Sunday, 22 March 2009

A “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by 2030

We are currently in the middle of a credit crunch – a crisis caused by our own risk taking trait in the economic sphere – and the effects of it are proving to be quite painful. But have you considered the possibility that we could be heading towards a different type of credit crunch, one affecting our environment, sometime in the future? This is what the UK government’s chief scientist, Prof John Beddington, warned recently at the Sustainable Development UK conference. He said the growing world population will cause a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by 2030.

The world population has tripled over the past 70 years and it is expected to reach 8.3 billion by 2030, by which time demand for food and energy will have risen by 50% and fresh water by 30%. Climate change will exacerbate matters in an unpredictable way. Prof Beddington thinks the UK will be relatively fortunate not to experience its own shortages but “we can expect prices of food and energy to rise.” In other parts of the world, particularly the developing world, the amount of fresh water available per head of the population is expected to drop significantly.

These are certainly grim predictions but not unreasonable considering current trends. Remember the spurt in food prices last year? In many countries, population growth has surpassed food production in recent years. Just because prices have eased a bit recently it does not mean that they are going to stay that way. If the world population continues to grow and we do not have the equivalent of another Green Revolution, there could be serious food shortages in the future and higher food prices are inevitable.

In the developed countries, where population growth is either negative or very small, there are no shortages of food. These countries have on average substantially higher rainfall than poorer countries; they have surpluses of food and could expand food production if they wish. This is not the case in developing countries, where populations are still growing quite fast; they do not produce enough food to feed their people and they cannot afford to import sufficient food to close the gap. Food production capabilities are deteriorating for a number of reasons:
  • Limited arable land. Not all land is good or receives sufficient rainfall. Increases in food production would have to come from existing arable land.
  • Shrinking size of family farms. In many developing countries, the size of small family farms have been cut in half over the past four decades, as plots are divided into smaller and smaller pieces for each new generation of heirs.
  • Land degradation. Overworked and exposed soils are eroded by wind and water. Faulty irrigation and drainage can make land useless through waterlogging and salinization. Misuse of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides also contribute to soil degradation.
  • Water shortages and degradation. When water becomes short, farmers find it difficult to maintain crop production.
  • Irrigation problems. Less than half of all water meant for irrigation purposes actually reaches the crops. The rest soaks into unlined canals, leaks out of pipes or evaporates on its way to the fields.
  • Waste. A lot of food is wasted simply by rat or insect infestation, spoilage and losses that occur during transportation.
Demand for meat in developing countries is growing much faster than for cereals – close to 3% per year compared to 1.8% for cereals. For instance, in China, rising incomes and changing diets have resulted in greater demand for poultry and pigs. This means that demand for cereals to feed livestock, and in turn water, will increase significantly in developing countries, putting pressure on grain producers. It takes 4-5kg of feed to produce 1kg of meat.

Slower population growth in developing countries would allow more time to achieve sustainable food production. Results have shown that higher female literacy and better access to health care services can lower fertility rates. Therefore, the widespread provision of basic education and health care should be a priority for governments in developing countries. There is still a lot of indifference to education in many places, so it is important that initiatives encourage people to view it in a more positive way.

As populations have grown, so too have carbon dioxide emissions. More people mean more houses, cars, planes, and power stations. Developed countries still have much higher per capita emissions than developing countries, but the gap is slowly narrowing. China has recently overtaken the US as the world’s biggest producer of carbon dioxide. More needs to be done to move to a low-carbon economy, otherwise the effects of climate change we are already seeing today are going to increase.

If we do not act now, I believe the combined effects of population growth and climate change are going to lead to serious problems in the future. As human beings we have a tendency to be very complacent when things appear to be going smoothly. It’s only in a time of crisis we actually realise our folly of ignoring past warnings, but scientists have been warning us for years about the effects our behaviour is having on the environment. Without more concerted international action a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages could be far more painful and far-reaching than the current economic crisis. These problems, unlike the current credit crunch, won’t be temporary; they will last much, much longer.

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