Food: Will It Always Be There?

By William J. Makofske

Here in the United States, the issue of food availability is taken for granted. Grocery stores are packed with all kinds of food from around the world. Of course, shoppers who look closely at their grocery bills may notice the price of food has gone up substantially in the past few years. Then again, they may not. We are a very wealthy country, and food costs as a percentage of income are relatively low compared to others. Food insecurity today is primarily due to poverty, not supply.

But what about the future?

According to many food experts, including Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, who is writing a new book on food and world agriculture titled “Full Planet, Empty Plates,” the situation is approaching crisis proportions. Food production is a complex system that involves many interacting components, including available water, arable soil, sufficient land, fertilizer, a lot of input energy, biofuel production, and a stable climate.

Food supply also depends on the number of mouths to feed. World population has gone from around 1 billion people in 1800 to roughly 7.3 billion today. In simple math terms, that’s 7.3 times the number in 1800. Population is still increasing, adding an additional 80 million people each year, or another billion in roughly 12 years. Can we keep increasing our food supply? Let’s look at only one component – water – affecting the system and see why increasing supply is problematic.

Many books have been written on water scarcity. Fresh water from rainfall, rivers, or aquifers, is needed to grow food. However, changing climate patterns are making the interiors of the large grain-producing countries hotter and dryer, thus reducing yields. In many countries, decreasing river flows that cross borders between nations have created serious conflicts over available supplies. Climate change is also causing the warming air over tropical oceans to become increasingly saturated with evaporated water, which subsequently comes down in buckets, and afterwards, not at all, causing a feast/famine cycle in water supply.

Around the world, water scarcity is an increasing problem, particularly where irrigation is needed. Many Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan, are importing large amounts of grain as they deplete their aquifers. Brown notes that some 18 countries, containing 3.6 billion people, including China, India and the United States, are over pumping their aquifers. What will we use instead? Now we are into big time fantasy: desalinization which is very costly, diverting melting glaciers from the Arctic or Antarctic, or emptying the Great Lakes.

Today, larger and larger areas of the United States are suffering from drought, and in the west, water conflicts are intensifying. Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, is literally drying up. We could of course use underground water from aquifers. We do, so much so, that some of the largest fossil (cannot be replenished) aquifers, like the Ogallala aquifer in the Great Plains, an important source of water for Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska is dropping fast. It will run out. In recent years, growing towns and cities in the west have purchased large amounts of water from farmers, reducing food production. As I write, California, one of the great food- producing states, is in an unprecedented water crisis. Lack of rain and mountain snow melt-off has created the worst drought since the 1850s, when records were first kept.

If all the factors affecting food production are examined, the picture is not pretty. With low grain carryovers from year to year, it would take only one bad year in two large grain-producing areas to cause an unprecedented food crisis. Or we can just let the current trends in water supply, arable land, biofuel production, climate change and population growth continue unabated. We will reach the same place sooner or later.

Dr. William J. Makofske, Professor Emeritus of Physics, Ramapo College, is an environmental physicist who studies energy and environmental issues. He is a member of Sustainable Warwick where he is the energy adviser for the Energize Warwick campaign.




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One Response to “Food: Will It Always Be There?”

  1. Jo Galante Cicale Says:

    a person i know owns the water caves in and around ellenville. i asked him once what he planned to do with them. he told me that the future holds water wars. your article highlight’s his own grim assessment. we need serious policy changes to address this or suffer peril. great article and thanks for the thought.

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