Seeking our daily bread is so central to human existence that it figures prominently in Christendom’s ultimate supplication — the Lord’s Prayer. Now the price of grain and food is escalating. No wonder there’s unease in the many American households where insatiable children wait to be fed and budgets are tight. Unease becomes fear in nations where hunger has long been a fact of life and resources are limited. These days all eyes are on the commodity pits, with frantic bidding foretelling the well-being of millions in a hungry world.
Food-price inflation has many causes (as we shall see), but it can’t be separated from the demand created by rapidly growing populations. Today’s U.S. population of 303 million is projected to grow to more than 400 million by mid-century. World population of 6.6 billion may reach 9 billion-plus by 2050, with 90 percent of that increase centered in already malnourished third world nations. With several billion more mouths to feed, what technological and political legerdemain will be required to keep food scarcity from setting off civil strife, wars, and resource grabs?
This spring, wheat prices were 80 percent higher than at the same time last year. The price of corn was up by 25 percent. Global stocks of cereal are at their lowest level since 1982, and U.S. wheat stocks are expected to fall this year to their lowest level since 1948. Even if these commodities are in a bubble, the long-term outlook is for high prices driven by population growth and economic progress. Places such as China and India have developed a taste for meat and other high-quality foods. Cattle demand lots of grain. Decline of the world’s fisheries puts further strain on food supplies in a protein-hungry world.
Food shortages have plagued mankind over millennia. But twentieth century agronomists came up with ways to keep food production on a pace with population growth in most places. Cheap food became a given in post-World War II America. In 1960, Americans spent 17.5 percent of their income on food; in 2006, spending on food fell to 9.9 percent. Alas, the bonanza only encouraged dietary imprudence. As Michael Pollan points out in a new book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, the modern American diet of refined white flour, polished rice, soy and corn oil, corn sweeteners and corn-fed animal fats means that “an American born in 2000 has a 1 in 3 chance of developing diabetes in his lifetime.” Obesity in America is pandemic, too — a result of what one nutritionist calls “a national experiment in mainlining of glucose.”
Astonishingly, the U.S. is a net food importer. About 40 percent of our fruit comes from overseas. Ten percent of our red meat is imported, often from as far away as New Zealand and Australia. While we import luxury foods, much of the rest of the world must scramble to find basic food supplies. The cereal import bill for the neediest countries is expected to increase by one-third for the second year in a row. The World Food Program (WFP) hopes to feed 73 million people this year, but high prices may lead to reduced rations or fewer people helped. According to the WFP, “hunger’s global hotspots” in February included Afghanistan, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Iraq, Syria, the Gaza Strip, Somalia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Flood, drought, civil war, and harsh winters were blamed.
Worldwide, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 854 million people go to bed hungry every night, and 40,000 children die every day due to malnutrition and related diseases. With prices rising, food riots and protests (Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Yemen) are spreading, with governments resorting to price controls. China in January froze the prices of energy, transport and water and decreed that producers of meat, grain, eggs and cooking oil must seek approval before raising prices.
Runaway grain prices provide plenty of incentive for U.S. farmers to step up production. Nationwide, farmland fetches $2,200 an acre — 50 percent more than it did just three years ago. The Lawrence Journal-World reports that developers who bought land at the edge of that Kansas college town have shifted their sights from homes, shops, and offices to growing wheat and corn and soybeans, at least for now. But an expected rise in world grain production this year is not expected to replenish stocks or push down prices. Blame record-high oil prices that translate into higher costs of fertilizer, machinery, processing, irrigation, transportation, packaging, and waste disposal. This is “the other oil shock” that threatens the world’s access to ample food supplies. Diversion of corn to manufacture ethanol also has driven up prices. Lester R. Brown of Earth Policy Institute believes that converting grain into fuel for cars “is generating food insecurity on a scale never seen before.”
How many Americans can U.S. agriculture support in the future? Right now, we have an ample diet and are still able to export nearly one-fifth of our grain production. But Lindsay Grant, in a pamphlet published by Negative Population Growth, Inc., warns that if production and per capita consumption stay where they are, and U.S. population continues to grow at the present rate, “we will be consuming all the grain we produce in less than two decades, and running a deficit in agricultural trade; from then on, we will face mounting shortages.” Satellite maps are said to show that Earth is rapidly running out of fertile land.
The end of cheap food was delayed for half a century by the “green revolution.” It involves planting mono-cultures of hybrid plant varieties and by applying large amounts of inorganic fertilizer, irrigation water, and pesticides. Using these technologies, global grain harvest has tripled since 1961, while world population doubled. In the U.S., average corn yields climbed to 153 bushels per acre, from just 26.5 million in 1932. (A cost of expanded yields has been a decline in nutritional quality.) The hope for higher yields now rests on dwarf varieties of rice and wheat bred for tropical and subtropical climates, and on genetic modification.
Import bans on genetically modified (GM) grain into the European Union and elsewhere likely will not stand for long in the face of world grain shortages. The Economist (Dec. 8, 2007) reports that a second generation of agricultural biotechnology, now in the pipeline, will speed GM adoptions. But technological fixes remain problematic. In the end, we will have to confront the fact that there are just too many people. We must start living within limits. ■