Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Book Review: Food Scarcity. Unavoidable by 2100?

This is an excerpt from the review by Ugo Bardi published on the "Journal of Population and Sustainability"

Scientific studies that examine the food supply and its correlation to human population have a long tradition that goes back to Thomas Malthus and his “An Essay on the Future of Population“ of 1798. From then on, the field has remained politically charged. Still today, Malthus is often dismissed as a doomsday prophet whose apocalyptic predictions turned out to be wrong. But Malthus lacked the modern concept of “overshoot and collapse” and he never predicted the kind of population crashes that we associate to modern famines.

Another study often accused of having been overly catastrophistic in terms of the future of the human population is the report to the Club of Rome titled “The Limits to Growth”, published in its first version in 1972. This is also a misinterpretation, since none of the several scenarios reported in 1972 foresaw a population decline before entering the second half of the 21st century.

Overall, studies in this field may be considered pessimistic or optimistic: it is a fact that, so far, the world's food supply system has been able to cope with an increasing population that is reaching today about 7.5 billion people. The question is for how long that will be possible.

In analogy with the first report to the Club of Rome, the recent book by Weiler and Demuynck, "Food Scarcity" approaches an old problem with a new methodology. While “The Limits to Growth” was one of the first studies to apply system dynamics to the study of the economy, “Food Scarcity” is among the first studies that applies the modern network theory to the world’s food system. The resulting book is an ambitious attempt to pack an enormous amount of material into just 150 pages. It starts with a review of the situation of the world’s food supply with extensive data on the different climate systems, cultivation technologies, geographical conditions, and more.

Is it a successful attempt? Under several respects, yes. An integrated approach is always better than the piecemeal approach of many superficial reports that don't go farther than admiring the increases in agricultural yield obtained so far and assuming that the trend can be continued forever and ever in the future. "Food Scarcity" does much better than this and identifies the limits to the world's food production system, which may lead to scarcity by 2100 or even earlier.

At the same time "Food Scarcity" has limits in its approach dedicated mainly to food production. Surely, it is the central point of the story, but food supply is not the same thing as food production. In particular, there is no mention in the book of the importance of the financial system in the issue of feeding the world’s population. As I argue in my book, "The Seneca Effect", food is delivered to people today because people are able to buy it, otherwise it would rot where it is produced. A long lasting global financial crisis could crash the food supply system and create again major famines. And for such an event, we may not have to wait for the food production system to reach its limits in 2100.

So, by all means an interesting book, well worth reading even though you have to take into account its aims and purposes. You can read the complete review by Ugo Bardi at "The Journal of Population and Sustainabilty


  1. Ugo
    This is a worthwhile subject for review. Historically famine or excess deaths associated with food shortage are a common feature in the historical records. 'Subsistence' crises are commonly understood to be the defining feature historically, but this is only in part an explanation, even in the days when 'local food' figured significantly within agrarian economies.

    More 'modern' famines seem to have occurred in economies that relied on complex wider trading, and as you imply, on lack of cash to afford food. Agricultural income and investment are now integrated in a system of primary production delivered to urban populations. The transition to predominantly urban life has meant enormous rural change. The 19th Century tragedies in the British Isles (mostly in Ireland) and hardship in US farming in the 1920s occurred during transition and were not simply failures in subsistence. Notoriously, specific attempts by the British Empire and Soviet and Chinese systems to impose change on still partly subsistence farming areas that traditionally had produced primary grain surplus as well as local sufficiency seem to have been the cause of large-scale rural famines: e.g. Bengal; Ukraine; China’s Cultural Revolution.

    I think you are right to identify affordability of food in modern typically urban populations as being dependent on the financial system. The urban population of Egypt living on a diet of grain and pulses, becoming the biggest importer of wheat on the international wheat market is an interesting case. (Even now of course the largest proportion of all grains does not cross international boundaries.)
    [Egypt] “The country remains the world's largest wheat importer. Wheat imports for the 2017/18 marketing year (July/June) are estimated at 12 million tonnes, about the same as the previous year and about 9 percent above the average for the last five years”.


    1. I see the word tradeing in your comment, and am reminded of the massive amount of energy and steel required to maintain that. 12 million tons is not easy to move with modest fuel and steel production.

  2. As I see it, we will be running into food supply shortages blindly, because we will fail to shape a sustainable future. Books like this might be the reason why we fail.

    Food production is a complex problem, in the sense that a multitude of dynamic developments will influence our capabilities of feeding the population. Of course climate change, rising sea level and rising populations will be important factors.

    But we also have to cope with diminishing ressources of minerals, phosphate and top soil. We will also see the results overfishing and the extinction of maritime life and the extinction of bees. Feeding the world in the year 2100 is a problem we will have to start solving today.

    The question of providing the earths population with food will be mostly decided by how we organize our selfs socially and economically. Our future capability or failure of feeding the world will be a result by the devastating effects of globalisation and financialisation on the food sector of global economy. Feeding the world is primarily a question of distributive fairness in global markets.

    Most of todays developments are caused by globalisation. Erst Ulrich v. Weizäcker (CoR) led a commission of the german Bundestag in the years 2000-2002, the "Enquette Kommission Globalisierung", that showed this.

    This commission made a lot of good suggestions concerning many topics, like financial stability by more gegulation or a global return to small scale, sustainable, local agriculture, but they were all ignored by our policy makers.

    Weizäcker also stressed one point that all comes down to. We can solve the problems globalisation, such as food supply, if we truly are willing to do so.

    Eine nachhaltig zukunftsverträgliche Wirtschaft und Ge-
    sellschaft lässt sich nicht anhand exakter Kriterien ab-
    schließend definieren und im Sinne eines detaillierten
    Zielsystems steuern. Grundlage aller Vorgehensweisen
    muss vielmehr zukunftsbezogenes Lernen, Suchen nach
    entsprechenden Kriterien und der Wille zum Gestalten
    sein, – ein Prozess also, der sich durch ein gewisses Maß
    an Offenheit und Unsicherheit auszeichnet.

    The "Wille zum Gestalten", the political "will to shape" a sustainable future, would be all we need if we want to see a future where humans are capable of feeding the world.

    In the end, books like the one reviewed here by Ugo Bardi, might just serve as an excuse for our politicians to continue to run us inte the ground. If population groth and climate change are the only causes for food shortages, there is nothing politics can do.

    A book that fails to stress the political and social factors of future world food supply can thus only be a total failure.

  3. Dear Ugo , I think the food system and it's future is largely ignored by urban populations consumed with their personal reality of cars , housing and air transport. Even on blog sites devoted to climate change and it's potential solutions via renewable energy our food system is little discussed . There are very few farmers left and we tend to be rather conservative so our lack of input in potential solutions to climate change issues may simply be the result of our low numbers and political worldview.
    The IPC forecasts incorporate negative emissions in attaining the < 2C goals. Agriculture should be part of pulling down carbon but terrestrial carbon sinks tend to be very short term sinks with tillage and incresed heat quickly liberating agricultural biomass. So in addition to feeding increased numbers of human the very basic technics for how we farm need to change. This is a very high bar to attain if we are also going to convert our tractors and heavy equipment to renewables. Small scale farming is a very difficult way to make money and converting what little profit we make into as yet theoretical technologies and farming technics to save soil and utilize renewable energy is a recipe for agrarian poverty . If we simply return to former farming techniques of composting and animal power we might better address of current problems but we can't feed the cities.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017