October 23, 2017

World grain outlook

An article from 1973 pointing out why, despite the continuing technologically driven attempts to feed an ever growing world population with an ever growing appetite, each attempt eventually fails, leading inevitably to yet another food crisis potentially worse than the previous.


The world food crisis is upon us. Until a few months ago, august food experts were telling us that all was well, and that the world would have no difficulty in feeding 15, even 30, billion people (four or eight times the present world population). As usual, the experts were wrong. Most people’s hopes rested on three things: the success of the Green Revolution, the reserve of agricultural land currently out of production in the US, and the huge American grain surpluses.

The Green Revolution, as anyone with a basic knowledge of ecology could have predicted, has been a failure. It has temporarily increased production in a few selected areas, but at colossal cost in terms of inputs of fertiliser, pesticides, irrigation water, machinery, ecological damage and social disruption.

By the end of this year, half the 50 million acres of reserve crop land in the US will be back in production. According to Lester Brown (US News and World Report, 13 August 1973) “most of the remaining crop land is so marginal that some of it may never come back in.” In the meantime, the American surplus has gone.

In spite of prospects for a record grain harvest this year, the situation is becoming critical, “we are actually on the verge of a panic”, writes Mr Uhlmann, President of Standard Milling Company of Kansas City.

The reason simply is that production can no longer keep up with world consumption caused by population growth and rising affluence, which has jumped by 60 per cent (in the case of grain) in barely 20 years.

Lester Brown calculates that the average availability of grain in the developing countries is about 400 lbs per person per year—about 1 lb a day, most of which, by necessity, is consumed directly.

As incomes go up, so does grain consumption. In the US and Canada it is currently about 1 ton of grain per person per year, of which only about 150 lbs are consumed directly. The rest is eaten in the form of meat, milk and eggs, the grain having served to feed the animals. The Americans’ per capita beef consumption alone has increased from 55 lbs in 1940 to 117 lbs in 1972.

Demand from abroad is also increasing dramatically, and the US has been quick to seize the opportunity to export agricultural produce to pay for increasing imports. Thus, exports of agricultural commodities went up from $6 billion five years ago, to an estimated $11 billion in 1973.

As Lester Brown points out, many people don’t grasp fully the magnitude of the Soviet grain imports. In the year ending 30 June 1973 the Russians imported far more food than any country in history—an estimated 28 million tons, of which about 16 million tons came from the USA. This is nearly three times more than India imported during the food crisis years of 1966 and 67.

Lester Brown thinks that imports will continue. “We’re moving into a very interesting situation in the world food economy in which two countries which have historically turned to the oceans for their animal-protein supplies—Japan and the Soviet Union—may be in trouble because of depleted world stocks of fish. If these two nations have to turn to world grain markets to offset a decline in fish supplies, we will undoubtedly see some very keen competition among the Japanese, the Russians and the West European countries for available food exports.”

As it turns out, Russian orders for American wheat have fallen this year. But this fall has been more than compensated by orders from other countries, such as China, India and Japan.

The problem is going to be exacerbated by the exorbitant cost of producing America’s food. I refer to the real costs in terms of resources, energy and environmental damage; which at last are becoming better reflected in monetary costs.

Every year it is estimated that American tractors alone consume about 8 billion gallons of fuel, whose energy value alone is equal to that of I the food crops consumed in the US (“Farming with Petroleum”, Michael J. Perelman, Environment, October 1972).

American farmers, in addition, consume about 2.5 per cent of all electricity used in the US, the equivalent of 350 trillion BTU’s of fuel. It has been estimated that more than 10 million BTU’s of energy are used for each acre of land cultivated in the US (Perelman). In fact, about five times more energy is used by farmers than is consumed in food, and this does not take into account the energy required to produce the farm equipment, nor that used to store and distribute the food.

Consider that about 7 per cent of the total US rubber production, and about one third as much steel as goes into the automobile industry, are used to make products bought by farmers.

In 1969 US farms consumed about 7.5 million tons of nitrogen fertiliser, requiring for its production the equivalent of about 1.5 billion gallons of petroleum, and, it must be remembered, nitrogen fertiliser makes up only one fifth of total commercial fertiliser consumption.

As Perelman points out, Chinese wet rice agriculture can produce 53.5 per cent BTU of energy for each BTU of human energy expended. A Chinese farmer gets back 50 times his energy input, the American farmer barely a fifth. On this basis, Chinese wet rice agriculture is 250 times more efficient than US agriculture, 250 times cheaper in terms of ever more costly inputs (without taking into account those going into production of agricultural equipment).

America cannot afford her agriculture. The world cannot afford to provide her with the unbelievable quantities of the various inputs it requires, at an economic price (that is why prices are rising so dramatically). On the other hand, the world cannot afford to be without American wheat, feed grains, and vegetable oils.

This leaves us with a nice little dilemma to tax the ingenuity of our enlightened politicians and their august experts!

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