Thursday, October 25, 2012

More on less food

We have been talking here a little while now about food scarcity as a growing concern.  Our to flip that around, the problem with feeding our growing population.

It's not going away, and it is quietly becoming accepted wisdom.

Income from Work: The Food-Population-Resource Crisis in the 'Short Africa'
Michael Lipton, Sussex University, 3 April 2012 (hat tip: MR)

Between 1950 and 2012, population in the 'short Africa' rose fivefold. It will more than double again in 2012-50 to 11.3 times its 1950 level. Workforces - people aged 15-65 - are rising faster still, thanks to better child survival and some fall in fertility. In 1985 sub-Saharan Africa had 106 people of prime work-ing age for every 100 dependants. By 2012 there were 120; in 2050 there will be 196. That's a 63%rise in workers-per-dependant from now to 2050 - and a 3.5% rise each year in the number of people aged 15-64. In South and East Asia, a similar rise in workers-per-dependant proved a demographic window of opportunity, contributing about a third of the 'miracle' of growth and poverty reduction8 - because those extra workers found productive employment: first, in smallholdings, gaining from a green revolution and usually land redistribution; later, in industry and services, as farm transformation released workers. In 'the short Africa', will the swelling ranks of young workers produce Asian miracles - or worsening poverty, unemployment and violent unrest?

Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture
Verena Seufert, Navin Ramankutty,  Jonathan A. Foley, Nature 10 May 2012 (hat tip: MR)

Our analysis of available data shows that, overall, organic yields are typically lower than conventional yields. But these yield differences are highly contextual, depending on system and site characteristics, and range from 5% lower organic yields (rain-fed legumes and perennials on weak-acidic to weak-alkaline soils), 13% lower yields (when best organic practices are used), to 34% lower yields (when the conventional and organic systems are most comparable). Under certain conditions—that is, with good management practices, particular crop types and growing conditions—organic systems can thus nearly match conventional yields, whereas under others it at present cannot. To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems.
Note, they are not arguing that organic might not be the more sustainable long term method, they are only arguing that it cannot match the output of the chemical/nitrogen dump that is current practise in agriculture. 

That small holding farms can be very efficient is noted within the same set of articles:
Michael Lipton, Sussex University, 3 April 2012 (Hat tip: MR)
Within farming, smallholdings (up to 1-5ha dependent on land quality) are central, for two reasons. First, they support the vast majority of farm people in Africa, and will long do so. Second, on a big weight of macro and micro evidence, small farms are 1. efficient resource users; 2. though risk-averse, keen innovators; 3. in developing countries, where farming relies more on supervised family labour than on capital, get more output per hectare, and provide far more employment and labour income per hectare, than large farms. Africa is running out of spare land, so small farmers' higher output per hectare is key. They need intermediation for processing and supermarket access, but, once they have enough surplus to sell, this usually works, in Africa as worldwide.11
In 1977-84, when China reformed land into fairly equal family smallholdings and relaxed controls, these farms - most below 0.7ha - used water-control, fertilizers and improved seeds to raise rice and wheat out-put by over 6 per cent per year for six years.

Of course if you take a small farm and input lots of people hours, as is often done in homestead style farming, the results would look different. But that in of itself is an energy dump of sorts, and as noted below with Singapore's water supply it is very hard not to get away from some sort of hidden subsidy.

Welcome to Dystopia!
Entering a long-term and politically dangerous food crisis
Jeremy Grantham, GMO Quarterly Letter, July 2012 (hat tip: MR)

Water constraints are worse than I thought a year ago. Squabbles or even wars over the division of rivers that flow through different countries seem more likely: Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over the Nile; China and India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and practically all of South East Asia over the flow of Himalayan rivers. Over pumping is also a bigger problem than I represented. About 300 million Chinese and Indians (125 and 175 million, respectively) among many others are fed through the use of declining aquifers. When entirely depleted, these perhaps then half a billion people will be thrown back onto already overstressed surface water. As with some other resource problems, there is an easy enough solution – desalination. And as with other easy solutions, it comes with a dreadful drawback – ultra high cost. (Singapore, ahead of the curve as usual, has addressed its critical water problem correctly: by pricing all of its water at the cost of the next marginal liter. Uniquely, their next liter of water is from desalination plants, so they are paying many multiples of the water price that is paid by the rest of the world, drowning as it is in subsidies. Even then, despite their Draconian policy with locally generated water, Singapore still benefits from the hugely underpriced water used to produce the majority of their food, which is imported. And Singapore is not representative of our problems with water in one very important way. They are now just about the richest people around with incomes per capita of more than $50,000 U.S.!) That changes from the old normal climate patterns exacerbate water problems seem to be revealed by the week: unpredictable monsoons (that as this year are sometimes weaker), less snow cover to run off in the spring, and unnervingly common severe droughts that we must hope are at least partly non-recurring.


Enlightenment said...

nice written

PioneerPreppy said...

It looks like water is going to be one of the real shortage resources much sooner than many predicted. All this alternative drilling uses so much of it.

russell1200 said...

Enlightenment: Thank you.

Pioneer: Yes, and the alternative drilling isn't really all that much of an alternative anymore.

It is interesting to note that the Left has elements that are backing away from peak oil because they don't like fracking. Which of course runs into their usual commitment to conservation - why conserve if you have plenty of it?.