What will happen to food in the future?
Our early 21st century civilization is in trouble. We need not go beyond the world food economy to see this. Over the last few decades we have created a food production bubble—one based on environmental trends that cannot be sustained, including overpumping aquifers, overplowing land, and overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide.
If we cannot reverse these trends, economic decline is inevitable. No civilization has survived the ongoing destruction of its natural support systems. Nor will ours.
The archeological records of earlier civilizations indicate that more often than not it was food shortages that led to their downfall. Food appears to be the weak link for our global civilization as well. And unlike the recent U.S. housing bubble, the food bubble is global.
The question is not whether the food bubble will burst but when. While the U.S. housing bubble was created by the overextension of credit, the food bubble is based on the overuse of land and water resources. It is further threatened by the climate stresses deriving from the excessive burning of fossil fuels. When the U.S. housing bubble burst, it sent shockwaves through the world economy, culminating in the worst recession since the Great Depression. When the food bubble bursts, food prices will soar worldwide, threatening economic and political stability everywhere. For those living on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder, survival itself could be at stake.
The danger signs are everywhere. In the summer of 2010, record high temperatures scorched Moscow from late June through mid-August. Western Russia was so hot and dry in early August that 300 to 400 new fires were starting every day.
The average temperature in Moscow for July was a scarcely believable 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm. Watching the heat wave play out over the seven-week period on the TV evening news, with the thousands of fires and smoke everywhere, was like watching a horror film. Over 56,000 people died in the extreme heat. Russia’s 140 million people were in shock, traumatized by what was happening to them and their country.
The record heat shrank Russia’s grain harvest from roughly 100 million tons to 60 million tons. This 40-percent drop and the associated grain export ban helped drive world wheat prices up 60 percent in two months, raising bread prices worldwide.
Crop ecologists estimate that for each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the norm during the growing season, grain yields decline by roughly 10 percent. In parts of Western Russia, the spring wheat crop was totally destroyed by the crop-withering heat and drought. As the earth’s temperature rises, the likelihood of more numerous, more intense heat waves increases.
How much time do we have before the food bubble bursts? No one knows. If we stay with business as usual, the time is more likely measured in years than in decades. We are now so close to the edge that politically destabilizing food price rises could come at any time.