Transition Canada: Food: The Next Decades

Over the next ten to twenty years, along with energy, water and minerals, we will also need food. What changes can we expect with regards to food going forward?

On average over the coming decade, prices in real terms of cereals, rice and oilseeds are projected to be consistantly higher worldwide than in the past decade. Here is how that looks.

Source: OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 

Here is another view that might make it clearer…Source: U.S. military’s Joint Operating Environment

World population is projected to grow from 6.5 billion in 2005 to 7 billion this year and nearly 9.2 billion by 2050 and to feed that population global food production must nearly double.

Most people are surprised to learn that modern food production is closely tied to oil production. What is known as the “Green Revolution” of the past few decades has been due to pesticides, irrigation projects,  genetically improved crop varieties and, perhaps most significantly, enormous quantities of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

Here is how oil is connected to food: natural gas is a by product of oil production, which is used to produce synthetic nitrogen, which is now the primary source of fertilizer. In 1999 a ton of synthetic nitrogen cost $100. In 2007 it cost $350. When the oil supply begins to drop in the next few decades, so will the nitrogen supply – and so will the food supply. Oil also is involved in the cost to transport (ships and trucks) and store food. Less oil means higher prices and therefore less imported food.

As an aside you may be interested to learn that agricultural practices, unlike manufacturing, are largely unregulated, and the worlds largest source of pollution. So if you want to reduce pollution, you will reduce the food supply. To add to that complexity, as developing countries standards of living improve, they consume and pollute more. As the diet of developing countries changes, it profoundly effects prices, resources and pollution.

For example, between 1980 and 2007 China increased its consumption of beef from 20kg/yr to 50kg/yr per person. Since the population of China is currently 1.3 billion people, that’s a lot of beef. Over 10,000 liters of water is required to produce one kilogram of beef. This is ten times the amount for the same amount of wheat. So not only is the population increasing but at the same time it is increasing its water consumption rate.

There are also the more complex issues of commodity markets, production investment, bio-fuels, GM foods and climate change, all of which in sum do not appear to add anything positive to the equation. Here for example are the latest projections when Climate Change is factored in.

Source: Growing a Better Future, Oxfam 2011

Overall it appears that in North America food prices will slowly but steadily increase while in developing countries, where food is a much larger percentage of the family budget, food shortages and prices will cause significant problems. All of this also assumes no major geopolitical events or natural disasters.

In summary, it is highly recommended that we learn how to produce more of our own food as locally as possible.

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