Are you sure Mr. Hanlon?

The storm is coming. One of the great dependables of modern life – cheap food – may be about to disappear. If a growing number of economists and scientists are to be believed, we are witnessing a historic transition: from an era when the basics of life have been getting ever more affordable, to a new period when they are ever more expensive.

Ah, no, I\’m afraid you\’ve not understood the projections. Yes, food is expected to become more exensive. But also more affordable at the same time.

For the driving force of the rise in food prices is expected to be that people are getting richer. Thus able to afford three squares a day, some of them even containing meat. The rise in incomes is expected to be greater than the rise in food prices: thus food becoming both more expensive and more affordable as a portion of incomes.

BTW, if you think that\’s not how the word affordable is used in such contexts then do speak to the booze puritans. They say exactly this: booze has become more expensive but cheaper as a portion of incomes: more affordable.

And if incomes do not rise as predicted we don\’t expect to see the food price rises. For it is not the idea of 10 billion people that is predicted to raise the prices. It\’s the idea of billions currently on $2 a day becomeing billions on $20 that is.

Crops grown to feed people directly currently take up just 4 per cent of the Earth’s available land surface; but crops to feed cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens account for 30 per cent – seven times as much.

I\’d love to know where that number comes from. For it it\’s true then there is no problem with food at all. A 30% rise in population should mean a 30% rise in land used to feed them at static (which certainly ain\’t gonna happen) productivity. So move to 5.5% of land surface feeding humans and 28.5% feeding animals and we\’re done aren\’t we? Which is why I think that number must be wrong: it\’s not quite so trivially simple.

Finally, there is the pernicious effect of speculation. About 80 per cent of the global food trade is now speculative, and firms such as Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank have spent billions gambling on the price of food, artificially driving up prices.

That\’s just fucking bollocks. Man should be ashamed to make such a stupid statement.

So what can we do? Well, first of all, more land will have to be used for food production. That means that, by 2060, we can expect to see the loss of most of the remaining African wilderness.

That\’s bollocks too. What we actually need to do is get productivity on all land up to the levels currently seen on the best farmed of it.

If this is what the science writers think about the subject then God help us all. They are supposed to actually understand the science, aren\’t they?

11 thoughts on “Are you sure Mr. Hanlon?”

  1. is.

    ” Crops grown to feed people directly currently take up just 4 per cent of the Earth’s available land surface; but crops to feed cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens account for 30 per cent – seven times as much.

    I’d love to know where that number comes from.”
    Agristats tells us that in the UK *19%* of land is used to grow crops for humans and *50%* is used to grow grass (a crop) to feed animals. Most of that land is not suitable for growing crops but a significant small minority *could* be used for growing vegetables/crops *if you had enough cheap labour willing to work for £3/hour in all weathers*

  2. Could the answer be more potash?

    Or maybe more CO2. Raise the level 200 ppm and you get about 30% more of staple crops.

    Or maybe more kulaks. According to Oliver Rackham if the Ukrainians ever got their act together they’d bankrupt our barley barons.

    Any more solutions the Guardian will hate?

  3. I expect that 30% is mostly grassy moorland used for sheep grazing, I.e. useless for ‘crops’. More mendacious shite from the Provo wing of the vegetable movement.

  4. “That means that, by 2060, we can expect to see the loss of most of the remaining African wilderness.”

    This really would be fantastic, imagine an Africa that glows at night like the rest of the world.

    Every time time I fly home I see nothing until I see the med.

  5. I have to say, that comment about the African wilderness is just bizarre. Most of the Eurasian steppe remains largely uncultivated, despite including some of the best grain and cattle land in the world.

  6. Pingback: The positive side to rising food prices « Quotulatiousness

  7. Mr. Worstall- the 5th-from-last paragraph (“Finally, there is the pernicious effect…”) is missing the blockquote. Not picking nits- it really threw me.

  8. @ Dave
    Much of the Eurasian steppe is several feet deep in snow in winter and mosquito-infested bogs in summer. Why do they drill for oil/gas in Siberia in winter when it is 30 to 40 degrees below zero? Because the ground will not support the drilling crews, let alone the drilling rig, in summer.
    If you are talking about Ukraine, which is much of the best grain land in the world: that is not steppe.
    Where were you during Krushchev’s “Virgin Lands” programme which planted grain in millions of hectares of Siberia? It was actually a major success but that was disguised by falling production in European Russia and losses due to poor storage (rats and mildew) and transport failings. Siberia has been exporting large amounts of food grain to European Russia for the last twenty years.

  9. John>

    Take ‘much of the Eurasian Steppe’ out of the equation, and you’re still left with a vast area. It is bloody enormous. (And, by the way, the Steppe starts in Ukraine, so that land certainly is Steppe, and gives an idea of the possible productivity of the rest.)

    It’s not well known, but around a century ago Siberia was the second-largest producer of butter in the world. There’s a lot of very fertile land just in the south of Siberia, let alone the vast area to the West of that. The Western Steppe alone is around a million square miles, and still largely empty. In total, we’re talking about an area of comparable size to the total agricultural land in sub-Saharan Africa – quarter to half, depending on sources – but with significantly higher yields – upwards of 500% according to some sources.

    Certainly, there are reasons why it isn’t currently heavily farmed, some of them legacy/political, and some of them actually practical. We can’t just flick a switch and turn on agriculture there, obviously. There is, though, a significant area of land there which could be cultivated and isn’t, so even if crop yields don’t rise, there’s a lot of room left for expansion of agricultural area.

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