by Angela Lovell

Mar 10, 2011

Cheap Food May Not be an Option Much Longer.

Prairie grain elevators like this one will need to be
brimming in 2011 if world demand for grain
is to be met.
Another great post from Lester R. Brown at the Earth Policy Institute yesterday deals with the issue of global food security and food prices.

In his article, Why World Food Prices May Keep Climbing, he does a great job of setting out, in detail, just how much grain (mainly rice, wheat and corn) the world produces, how much we need (and are likely to need in the year ahead) and our capacity to grow it.

His estimates look pretty spot on to me; if anything I'd have been a bit more pessimistic with the numbers. Here on the Canadian prairies, many of our major grain producing areas are preparing for record spring floods, (especially here in southern, western and central Manitoba). That follows a poor crop year in 2010 that saw record insurance payouts for unseeded and drowned out acres due to wet conditions that prevailed all summer and into the fall.

As we have already seen in 2010, when grain demand exceeds the amount produced food prices rise (everywhere) and, as people become hungrier, food riots and protests increase. And if you think that just happens in places like India, Haiti, Egypt or Bangaldesh, think again. The USDA reported around this time last year that one in eight Americans now rely on some kind of assistance (like food stamps) to buy food. That's a lot of hungry people.

I don't need political or economic analysts to tell me the truth of this; I just have to look at my weekly grocery bill and recall that the shopping bag I carry home from the store today seems considerably lighter, for the same amount of money spent on its contents, than it did a year ago. Either I'm developing more muscle power or my dollars are developing less.

So, after a detailed (and quite plausible) assessment of the likely situation for the year ahead, Brown concludes:

"Let’s review the global numbers. It will take 100 million tons of additional grain just to maintain the current precarious situation and close to 150 million tons to restore some semblance of stability in the world grain market. We can count on a 10-million-ton increase in this year’s rice harvest. We are hoping for a 20-million-ton rise with wheat and a 40-million-ton jump in corn. Let us also assume that minor cereals increase by 10 million tons over last year. This would give us a total increase of 80 million tons, not enough to prevent further price rises."

We either need to drastically re-think our agricultural and food distribution paradigms or I need to buy a smaller shopping bag. Or maybe both.

Copyright2011, Angela Lovell.

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