Global food shortage

Global warming is the environmental movement's pinup (though it faces perhaps its own crisis of coverage fatigue and noise that is a critical drag on momentum*). One ever growing and related crisis that may be underestimated by the public is the global food crisis. The issues are related because whether it's wind farms or a roast chicken, it's all about energy: "The core of the climate problem lies in the reality that  the world doesn’t have the energy options it needs for a smooth ride toward roughly 9 billion people by mid-century, all seeking decent lives."

Tonight, there will be 219,000 additional mouths to feed at the dinner table, and many of them will be greeted with empty plates. Another 219,000 will join us tomorrow night. At some point, this relentless growth begins to tax both the skills of farmers and the limits of the earth's land and water resources.

Beyond population growth, there are now some 3 billion people moving up the food chain, eating greater quantities of grain-intensive livestock and poultry products. The rise in meat, milk, and egg consumption in fast-growing developing countries has no precedent. Total meat consumption in China today is already nearly double that in the United States.

The third major source of demand growth is the use of crops to produce fuel for cars. In the United States, which harvested 416 million tons of grain in 2009, 119 million tons went to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars. That's enough to feed 350 million people for a year. The massive U.S. investment in ethanol distilleries sets the stage for direct competition between cars and people for the world grain harvest. In Europe, where much of the auto fleet runs on diesel fuel, there is growing demand for plant-based diesel oil, principally from rapeseed and palm oil. This demand for oil-bearing crops is not only reducing the land available to produce food crops in Europe, it is also driving the clearing of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia for palm oil plantations.

The combined effect of these three growing demands is stunning: a doubling in the annual growth in world grain consumption from an average of 21 million tons per year in 1990-2005 to 41 million tons per year in 2005-2010. Most of this huge jump is attributable to the orgy of investment in ethanol distilleries in the United States in 2006-2008.

The underexposure of this crisis is one reason I was so excited that the most acclaimed science fiction novel last year centered around food shortage. I've just started Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, 2010's Hugo Award winner for Best Novel (tied with China Miéville's The City & the City), and so far it's as original as advertised.

A socially valuable role for art in society is to present critical issues to people in the most emotionally compelling manner, and that's one reason the success of this novel is exciting. While I'm skeptical anytime Hollywood tries to adapt one of my favorite books, this might be an exception. We may need to push the food crisis through every means available to mobilize the world so we can avoid a soylent green future.

*FOOTNOTE: In the NYTimes article "Climate News Snooze," Randy Olson is quoted:

Perhaps it’s just my bias as a communicator, but I think this is THE most important variable of the future. Things can be hot, flat, and crowded, yet still civil if there is effective leadership AND the people are able to hear the voices who know how to lead. But try starting a food fight in a crowded, NOISY lunch room and see what happens. Pretty hard to impose order.

I have a feeling that Al Gore would agree with this speculation. He tried to lead, but got shouted down by an already-noisy society. There is a coming “dark ages