the free market is the answer, then why isn’t everything tickety-boo (spelling?) already? Why is the free market always a couple of steps behind? Or is it in a dynamic balance now, and its just as Chris Warren bleakly describes it? That people in some sense choose to go hungry in some countries, choosing as they do to sell some tofu for next to nothing to someone to supply some toff on Wall St?

    Some times I ponder these things 🙁

  46. Freelander
    February 11th, 2011 at 22:26 | #46

    @Donald Oats

    The problem?

    Clearly, we have not yet embraced the market fully in all its raw beauty!

  47. BilB
    February 12th, 2011 at 05:48 | #47


    You have got to be kidding with that tripe. The places where people go hungry the most have 100% free market trading. Free market “raw beauty” ? @*$!?!*&!!.

  48. Chris Warren
    February 12th, 2011 at 08:10 | #48



    any unpleasantness would be transitory

    then this just means that your “units of labour” have died of starvation.

    Anyway you cannot transfer labour rights between nations with different levels of exploitation and political oppression.

    You are trolling.

  49. Chris Warren
    February 12th, 2011 at 08:12 | #49



    any unpleasantness would be transitory

    then this just means that your “units of labour” have died of starvation.

    Anyway you cannot transfer labour rights between nations with different levels of exploitation and of political oppression.

    You are trolling.

  50. Salient Green
    February 12th, 2011 at 08:33 | #50

    Closing the Nutrient loop should be a priority even though it is fraught with problems to be solved. Here are some of the pollutants in sewage.

    Here is a method of recovering much of the phoshate. There are others.

    Recovering energy via anaerobic digestion to methane is a no-brainer but is still not widely applied. Pyrolysis is being studied but you are left with a lot of pollutants whatever you do.

    We need to reduce the amount of pollutants getting into the sewage as well as developing technologies to recover and separate them.

  51. Alice
    February 12th, 2011 at 09:56 | #51

    @Chris Warren
    No Chris – Freelander (that funny guy) is just joking or rather taking the **** out of the zombies.

  52. Ronald Brak
    February 12th, 2011 at 11:03 | #52

    On a positive note, increasing the amount of carbon in soil can both increase agricultural productivity and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Putting a price on carbon will make it profitable for farmers to use biochar or other methods to sequester carbon in soil. Mitigating global warming and improving food production can work hand in hand.

  53. jquiggin
    February 12th, 2011 at 12:55 | #53

    Irony alerts Epic Fail #23453

  54. paul walter
    February 12th, 2011 at 14:26 | #54

    Millions of people starving to death?
    Surely tame fare, compared to some of the ground breaking trivia dominating blogsites at the moment?

  55. BilB
    February 12th, 2011 at 17:00 | #55

    One thing to keep in mind is how close we in this country are to mass starvation. Stop and have a think for a moment how long you and your family are from hunger based on your pantry’s storage should all food supplies cease, for some reason.

    People in the country have ready access to food of various types. In the cities it is the supermarkets, specialty food stores, fishmarket, and that is it. How long do you think we will last in some kind of gross catastrophy. We are severely dependent on the efficiency of the processed food supply chain.

  56. Jarrah
    February 12th, 2011 at 17:27 | #56

    “We are severely dependent on the efficiency of the processed food supply chain.”

    Very true. If the torrent of food coming into our big cities stopped for even a few hours we would have severe problems. It’s the price we pay for having cities. It’s worth it.

    Luckily, thanks to relatively free markets in food products, we have very diverse supply lines that provide abundance at low cost and very low risk of complete interruption. Compare and contrast with the water supply.

  57. rog
    February 12th, 2011 at 17:41 | #57

    The soil carbon thing needs to examined more properly; through cultivation, drainage and grazing soil carbon is lost to the atmosphere.

  58. Alice
    February 12th, 2011 at 17:42 | #58

    Yes we are Nilb – we are now so dependent on mass chain imported everything we risk not even being able to manufacture a bicycle spoke…talk about desperation on global manufacturers of enormous scale…my god – where would we go to buy sheets if Target went out of business? Not here.
    I really dont give a damn about the price. I do give a damn about being able to source locally and if I dont give a damn about the rest of the world seeing as many nations have been suckered in to the globalisation agenda and arent doing too well from it…well then maybe I just dont dont give a damn about global markets.
    In my defence I will say I do give a damn about local jobs – because if a nation has decrepit local production that isnt generating enough jobs and income, what on earth does it have to offer the global economy except more poverty??.

  59. Alice
    February 12th, 2011 at 17:47 | #59

    Jarrah – I have more faith in keeping Bob Katters electorate producing than in Woolworths and Coles. Its not all about price at all if it comes with slow strangulation as a bedfellow.

  60. jquiggin
    February 12th, 2011 at 17:52 | #60

    Alice, please don’t flood the thread.

  61. Salient Green
    February 12th, 2011 at 18:14 | #61

    BilB, Jarrah, don’t forget most people in the developed world carry a lot of calories with them and 20% or so could survive a nuclear winter without food!

    I reckon our family could go a two months easily with what’s in the freezer and pantry. My fault, I do the shopping but we live out of town.

    Of course their are large stockpiles of various grains and sugar. The Bundaberg Rum factory had huge stockpiles of molasses when I was there last, not that I drink it ATM, but any port in a storm.

    The developed world also has a huge surplus of pets, which served a useful purpose when they consumed our waste food but nowadays are responsible, indirectly, for massive environmental damage via the diversion of human quality food.

    I wouldn’t like to eat cat or dog but better them than long pig. The EROEI of consuming a budgie is a bit suspect, as is pet mice. Rats and guinea pigs are more promising. You could Sushi the aquarium fish and eat the whole lot without expending energy on too much prep.

    Woolies and Coles have huge stock piles of food in their warehouses. When they say “the fresh food people”, they mean fresh out of the warehouse/cold storage where it’s been since the last glut.

    Lastly, we seem to have a huge surplus of winegrapes. If people headed out of the city after eating it to the bone they would find lots of grapes not too far away, Mclaren vale, Barossa valley, Hunter Valley etc.

    I’ve enjoyed myself a bit here but I hope others did too. Have to go and cook dinner, lamb chops and 3 veg tonight, something we haven’t had for a while.

  62. Freelander
    February 12th, 2011 at 19:34 | #62

    @Salient Green

    I knew I was carrying around all this additional weight for a reason!

  63. Salient Green
    February 12th, 2011 at 19:54 | #63

    At 4000 calories per pound of fat, I have 16 days supply at my current workload ’til I get back to my early 20’s weight. Mind you, I had a lot less muscle then too but I got by as lean and mean. I feel like some icecream.

  64. stockingrate
    February 12th, 2011 at 23:52 | #64

    “The problems of irrigated agriculture are fixable” Does the irrigation solution for Murray Darling translate to the net fossil water depletion areas such as Saudi Arabia, North China plain,etc ?

    “Climate change will have a net adverse effect on productivity, particularly if warming exceeds 2 degrees” -Global food production could largely disappear under plausible futures.

  65. Donald Oats
    February 13th, 2011 at 11:02 | #65

    Excess weight is something that we can give up but the onslaught of “treated” food products makes it difficult; simplistically it is a matter of willpower, but tell that to someone (not me) who has been through the diet and exercise round-a-bout a few too many times 🙁

    For those of us who are in a position to make the – ahem – adjustment, losing a kilogram or two and sticking to fewer kilojoules consumed is no doubt a good idea. I could give up a few off the stomach and not be too unhappy about it! This isn’t a save the world thing, merely a way to trim costs at the supermarket and to trim the waistline in the process. Might grab another chocolate biscuit…

  66. Ronald Brak
    February 13th, 2011 at 11:17 | #66

    There is a long history of people predicting that in the future food will be made in a factory or grown in a vat. Despite our having many factory farms we have not cut plants and animals out of the process and are not likely to any time soon. However, technological advancements could still have major effects on agriculture over the next few decades.

    – While growing food in a vat is expensive, it could soon be possible to use artificial or modified bacteria to to create long strands of silk protein at low cost. Cheap, lightweight, long lasting and washable silk could reduce the total fibre demand and displace a great deal of natural fibre production. A reduction in wool production would slow global warming by reducing the amount of methane released into the atmosphere and a reduction in cotton production could free up some quality agricultural land. But land would be required to grow feed stocks for silk production.

    – A lot of effort has been put into developing low cost ways to break down cellulose for the production of biofuels. Rather than use the broken down cellulose for fuel, people could eat it. While a new source of industrially produced starch and sugar will not make some people happy, it could be of benefit in keeping down food prices.

    – Growing meat in a vat is very difficult and expensive. However, it may be much easier to use artificial or modified bacteria to produce milk. This has the potential to be more energy efficient than dairy cattle and so easier on the environment. Reducing cow numbers reduces methane gas emissions and the milk could also potentially be made healthier for humans than cow milk. Growing fish oil equivalent in a vat could also marginally protect fish stocks.

    – Plants are fairly crap at capturing energy from sunlight. It’s not their fault. It’s tough to make a solar panel from wood and jelly. In the future we may want to skip the natural photosynthesis part for the production of food, or at least simple carbohydrates. I have no idea how this could be done economically, but it is something that may become practical.

    – Cheef, Bork, Lork and Chuna. One of our most efficient and cheapest sources of animal protein is factory farmed chicken. If chickens or perhaps pigs could be make to taste like beef, lamb, salmon, cod, tuna, etc. it could reduce the number of environmentally damaging cows and sheep and protect fish stocks while making more efficient use of animal feed. While this is not an easy task, it is something that can be improved on gradually and we are already fairly talented at passing off cheap meat as something more expensive.

  67. MH
    February 13th, 2011 at 12:48 | #67

    Growing food in vats thats an interesting proposition – did they not make a film about that “Soylent Green” ? and plants are not crap at capturing energy from sunlight they are masters at it. What do you think you put in your car every week? The accumulated energy of billions of years of plants converting sunlight and water into useful stuff before they died and passed on their genes.

  68. Ronald Brak
    February 13th, 2011 at 13:56 | #68

    Plants, depending on type and conditions, are about half a percent efficient at converting sunlight into stored chemical energy. Using solar energy to increase the amount of hydrogen bonded to carbon in natural gas is more than an order of magnitude more efficient at storing chemical energy. Unfortunately, eating the end result of this process has a variety of negative effects.

  69. February 13th, 2011 at 14:31 | #69

    Re the R&D issue, in Australia the funding for R&D is tied to production/income. The funding from government is matched dollar for dollar with the contribution from farmers, which for most industries is tied to volume of production or value of production. (It’s only for very few emerging industries and a small amount of environmental agricultural research that the government provides untied funds.)

    Therefore and ironically, when productivity in an Australian agricultural industry drops, the gross amount available for R&D in Australian agriculture also drops.

    I think it’s a fair bet that water will be the biggest impact on Australian agricultural productivity in coming decades – continuing to shift from not enough to too much.

    Worldwide, maybe in time the USA and other governments will reconsider paying some of its farmers not to produce; which might free up a bit more agricultural land for food and feed production.

  70. February 13th, 2011 at 14:48 | #70

    What I meant to say was:
    I think it’s a fair bet that water will be the biggest impact on Australian agricultural productivity in coming decades – continuing to shift between not enough and too much – and back again; with increasing extremes of both and with the greater proportion of time spent in the ‘not enough’ water phase.

  71. jquiggin
    February 13th, 2011 at 16:58 | #71

    Absolutely agree as regards water, especially given the latest fiasco on the MDB.

  72. Freelander
    February 13th, 2011 at 17:11 | #72

    Genetic Modification should allow the development of improved chickens which will have improved and very efficient chloroplasts in the cells of their featherless skin. During daylight they will spontaneously spread out their wings. Naturally, their meat will come in a great variety of flavours – beef, venison, kangaroo… and even, chicken.

  73. Ronald Brak
    February 13th, 2011 at 18:07 | #73

    I won’t be happy be happy until we can plug the chickens into the mains power. They’re much better than battery chickens.

  74. rojo
    February 13th, 2011 at 22:01 | #74

    Even though population growth is slowing, the current 1.1-1.2% growth figure is practicaly the same number of people as 2% of the 3.5 billion in existence in the 60’s at the start of the green revolution. About 70 million extra mouths per year.

    If we take wheat for instance the annual yield growth 1960-90 was nearly 3%, but from 1990-2007 had been less than 1%. Closer to half a percent.

  75. Abraham
    February 14th, 2011 at 02:39 | #75

    I wonder how significant peak oil will be for future food production? My impression is that it will be very significant, since so much of the nutrient content of agricultural soil comes from petroleum based fertiliser.

  76. Ronald Brak
    February 14th, 2011 at 09:39 | #76

    Abraham, fertilsers aren’t make from petroleum. Nitrate fertilizer is made from hydrogen extracted from natural gas, or in a few places coal gas. Increases in the price of natural gas will increase the price of nitrate fertiliser, but only so far as hydrogen can also be obtained by applying electricity to water. Potasium and phosphate and are mined rather than made with petroleum. Petroleum is often used in extraction and transportation of fertilser but it only represents a small fraction of its total cost and substitutes for petroleum are available.

  77. February 22nd, 2011 at 00:31 | #77

    I’ve just found out that humic acid is usually made from brown coal. While it could be argued that technically it’s not a fertilizer, it is put in the ground to make plants grow better and that’s good enough for me. But it’s not a biggie as far as fertiliser is concerned and with even with only a modest price on carbon it would probably soon be replaced with biochar (charcoal).

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