How food shortages will bring more global unrest


5:59 pm - April 22nd 2011

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contribution by David Malone

It’s not often that one can look into the future and say with some degree of certainty what is going to happen and where.

Thanks to a just released World Bank/IMF report, I think we can say the social and political upheaval that has swept from Tunisia and Egypt to Iran, Sudan and Syria, and which has been, at least in part, fueled by spiralling food costs, is going to intensify and spread to new countries. We can even, I think, hazard an informed guess as to which countries will be next.

Last week on April 16th the IMF and World Bank held a joint meeting to discuss a study they had commissioned on world food shortages and prices.

It makes for grim reading and says quite clearly that the global food price crisis is going to get worse. At the meeting Robert Zoellick, the World Bank President, said the global food situation was “one shock away from a full-blown crisis.”

According to their report, in just 10 months, since June 2010, 44 million more people are having to live on less than $1.25 per day, which is the poverty line set by the World Bank. 44 million more hungry and frightened people watching food, which only a short time ago they could afford, now spiralling beyond their reach.

It’s not the already abjectly poor who worry the World Bank and our political leaders. It is those who thought they had struggled up out of hopeless poverty but who, as food prices spiral up, will now have the sickening sensation of feeling themselves and their families slipping back in to hunger and desperation. They are the tinder for revolution.

In an article I wrote back in Feb called Food, Democracy and Markets, I made the point that we could make sense of which countries had had uprisings simply by looking at which most relied on importing Wheat to feed their people.

Wheat was and is the most important food import in Egypt and most of the other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, and experienced the greatest price rises and volatility over the last year. Those countries which imported the most wheat per capita were the ones where the people took to the streets in protest.

The simple fact that there are another 44 million people reduced to hunger says the unrest is not over. But what, I suspect, really alarms Mr Zoellick, however, is the clear prospect that with prices of food continuing to rise their study indicates,

another 10 million people may end up among the ranks of the poverty-stricken if food prices climb by a further 10 percent, and another 34 million would suffer a similar fate if prices of staples were to rise by 30 percent.

Will the price of food continue to rise? Food prices, with generous help from speculators, spiked in 2008 and then fell back. The bad news is that since the middle of last year food prices have been rising sharply. Today they are almost back at the highs of 2008 and the trend is up further.

Prices are already up 63% from a year ago.

The difference from 2008, is that globally we have not replenished world reserves to off-set another spike and we are facing bad harvests in a number of countries. China is still in the grip of a long and widespread drought. If the drought does not break China may seek to compete for imports.

At the same time a severe drought

… has hit corn and plantain production in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Among all Eastern African countries, Somalia was worst affected by drought where the price of sorghum and maize increased by 80 percent and 20 percent respectively in comparison with January.

It is easy to see political and social unrest spreading south form North African countries down the East coast of Africa to nations already riven with internal conflict.

In Bangladesh the government headed off unrest by stabilizing prices using its own stocks of rice. Stocks which is now needs to replenish by doubling what it imports. But with other countries also needing to increase imports what price will Bangladesh have to pay and will it have the means?

Any further spread in Africa will also feed back I think, to those countries already in open revolt. I think Egypt is not settled by a long way. If, as it appears, wheat is going to remain expensive and perhaps get more so, then the military in Egypt will not, I don’t think, be able to keep the lid on things as they have done in their brief honeymoon period.

And last but not least food prices rises are going to become a factor here in Europe and in America. Food prices went up 2% just last month in Hungary. They have been going up in Portugal. Austerity and food price rises are a volatile mixture.

I think we are getting a little fore taste of the resource wars to come. Food, Water and Oil to name but three.


David Malone is author of the book Debt Generation

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Reader comments


What’s significant to me is that neither the word “finite” nor “population” occur in your little essay. I don’t know how long I, and others, have been stating the obvious: it is a finite planet. To imagine that any species can proliferate in numbers and consume infinitely, is madness. However, on both the left and the right we have been told that this is nonsense. Mankind will always find a way, human ingenuity will always triumph – or in more prosaic terms – something will always turn up. Perhaps we are on the cusp of massive change in our weltschauung, whereby even socialists and libertarians will be able to bring themselves to acknowledge that the world’s resources are finite.
Would we face the prospect of resource wars if the human population was half of what it is now, or even if it were to stabilise tomorrow? The answer is emphatically NO. Egypt adds 1 million people to its population every nine months. The population of the Middle East is predicted to double by 2030. Libya imports more than 70% of its food. Since Ethiopia required international help to feed itself in 1985, it has doubled its population. This beginning of resource wars is nothing more than chickens coming home to roost. I quote from an article by D.J. Taylor in the Independent just a few weeks ago:

‘Whether we like it or not, given the increasing strain on resources, a “Free Middle East”, just like a “Free China”, is eventually going to mean lower living standards in Europe, another incremental adjustment in the vast, tectonic shift of power between West and East that is going to be such a feature of the 21st century. One wonders quite how many of the people zealously pronouncing on “Egypt’s quest for freedom” have grasped this point’.

. . . and from a letter in the Times 17.2.2011
While prices are rising it is by no means clear that we have internal inflation. On the contrary, the British economy, along with many advanced Western economies is suffering the beginnings of a long extended deflation of real living standards through unavoidable external world commodity and resource pressures. Wealth is being shifted to new parts of the globe by forces with which the bank cannot possibly compete.
from Morris Lawson, Sonning, Berkshire.

@1 Here’s a good question for ya: What would you have done about it?

cyclux @ 2:

I would have done what I’ve been doing since the 1960’s – point out that smaller human populations provide greater food security, a higher standard of living, and a better quality of life for humans, and, moreover, are good for all the other species on this planet which are rapidly diminishing and disappearing as a result of human actions. For the latter, just Google Sixth Great Extinction. But I, and others, have been wasting our breath for decades. The response you usually get from both left and right are things like: “So you want to exterminate the human race? So you want to kill babies?” and the like.

@1

I would tend to agree with your point. Politicians of all stripes have for decades ignored (the blindingly obvious) concept of finite resources, and before long this will no longer be possible. But with one caveat. The world’s rich countries consume a vastly disproportionate share of the world’s resources. So blaming people in poor countries is probably misguided. If people in the west consumed less meat, for example there would be far more grain available.

Unfortunately I think this sort of thing is going to get worse in the future. With the twin impact of peak oil and global warming. I’m not sure there are any simple answers.

My hunch is that the predictions made by the the Club Of Rome back in the 1970s about the end of growth are rapidly coming to pass.

There is no doubt that rising food prices can be a catalyst to spark serious unrest in a variety of countries. However, a bit of historical context for the real inflation adjusted price of crops is useful.
https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/–QBACaHQzYM/TYs0lX9SK6I/AAAAAAAABno/fRup5ouZR9I/s1600/Screen+shot+2011-03-24+at+8.09.13+AM.png

Even with rising populations the real price of food gets cheaper over time through improvements in agricultural productivity outpacing increases in demand. That has been the human experience throughout history. Whether the world can continue raising agricultural productivity is a question that I doubt anyone truly knows the answer. There will be some degree of a self-correcting mechanism through higher prices making nonviable production viable at the higher prices. Perfectly usable cropland has not been getting used because low prices did not justify the investment. That all changes with price rises and one can see the effect with agricultural land prices rising all over the world. Therefore, the supply side does put a check on rising prices. However, unused usable cropland is not much good if the region is suffering from drought. Water really is the key.

As can be seen from this chart the supply of macronutrients has been rising for the average person over the last fifty years all over the world. There are still people starving in the world but the average person has more calories.
http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-DuyhMk-smsI/TZmxGc5HyFI/AAAAAAAABo4/8wr80S1hFks/s1600/Screen+shot+2011-04-04+at+7.51.12+AM.png

Personally, I see rising food prices as being caused by a combination of factors. Diverting crops to biofuel production, droughts causing supply shortages and increasing demand in the developing world.

An argument attributing food price spikes to biofuels.
http://earlywarn.blogspot.com/2011/03/attributing-food-price-spike.html

An argument attributing food price spikes to drought.
http://tamino.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/food-for-thought/

@5

Even with rising populations the real price of food gets cheaper over time through improvements in agricultural productivity outpacing increases in demand. That has been the human experience throughout history. Whether the world can continue raising agricultural productivity is a question that I doubt anyone truly knows the answer.

Unfortunately much of the increases in food production in the 20th century have been due to the use of fossil fuel heavy technologies, such as mechanisation of farms, pesticides, chemical fertilisers etc.

Try reading this: http://www.energybulletin.net/node/5045

Thus if the price of oil and natural gas climbs, so do food prices. And if oil becomes more scarce, then all bets are off.

“Even with rising populations the real price of food gets cheaper over time through improvements in agricultural productivity outpacing increases in demand. That has been the human experience throughout history”.

But it’s much less trouble if, rather than constantly having to strive to meet ever-increasing demand, that you limit/stabilise demand. Saves a lot of hassle, and means that all the resources used in the striving can be used to improve life in other ways. Being a sentimental old thing, I have rather a fondness for the rest of the biosphere, too. It really could do with some respite from the depradations of homo sapiens.

Hello Trofim,

I replied to your comment over on my blog so I won’t repeat what I said there, but since I’m here…

You quote D.J.Taylor in the Independent asking if people have grasped how the quest for ‘Freedom’ is also a quest for a fairer share of the planet’s resources. I wonder if it’s possible to imagine people would want freedom but not want a better standard of living?

We do indeed live in a finite world and that, for me, means will must sooner rather than later face the quesion of whether our concern for freedom will come second to our desire to have more than our neighbor. If it does then we will inneveitably commit ourselves on the side of oppression.

We are entering the beginning of resource wars. We will either fight for a fair and sustainable global system, which will have to include giving people the security so that they don’t think having a large family is the only way of securing their old age, or we will fight simply to make sure others have less so we can have more.

The wiggle room for claiming to be noble while actually being venal is running out. That was one resource the Club of Rome did not, so far as I remember, talk about.

The Club of Rome will be proved right. They were wrong before because, I believe, they used essentially linear models for whjat are non-linear phenonema. The Club of Rome were an intellectual descendent of teh pioneers of Cybernetics which was rooted in a linear technological faith in Command and Control. It failed. They failed. But their hearts were, I believe, in the right place.

For the benefit of Trofim:

Thomas Malthus: “The constant effort towards population, which is found even in the most vicious societies, increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased.”

Complete and utter bollocks, of course. Humans breed less in developed societies because they are less dependent on quantity of direct offspring for income. Humans breed more prolifically in subsistence societies in order to survive; it is wise to have children when the weather and crops are in your favour to manage future misfortune. As a consequence of these opposite dynamics, global population is stabilising.

David Malone is mistaken to assume that we do not have enough food to feed all of the world. We have enough food already, and if I am wrong on that, I will argue that we have the capacity to create enough. The argument is not about enough, but about distribution or the capacity to buy food.

David Malone notes: “According to their report, in just 10 months, since June 2010, 44 million more people are having to live on less than $1.25 per day, which is the poverty line set by the World Bank.”

For the poorest in the world, dollar is an abstract. Reality is calories in the stomach. People need to be able to buy food at honest prices, from local producers or from internationals. Calories. Dollars are what you use to get on in the world, to buy a mobile phone, to build brick walls.

Rising food prices are going to be the key manifestation of global warming. An extra long drought here, another ‘100 year’ flood there and all of a sudden food prices escalate. Then food becomes scarce. Then people start fighting.

While that scenario is already unfolding, we’re governed by a shower of cunts who think the Climate Change and Clean Air acts might be “red tape”.

~~~

1. Trofim

> What’s significant to me is that neither the word “finite” nor “population” occur in your little essay.

And what would be the solution in your little opinion? I mean a real solution, not “point[ing] out that smaller human populations provide greater food security”. We can all sit around and state the blindingly obvious, but it doesn’t help much with real world problems.

> …proliferate in numbers and consume infinitely, is madness. However, on both the left and the right we have been told that this is nonsense.

Who has said we can continue consuming “infinitely”? It seems to me that the clear message from the left is that the gluttonous, unsustainable feast needs to stop.

The right continues to believe the free market and growing GDP will solve everything – while trying to blame the failure of that belief on poor people in Africa having children.

> Would we face the prospect of resource wars if the human population was half of what it is now…

Would we face the prospect of resource wars if there 10 habitable planets orbiting the Sun?! When you’ve finished frothing over fantasies, come back to Earth and offer some real solutions.

@3

I would have done what I’ve been doing since the 1960?s – point out that smaller human populations provide greater food security, a higher standard of living, and a better quality of life for humans, and, moreover, are good for all the other species on this planet which are rapidly diminishing and disappearing as a result of human actions.

So, nothing, in a nutshell.

Personally I’d have gone for worldwide emancipation of women for starters.

For an alternative assessment to the environmental stuff, try this speech on 11 April 2011 of Janet Yellen, Vice Chair of the Governors of the US Federal Reserve Board on: Commodity prices, the economic outlook and monetary policy:
http://www.bis.org/review/r110413c.pdf

One of the continuing problems I have with the “environmentalist interpretation of history”, with its claims of unrelenting pressure on finite world resources, is that food prices were mostly flat between the surge of 1973/4 and the surge in 2006/08. This is not what I would expect to see but a scenario of continually rising prices. That didn’t happen.

Try this on the famous Simon-Ehrlich wager in 1980 on whether prices of five commodities chosen by Ehrlich of FOE would rise or fall during the decade to 1990. Ehrlich bet the prices of his choice of five commodities would rise over the decade – as would be expected on the thesis that the world is running out of finite resources. Ehrlich lost the bet:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon%E2%80%93Ehrlich_wager

The Wiki entry includes a useful graph plotting the course of the prices of the five commodities 1950 through 2002.

More analysis of the food price crisis with another graph plotting a selection of crop prices 1960 through 2008
http://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/david.harvey/ACE2006/Principles/2008FoodPriceCrisis.html

12. Bob B

> …mostly flat between the surge of 1973/4 and the surge in 2006/08. This is not what I would expect to see but a scenario of continually rising prices.

Why? The global economy is a Ponzi Scheme built on top of consuming finite resources as though they are infinite. You don’t pay the true cost of your food or your energy or your mobile phone. It’s all subsidised by taking from the environment.

The world’s remaining rainforests are being clear cut to grow palm oil and cheap beef for consumption in Europe and the US. We’ve scooped out 90% of the ocean’s large fish in the past 50 years. We’re not slowing down.

Regardless of the details of the Easter Islanders, that parable applies to humanity. We’re literally racing to chop down the last stand of trees on the only ‘island’ we have. It seems that not enough of us understand or care about that to avoid the unpleasant consequences that will certainly follow.

Charlieman,

I did not say the world does not or can not produce enough food. Please attribute your pet hates to someone else if you don’t mind.

For the record I believe Frances Moore-Lappe proved rather conclusively many decades ago that the world does produce enough food for all. We just chose not to let many people have their share. Since then people like Vandana Shiva have done a great deal to expose the real reasons why people are starving.

16. Charlieman

@6. Graham: “Unfortunately much of the increases in food production in the 20th century have been due to the use of fossil fuel heavy technologies, such as mechanisation of farms, pesticides, chemical fertilisers etc.”

I cannot disagree. We need to move on. Pesticides and fertilisers pollute our water. We have fuck wit politicians who cannot understand that fuel oil from rape seed is an economic dream. Sort it out.

We could, of course, try to use genetically modified crops. And we should listen to the organic argument, with regard to what tastes good.

Here’s a very interesting documentary on youtube about agriculture, and it’s dependence on oil. It’s in five parts:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xShCEKL-mQ8&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL

‘Whether we like it or not, given the increasing strain on resources, a “Free Middle East”, just like a “Free China”, is eventually going to mean lower living standards in Europe, another incremental adjustment in the vast, tectonic shift of power between West and East that is going to be such a feature of the 21st century. One wonders quite how many of the people zealously pronouncing on “Egypt’s quest for freedom” have grasped this point’.

I see this rubbish spouted again anda agin by right-wing commentators with increasing frequency – i feel it is the next spin as to why the rights of the western world’s general population are being continually eroded, as when enough people wake up to it and satrt angrily demanding answers – which -eventually – they will – they want their narrative already set (of course the truth is the middle classes are being dismantled to make a tiny global, stateless superrich even richer, with the help of completely bought and sold political lackeys of the single three-winged business party of state)

@14: “The global economy is a Ponzi Scheme built on top of consuming finite resources as though they are infinite. You don’t pay the true cost of your food or your energy or your mobile phone. It’s all subsidised by taking from the environment.”

If so, why haven’t commodity prices RISEN on trend over the last forty or fifty years?

I lived through scare mongering of the infamous Club of Rome report of 1972: Limits to Growth. The world was going to run out of (finite) resources some time around the end of the last century, as I recall. There were many graphs of computer simulations to prove it was going to happen. It didn’t.

I reckon these periodic frighteners are put out as a means of whipping up new subs and donations from the gullible for environmentalist causes.

Try the annual report of Friends of the Earth (UK) for 2010:
http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/reports/ltd_annual_report_2010.pdf

16. Charlieman

> We could, of course, try to use genetically modified crops.

Except that’s just another way to destroy the environment we depend on to survive. And GMO does not produce the benefits that Monsanto claim. What a surprise.

* Genetically engineered corn and soybeans in the United States for more than a decade has had little impact on crop yields despite claims that they could ease looming food shortages. http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5g53DoblG25y7O5t4KPsuzYyxMd6Q

> And we should listen to the organic argument, with regard to what tastes good.

It’s about a lot more than taste:

* Organic farming produces the same yields of corn and soybeans as does conventional farming, but uses 30 percent less energy, less water and no pesticides, a review of a 22-year farming trial study concludes. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/07/050714004407.htm

* Commercial Organic Farms Have Better Fruit and Soil, Lower Environmental Impact. Side-by-side comparisons of organic and conventional strawberry farms and their fruit found the organic farms produced more flavorful and nutritious berries while leaving the soil healthier and more genetically diverse. “We found that the organic farms had strawberries with longer shelf life, greater dry matter, and higher antioxidant activity and concentrations of ascorbic acid and phenolic compounds…” http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100901171553.htm + http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0012346

@19

If so, why haven’t commodity prices RISEN on trend over the last forty or fifty years?

I lived through scare mongering of the infamous Club of Rome report of 1972: Limits to Growth. The world was going to run out of (finite) resources some time around the end of the last century, as I recall. There were many graphs of computer simulations to prove it was going to happen. It didn’t.

Actually, I think many of thir predictions are starting to come true. In 1998 the price of oil was around $20 a barrel, it has risen consistantly over the past decade and is now regularly topping the $100 per barrrel mark. Even the usually conservative International Energy Agency is coming round to the view that we have, or are soon going to reach the point of ‘peak oil’. Hence the spiralling cost.

http://makewealthhistory.org/2010/11/11/iea-peak-oil-happened-in-2006/

Given how dependent our food systems (and indeed everything else) now are on oil, this must have a big impact.

19. Bob B

> If so, why haven’t commodity prices RISEN on trend over the last forty or fifty years?

Ummm… for the exact reason I stated. “You don’t pay the true cost of your food or your energy or your mobile phone. It’s all subsidised by taking from the environment.”

That works fine until we reach peak oil, peak phosphorus, peak fish, etc. When we hit those limits, the fun begins.

23. Charlieman

15. david malone: “Since then people like Vandana Shiva have done a great deal to expose the real reasons why people are starving.”

Vandana Shiva received a doctorate for “Hidden variables and locality in quantum theory.” That qualification means nowt in the world outside of physics. A very privileged woman.

The world is about people who aspire to own a goat and a market stall.

“In 1998 the price of oil was around $20 a barrel, it has risen consistantly over the past decade and is now regularly topping the $100 per barrrel mark. ”

C’mon. Do you seriously suppose the world price of oil has nothing to do with: (a) the wave of political instability across the Middle East and settlement of the Palestine question; (b) the new, burgeoning demand for oil by China and India and the other emerging market economies as more and more of their resident consumers become sufficiently affluent to buy and run cars?

Back in 1972, the Club of Rome was predicting doom by the end of the last century. That was the context for the Simon-Ehrlich wager in 1980 over what would happen to the prices of five commodities, as selected by Ehrlich, over the following decade. Ehrlich bet the prices would rise, They didn’t. He lost the bet.

Environmentalists have a huge and growing credibility problem in explaining away why commodity prices have not risen on trend over the last half century. If the world really was in grave danger of imminently running out of finite resources, we could comfortably bet that all those nasty capitalist speculators would have acted accordingly. A more serious worry is the extent to which China has become the primary global production source of rare earth metal ores critical for making many electronic devices.

As for oil and the increasing consumer demand for cars in emerging market economies, all the leading global automotive manufacturers are investing hundreds of millions in developing electric and hybrid cars.

“If so, why haven’t commodity prices RISEN on trend over the last forty or fifty years?”

Because the correlation ain’t that simple?

You keep making assertions, but never back them up with evidence. It’s an old and very lazy debating technique. Show us why the trend should be as simple as you claim, or quit peddling the assertion.

23. Charlieman

> Vandana Shiva received a doctorate for “Hidden variables and locality in quantum theory.” That qualification means nowt in the world outside of physics.

And is that a full and accurate reflection of her qualifications and experience? Or is it a tiny percentage of her CV that borders on the dishonest?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vandana_Shiva

> The world is about people who aspire to own a goat and a market stall.

No, I think most people would like a little more – and it’s quite possible to provide it.

@25: “You keep making assertions, but never back them up with evidence”

That is a plain, blatant LIE. I have posted the evidence of trends in world commodity prices, including crop prices, over the last half century with links @12 and @13 above. Commodity prices have not risen on trend as they would have done had the prospect of shortages become increasing imminent. And we can be sure speculators would have bet on that.

Why haven’t you checked out the facts?

Why do you suppose that Ehrlich lost his wager with Simon?

Why didn’t the world run out of those finite resources near the end of the last century as forecast by the Club of Rome in 1972 with its report on: Limits to Growth?

The trouble is that Environmentalism has become a dogmatic faith with no factual basis but which has been found to be an effective way of raising subs and donations from the gullible.

Quote:

A 2007 study compiling research from 293 different comparisons into a single study to assess the overall efficiency of the two agricultural systems has concluded that

…organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base. (from the abstract)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_farming

For a balanced, evidence-based assessment, try this recent leader in The Economist of February 2011:

AROUND the world, the food system is in crisis. Prices have rocketed; they are now higher in real terms than at any time since 1984. They could rise further still if drought lays waste to China’s wheat harvest, as is feared. Food has played some role (how large is hard to tell) in the uprisings in the Middle East. High prices are adding millions to the number who go to bed hungry each night. This is the second price spike in less than four years. Companies are sounding the alarm and the G20 grouping of the world’s largest economies has put “food security” top of its 2011 to-do list.
http://www.economist.com/node/18229412?story_id=18229412

27. Bob B

> Why do you suppose that Ehrlich lost his wager with Simon?

Someone lost a bet on commodity metal prices. So what?

> Why didn’t the world run out of those finite resources near the end of the last century as forecast by the Club of Rome in 1972 with its report on: Limits to Growth?

Because the book never made that claim?

“CSIRO … examined the past thirty years of reality with the predictions made in 1972 and found that changes in industrial production, food production and pollution are all in line with the book’s predictions of economic and societal collapse in the 21st century.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Limits_to_Growth

> The trouble is that Environmentalism has become a dogmatic faith with no factual basis but which has been found to be an effective way of raising subs and donations from the gullible.

Careful. You’re letting your scientific illiteracy show.

Try talking about specifics instead of churning out empty, wingnut rhetoric. Some topics to consider: mass species extinction, ocean acidification, topsoil depletion, global warming (droughts and temperature).

There is no doubt the world is dependent on oil and even if we ignored its polluting externalities the earth is not making more of it. Therefore, it has been running out from the first day we started using it. Most other metal commodities etc can be substituted in some way. Fibre optics in place of copper wire etc. Nearly all the copper ever mined still exists in the world in another form so recycling increases with higher prices. Although, it is almost Republican Party policy that prayer to god will see him refill the oilwells. Most rational people accept that once oil is used it is obviously gone for good. We can’t easily find substitutes for oil because we do obtain high energy returned on energy invested from oil. The ratio has been declining for years as one would expect as easy finds are depleted. Oils use in transport is key as we can find substitutes for all its other uses. Reduce our oil dependency for transport and we wean ourselves off our oil addiction.

Whether we are past, at or near peak oil production is subject to much debate. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia have been unable to increase their oil production in response to Libya etc. They always had spare capacity in the past. The whole situation is changed if SA are at peak production.

http://earlywarn.blogspot.com/2011/04/disquieting-saudi-oil-indicators-and.html#more

High oil prices are here to stay. However, one must distinguish between the nominal and real price. The highest real prices were during the 1970s.

30. Richard W

> …it is almost Republican Party policy that prayer to god will see him refill the oilwells.

Funny you should mention that: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/04/the_republican_solution.php

I wonder how long before they start sacrificing goats, virgins and burning witches?

@29:

Most of that is plain rubbish and not worth responding to when you are manifestly incapable of understanding the significance of Ehrlich (of FOE) losing that bet he made in 1980 that the prices of five commodities he selected would rise over the course of the following decade.

If world demand was pressing the limits of finite resources we should expect commodity prices to have risen on trend over the last half century. They haven’t.

As said, Environmentalism is a dogmatic faith completely detached from evidence of what has actually happened to commodity prices.

@24 BobB

C’mon. Do you seriously suppose the world price of oil has nothing to do with: (a) the wave of political instability across the Middle East and settlement of the Palestine question; (b) the new, burgeoning demand for oil by China and India and the other emerging market economies as more and more of their resident consumers become sufficiently affluent to buy and run cars?

Not at all, clearly those things are part of it. But world oil production has barely increased since the mid-2000s. Despite record oil prices in the meantime. This does appear to contradict the free market theories that high prices will automatically create new supply. Could it be that the world is finally reaching an absolute limit on how much oil it can produce?

http://ourfiniteworld.com/2011/04/21/peak-oil-april-2011-update/

Back in 1972, the Club of Rome was predicting doom by the end of the last century.

No they weren’t. They never said any such thing. This is a canard often repeated by people who have either never actually read The Limits to Growth, or who want to beat up a straw man. They were actually projecting on a timescale of 100 years (up to 2070). And the abillity of exponential growth to creep up and suddenly overwhelm any system.

Below is an interesting article written about ten years ago by the late energy economist Matthew Simmons which explores what the Club Of Rome actually said.

http://greatchange.org/ov-simmons,club_of_rome_revisted.html

@Bob B

Perhaps you should read what I actually wrote before being abusive? You keep putting up a strawman argument about two trends and their supposedly simple relationship, and so far you’ve produced precisely zero evidence to show that this is the case. Cite as much irrelevant statistical noise as you like – but you still haven’t tried to make a case for your key assertion. Until you do, all the irrelevant and abusive waffle in the world won’t cut it.

@Bob B

“If world demand was pressing the limits of finite resources we should expect commodity prices to have risen on trend over the last half century.”

Points for persistence, none for peddling flawed logic divorced from reality. Think about your claim of “over the last half century” in relationship to “pressing the limits”. You’ll get there, if you just try a little harder.

@30: “High oil prices are here to stay. However, one must distinguish between the nominal and real price. The highest real prices were during the 1970s.”

I reckon that the leading automotive companies wouldn’t have invested hundreds of millions each in developing electric and hybrid car options unless they seriously expected oil prices to stay high. I’ve noticed that my local Comet store down the road has invested in setting up a series of plug-in points for electric cars to recharge in the car park at the front of the store. That investment in recharging infrastructure for electric vehicles is a necessary preliminary to make the transition. Btw no one seems to have remarked on the gradual switch to diesel-engined cars, which do a far better mileage to the litre than cars with petrol engines. At the start of the 1980s, passenger cars with diesel engines were very unusual.

“”Personally I’d have gone for worldwide emancipation of women for starters.”””

No you would not. You lie!

Because that would involve you actively criticising almost entirely Islamic countries and lifestyles (The Left!? Do that?! Never!) and the rest being basically non-white countries/societies.
Again…The Left? Do that? Never!

@35: “Points for persistence, none for peddling flawed logic divorced from reality. Think about your claim of “over the last half century” in relationship to “pressing the limits”. You’ll get there, if you just try a little harder.”

Dumbo, you haven’t taken in the point, have you?

If the supply of a commodity or a crop becomes increasing scarce or costly in real terms to produce in relation to demand its price rises on trend. As the links @12 and @13 show, that hasn’t happened with a wide range of specified commodities. It is up to environmentalists to explain why commodity prices haven’t risen on trend. The environmentalists haven’t done so. We must draw the logical conclusion.

@36 “no one seems to have remarked on the gradual switch to diesel-engined cars, which do a far better mileage to the litre than cars with petrol engines”

While the mpg is a significant factor I suspect that the main reason more people are driving diesels is that they have vastly improved over the last decade or so. Diesel cars used to be slow, had awful acceleration and were as fun to drive as a hearse. Now there are some very good options, all brought to you by that doyenne of evil, the market.

@36: “While the mpg is a significant factor I suspect that the main reason more people are driving diesels is that they have vastly improved over the last decade or so. Diesel cars used to be slow, had awful acceleration and were as fun to drive as a hearse. Now there are some very good options, all brought to you by that doyenne of evil, the market.”

Absolutely. As best I can tell, Peugeot pioneered the development of the better diesel-engined car and its competitors were obliged to follow.

Credit where it is due and Peugeot is not a state-owned motor manufacturing company. Compared with other mainland west European car markets, Britain was a bit slow in switching over to diesel cars. Whenever I go out shopping – by public transport, let it be said – I’m continually amazed at how many are still driving around in big petrol-guzzling 4X4s.

32. Bob B

> Most of that is plain rubbish and not worth responding to…

No, Bob. Mass species extinction, ocean acidification, topsoil depletion, global warming are not “plain rubbish”, they are scientific fact – and you demonstrate your stupidity by making that claim.

You have also demonstrated your wingnut ignorance by making bullshit claims about Limits to Growth – and exposed your intellectual dishonesty by not acknowledging your ‘error’.

And you further demonstrate what an idiot you are with your wingnut rhetoric – “Environmentalism is a dogmatic faith”. Was there nothing worth watching on Fox News today?

> If world demand was pressing the limits of finite resources we should expect commodity prices to have risen on trend over the last half century. They haven’t.

Your simplistic, ignorant belief of how the world economies work is laughable. And wrong – which would be obvious if you actually looked at the price of your precious metal commodities.

Now, why don’t you tell us yet again how “Environmentalism is a dogmatic faith” and Paul Ehrlich lost a bet. See if anyone thinks you’re less of an idiot by repeating the same idiocy.

Re the population thing.

Just here to bring you the good news: we’ve already solved that problem. Yes, population is going to carry on rising for a few decades more: but then it’s going to decline. 9 billion will be the peak, around 2050, then it’ll start to fall again.

So whatever it is that we needed to do to curtail the growth has already been done.

And what was it we needed to do? Get rich, move out of the countryside and into the cities. Which, by and large, is exactly what has happened. We’re now, for the first time ever, a more than 50% urban species.

BTW, I’m always amused by these predictions of food riots in, say, Egypt, when the world price of wheat rises. Don’t you actually know that the Egyptian Government subsidises the price of bread there? That it’s not the rise in global prices which is leading to the domestic price rises, but the gradual withdrawal of the subsidies?

Same in Mozambique a couple of years back…..and if you don’t know this, don’t you think you should before building a global worry off the back of such riots?

David Malone,

In an article I wrote back in Feb called Food, Democracy and Markets, I made the point that we could make sense of which countries had had uprisings simply by looking at which most relied on importing Wheat to feed their people.

How would you describe the governments and markets in those ten countries?

@41: “No, Bob. Mass species extinction, ocean acidification, topsoil depletion, global warming are not “plain rubbish”, they are scientific fact – and you demonstrate your stupidity by making that claim.”

Dimbo. Try not to be totally silly and ignorant. Species extinction has always gone on – look what happened to the dinosaurs about 60 millions years ago long before there were humans about. Mammoths, the Neanderthals and then the dodo became extinct more recently. And there are many more examples of extinct species from pre-industrial times to be found in the Natural History Museum. We tend to overlook how recent the beginnings of industrialisation were in human history. Until the industrial revolution, starting in the late 18th century, living standards for most folk were fairly miserable – average life expectancy at birth c. 1800 was about 40 years.

“Garden birds decline by 20 per cent in four years” because habitats change as gardens get covered over to save an ageing population the costs and pains of gardening. Some human languages have also become extinct when there are too few native speakers left in communities to maintain it.

Global warming is a completely separate issue from Environmentalism. The difficulty the warmers have is explaining away the medieval warm period through to c. 1200 CE, during which vineyards flourished as far north as Yorkshire, and then the little ice age 1550-1850 CE when the Thames often froze over in winter. I recall well the previous climate scare story from the early 1980s – it was not global warming but the return of the next ice age. IMO making money motivates much of this silly stuff. Try this:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/copenhagen-climate-change-confe/6678469/Climategate-University-of-East-Anglia-U-turn-in-climate-change-row.html

We are still waiting for an explanation from you as to why commodity prices didn’t rise on trend over the last half century – as the links @12 and @13 show – if resources were becoming increasingly scarce and pressing against finite limits. We can be sure that the nasty capitalist speculators would have been quick to bet on prospects of the increasing scarcity of commodities. But they didn’t.

The report of the organic farmers quoted @27 showed a firm belief that the world could continue to be fed even with wide adoption of organic farming ways.

45. Charlieman

@33 Graham: “But world oil production has barely increased since the mid-2000s. Despite record oil prices in the meantime. This does appear to contradict the free market theories that high prices will automatically create new supply.”

Oil production is managed by cartels. Thus there is no contradiction of free market theory.

I tend to agree with this analysis and would put a slightly different slant on it:

What is required (due to increasing living costs in general) is a reappraisal of the way we structure society(ies). It is clear that our post-colonial model of dependency and counter-dependency, governed by a complex set of post-colonial structures, isn’t working. And I agree with the author that the revolts will continue to spread (incidentally, there were some great articles in the New Statesman last year pretty much predicting Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria).

I think our entire post-colonial era (1960-2011?) and the offshoot of neoliberalism (which has only served to accentuate difference and the shortage-affluence gap, 1976-2011?) must be shelved and it probably does need serious social unrest to do so. This is not ‘reformable’ as such. This also means in this country – reform is not really a long-term viable option.

To all the Malthusians, how do you know this is the peak? Why not 2 billion more? Why not say the peak is reached at 500 million globally?

44. Bob B

> Dimbo. Try not to be totally silly and ignorant. Species extinction has always gone on…

And how does current species extinction rate compare to the geological background rate?

> Global warming is a completely separate issue from Environmentalism.

That can stand on its own as testament to your stupidity.

The problem with morons is that they never know they are morons.

I think Syria was entirely predictable for unrest. Even more so than Libya.

40% of the population are under 15
60% of the population are under 20
75% of the population are under 35

They have 200,000 people entering the jobs market each year and they are not generating the jobs. Only remittances from Syrians working overseas, oil exports which are in decline and they are probably now a net importer and agricultural exports generate foreign exchange. Agriculture is grossly inefficient as can be seen from the sector requiring 17% of the workforce. Water irrigation systems are badly in need of investment as it is the inefficient system that makes the droughts that they have suffered worse. They spend 2% of GDP on health care and 7% on the military. With 25% of the workforce working for the state and high unemployment for everyone else, poverty, a youthful demographic and declining foreign exchange earnings for the government was always likely to be a toxic brew.

@47

You are a perfect example of that slogan on Orwell’s Oceania: Ignorance is strength.

You have repeatedly demonstrated your complete inability to comprehend and respond to precise arguments.

Just to take the most recent case: the issues about the threat of climate change are logically distinct from claims that the world was going to run out of resoruces near the end of the last century or shortly thereafter. One set of claims could be true while the other is false or vice versa or both could be true/false.

49. Bob B

You keep claiming everyone else is wrong in the face of overwhelming science and evidence that you are a clueless twat.

Your attempt to create strawmen to knock down doesn’t change that fact. No one claimed that climate change is “logically distinct from claims that the world was going to run out of resoruces near the end of the last century”. Only you are battling that argument.

Your ignorance and idiocy has been exposed, not least over your false claims re. ‘Limits to Growth’ and your moronic response to the current, ongoing mass species extinction that “Species extinction has always gone on”.

Would you like to dig your hole of stupidity even deeper? 🙂

@50: “You keep claiming everyone else is wrong in the face of overwhelming science and evidence that you are a clueless twat. ”

Dumbo – that is another LIE. I’m patently not claiming everyone else is wrong.

The “overwhelming science” does not support Environmentalist claims that the world is about to run out of finite resources – on the evidence, there has been no consistent upward trend in commodity prices during the last half century, which is what we should expect to find if there were a market consensus that the world is running out of resources. Ehrlich (of FOE) made a wager with Simon in 1980 that the prices of five commodities Ehrlich had selected would rise over the following decade and he lost the bet to Simon. Evidently, Simon had a better understanding of commodity price trends than Ehrlich had.

As a fact, there are continuing disputes among climate scientists about the most likely extent of global warming by the middle of this century and there most certainly isn’t international agreement on what to do about it. There are unsettled disputes about how much global warming could be the result of natural variations – as has happened in the past. Claims were made about the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic failing – which would greatly affect Britain’s climate – but (thankfully) there is no evidence of that so far. To claim that the science is all settled is demonstrably untrue.

51. Bob B

Focus, Bob. You’re becoming hysterical and (even more) incoherent.

You claimed that ‘Limits of Growth’ stated that “the world run out of those finite resources near the end of the last century”. That was false. Admit it.

You responded to the *fact* of current, ongoing mass species extinction with the idiotic response “Species extinction has always gone on”. Do you understand now why it was an idiotic response?

And your continuing obsession with a bet someone made in 1980 about metal commodity prices is making you look very unhinged. You should stop that.

Good to see you’re now clearly exposing your stupidity on climate change now:

> …there are continuing disputes among climate scientists about the most likely extent of global warming…

No, there is not. Not in terms of whether the effects will be good or bad – only how bad, how fast.

> …there most certainly isn’t international agreement on what to do about it.

Yes, there is. Stop burning fossil fuels.

> There are unsettled disputes about how much global warming could be the result of natural variations – as has happened in the past.

No, there is not. Not to an extent that there is any credible doubt that the majority of recent warming is due to human activity.

Is there anything else you’d like to broadcast your gross ignorance about?

An aspect of this debate that appears to have been overlooked is the interaction between demand for meat and demand for grains. A huge amount of grains go into the production of meat – e.g. corn imported into China goes into pigs and chickens etc. This, by and large, is a highly inefficient use of food resources.

The paradigm for the last 50 years or so has been to deal with food scarcity through boosting the supply through technological fixes. The original green revolution based on fossil fuel intensive farming though, has shown diminishing returns – there is only so much more productivity that can be wrung out of soil, and genetic engineering technologies can also only do so much. A trend in hedge fund / venture capital investment is into agro-technology firms, in the hope of catching breakthrough technologies, but a lot of these also remain uncertain.

The new paradigm, waiting to happen, is to change the demand side of the equation by increasing efficiency of food usage, and that probably means moving away from indirect grain usage through meat and into direct consumption of grains. Kind of a vegetarian revolution to take over from the green revolution.

A related side issue that hasn’t really been fully understood yet is the effect of institutional investors on food. I’ve recently done professional work on food speculation, and this is something that’s definitely set to become a bigger issue as pension funds increasingly allocate resources into index-funds based on agricultural futures (with subequent potential impacts on the real prices of food). Food unrest is as much about volatility of food prices as it is about increases in food prices (i.e. relative deprivation is experienced more acutely if food prices increase sharply suddenly, rather than gradually over time), and the agricultural markets have shown an increasing tendency towards bubble-like pattens that tend to be associated with excessive speculation.

@53

An aspect of this debate that appears to have been overlooked is the interaction between demand for meat and demand for grains. A huge amount of grains go into the production of meat – e.g. corn imported into China goes into pigs and chickens etc. This, by and large, is a highly inefficient use of food resources.

I raised that point earlier. From what I’ve read it takes 4kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef. According to this 800 million people could be fed with the grain used in the US to feed cattle.
http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Aug97/livestock.hrs.html

Bob B @ 44

The difficulty the warmers have is explaining away the medieval warm period through to c. 1200

Eh, What ‘difficulty’? Explaining away what? What needs to be ‘explained away’? Given that you and everyone else knows about The medieval warm period and is an universally acknowledged event among climate scientists, why would scientists need to ‘explain away’ anything? What is in dispute, here? Have you any evidence that anyone has even attempted to explain it away?

The MSM exaggerate the effect on cereal prices of diverting crops to feed animals for the production of meat. It is a neat story of growing wealth in the emerging world leading to higher consumption of meat and dairy products. However, it is not as clear cut as that story suggests.

Some of the meat eating trends in large emerging nations.

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-SPzH0rIAFNw/TZsDYwWnMiI/AAAAAAAABpM/cPpVwKH2hY4/s1600/Screen+shot+2011-04-05+at+7.53.44+AM.png

The somewhat offsetting opposite trend in the developed world.

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-W8yd-gsen3o/TZsDTt59JxI/AAAAAAAABpI/Ctn9Ii6Pr8k/s1600/Screen+shot+2011-04-05+at+7.54.52+AM.png

Although this chart only goes up to 2006, we are not globally diverting an increasing fraction of cereal production to animal feed.

https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/-VfB0QeL3pK8/TYyJ4fkK75I/AAAAAAAABoA/LovnQ11Buu4/s1600/Screen+shot+2011-03-25+at+8.25.41+AM.png

Globally we are getting more calories from animals. However, it is not as large an increase as commonly thought.

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-pu_nVVcF_38/TZsB7ovDEbI/AAAAAAAABpE/WZS16w2lV3w/s1600/Screen+shot+2011-04-05+at+7.49.21+AM.png

Meat production is an inefficient means of producing calories. However, the picture changes when land is taken into account.
http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/oct07/diets.ag.footprint.sl.html

I agree with Suitpossum that the demand side of the equation is important. We have a staggering level of waste. I remember reading a report from one of the large UK food companies a few years ago and they estimated that 70% of calories produced in the UK were not consumed. Various studies of landfill sites have estimated between 40-50% of food bought is thrown out. Faced with rising food prices in the UK most people could do something about it by just wasting less.

@55: “The medieval warm period and is an universally acknowledged event among climate scientists, why would scientists need to ‘explain away’ anything?”

The medieval warm period to c. 1200 CE – and the later little ice-age 1550-1850 – were both well prior to industrialisation. The scientific explanation for those phenomena is in terms of periodic natural variations in the earth’s climate. The obvious question is the extent to which the recent spate of unusually warm summers is attributable to a periodic natural variation in the earth’s climate or anthropogenic global warming.

56. Bob B

> The obvious question is the extent to which the recent spate of unusually warm summers is attributable to a periodic natural variation in the earth’s climate or anthropogenic global warming.

Do you really think that did not occur to the planet’s climate scientists?! How stupid do you think those thousands of PhDs are that they would not look for natural causes? Incredible.

If you ever want to take time off from writing nonsense in comment threads on blogs, all the denier drivel you’ve swallowed is debunked at: http://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php

This explains why your Medieval Warm Period ‘theory’ is nonsense: http://www.skepticalscience.com/medieval-warm-period.htm

And here’s your “it’s natural!” shite: http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-natural-cycle.htm

I do not think it’s entirely helpful for this to degenerate into a debate around climate science. The article is about food issues. Interesting avenues to explore include agricultural speculation, technology, vegetarianism, agro-business etc.

I suspect I’m not alone in hoping that the comments would stay on that track, lest my inbox by inundated with tired ad hominem attacks.

@57: “This explains why your Medieval Warm Period ‘theory’ is nonsense: ”

It doesn’t because it raises further questions but I defer to Suitpossum @58 who complains – with justification – that this thread is about food issues, not global warming.

For a ballanced assessment on current food issues, I suggest starting with the link mentioned @28 to a leader of The Economist in February which signposts further articles, specifically on food and global food prices, in the same issue.

Various lobbies have attributed the causes of the renewed surge in food prices in 2010 – following a surge in 2006-08 – to various factors ranging from the effects of speculation through passing temporary droughts to global warming. If it’s mainly the last, it seems exceedingly doubtful that much can be done apart from handing out aid to impoverished countries as there appears to be little prospect of international agreement on what to do about global warming – for all the strident claims being made about a rock-solid universal scientific consensus.

Accurate analysis and diagnosis of the cause(s) of the recent surges in food prices is an essential first step IMO but then I look at this with an economist’s perspective.

Bob B @ 56

Well, blue rock has pretty much said everything that has to be said. Do you actually think something that ‘obvious’ would not be taken into account before the entire scientific community declares a Consensus on the subject? Can you think of a reason why the something that you have read about on Wikipedia would have been omitted by the World’s climate scientists?

What do you honestly think would happen? Everyone would be in a hushed room and someone without any rudimentary knowledge of the subject would shout out:

“Hey what about…” and add some kind of denier crap that has been answered a million times before?

Are you really that thick, Bob? Do you really hate science that much that you think you can spot something so blindingly obvious that the entire scientific community would have missed? Hey, how is that cure for cancer coming on, Bob? Any insights there that the oncologists have missed, perhaps there is a substance they not used and you could use your unique skills of using Google find something that they have missed? Who knows, perhaps you could mention DNA? I mean ‘we’ all assume that they must be using evidence gleamed from the DNA. Perhaps you could help Stephen Hawking unravel the mysteries of the universe. I read about something called ‘Red Shift’ I suppose you could mention that the next time he phones you up?

Note to Non Tories among us. When I use terms like ‘fuckwits’, ‘Nasty vermin’ and other abusive terms, this is exactly the type or dickhead I am referring to. Someone too stupid to understand the science, but doesn’t even understand that he is too stupid to understand the science. It genuinely never occurred to him that we have already took everything he knows (or read) about climate science into account and a whole fucking slew of things he has no idea about.

These people feel it necessary to pontificate on any subject under the Sun. Fuck me, readers, why do these people think they should be taken seriously?

Suitpossum @ 58

The problem is that when you look at this entire question about food/population growth and all the other issues that orbit this are basically ones of science. Okay, I admit it is about logistics, but in the main, it is science.

Bob B has tipped his hand and shown himself up to have little grasp of science. How can people like him possibily have anything to add when they are so fucking stupid.

@60

I note your stream of puerile ad hominem abuse relating to climate warming but I’m sticking to Suitpossum’s request that we revert to discussing food issues, which is the thread topic – sorry, I do appreciate how disappointed you must be. Perhaps you can manage to contribute something useful about food issues.

Yo Jim, you’re more likely to win arguments if you don’t swear. You shouldn’t let one guy called BobB get you so down man. This is supposed to be a high-class blog.

@62: “This is supposed to be a high-class blog.”

Quite. There are many relating issues contributing to the damaging consequences of the RECENT surges in food prices, including developing the extent and efficiency of retail distribution networks in poorer countries and also such infrastructure issues as telephone networks and highways so traders can gather market information and respond to price differentials. With the advent of mobile phones, it seems highly unlikely that poor countries will ever need to make the costly investments in fixed-line telephone networks that the affluent countries once needed to.

58. Suitpossum

> I do not think it’s entirely helpful for this to degenerate into a debate around climate science.

This is the internet. Things often fly off on tangents. Especially when unrepentant dickheads turn up and start vomiting up drivel that needs cleaning up.

However, climate change is going to be very central to food shortages, so we’re not that far off-topic. See my comment at #10.

P.S. Re. your hand-wringing over sturdy Anglo-Saxon: we have a rich language and it’s there to be used. Whether or not this is “a high-class blog” has little to do with the use of ‘fucks’ and ‘cunts’. I hear the Daily Mail has a strict moderation policy on ‘naughty’ words, though. 😉

~~~

60. Jim

I’m waiting for Brilliant Bob to next tell us that the scientists never thought to check the sun. 😉

~~~

61. Bob B

> Perhaps you can manage to contribute something useful about food issues.

He’s got to be a troll! The idiot who wouldn’t shut up about someone losing a bet from 1980 on metal commodity prices and who has filled the thread with shite is now lecturing others to add something useful. What a cock!

@Suitpossum

The abuse heaped on me here is relatively mild compared with the online debates c. 2000 about whether Britain should join the Euro. I was called “insane” for suggesting that it was not in Britain’s interest to do so. Ah well ! Hopefully we can keep to the challenging issues prompted by the recent surge in global food prices.

Suitposum @ 62

This is supposed to be a high-class blog.

Yeah, and it would be a lot higher class if halfwits stopped posting half-baked ideas about science. Politics, I can understand, but science? How can we take anything that the likes of Bob B says when he is obviously cannot get his head around the concept of a scientific Consensus? If the man is still a Global Warming denier after all these years of the science being in the public domain, then what hope is there for him? What is the point of trying to ‘win’ an argument against someone who thinks he knows more about a subject than the World’s best scientists, despite never even having read a book on the subject?

It is difficult to see what possible benefit a climate change denier brings to a debate about World’s food production. Given that the climate plays a pivotal role in the World’s food production, clearly the World’s food production is going to be affected severely with regard to the scale speed and prognosis of long-term climate change.

Okay, A couple of points. It is pretty clear that the long-term direction of humanity cannot keep on its present course. We cannot keep consuming the Earth recourses at the rate that we do. Whether we like it or not, no matter where you look we in the First World are going to have to consume less. There is little point of expecting those in Asia and Africa to cut its use of resources. These people are living sustainable lives, by and large. At any rate, they are living at a sustainable rate compared to us Westerners.

That might not be nice to say or read, but if we look at this objectively, the richest people on the planet cannot simply use up the poorest people’s arable land for cash crops.

Oh, and the first thing we in the West have to accept is the ditching of biofuels to solve our transport needs.

Yeah, but you waste a lot of energy trying to convince him he’s wrong, which seems a little pointless. I honestly don’t care. I sure you’re all nice people.

I just wrote a paper for on food speculation. I think that’s interesting. Anybody else find that interesting? No worries if you don’t. Anyway, the nub of the matter is both that 1) people in the financial community increasingly see food as a investment asset – which means they perceive a situation of increasing scarcity, much like David Malone does, and 2) the issue of food prices is increasingly tied up with this issue. It’s true the Economist claims there’s no connection, but there are more than a number of us within the financial world who do think it’s quite as straightforward as the Economist makes out. I’d go into it, but I need to go get wasted instead.

Goodnight

@64

He’s got to be a troll! The idiot who wouldn’t shut up about someone losing a bet from 1980 on metal commodity prices and who has filled the thread with shite is now lecturing others to add something useful. What a cock!

For god’s sake don’t get him onto the subject of Nazis and Commies, otherwise you’ll get a right eye opener.

Oh shit!

It happens that I’m not a global warming denier, just an agnostic attempting to deal with fanatics.

Whatever the supposed “scientific consenus” is, there is no imminent prospect of international agreement on the universal policies to apply to arrest global warming..

As Britain is estimated to contribute only about 4% of the gas emissions contributing to global warming there is precious little effective that Britain can do unilaterally. We will need to preceed as best we can on the global issue of the recent surge in global food prices on the assumption that there won’t be any international agreement on global warming.

Even if The Economist leader linked @27 is wrong about speculation not being the major cause of the recent surge in food prices – and I’ve not been convinced by any argument that I’ve come across that The Economist is wrong – it is far from clear just what regulatory authorities in “the western liberal democracies” are supposed to be agreeing to do in concert to curb (adverse) speculation in food commodity trade. And concerted action is needed as the location of speculative financial transactions is very flexible as we learned in September 1992 when Britain was forced to drop out of the European Exchange Rate Mechansim.

For starters, according to The Economist, one factor motivating the recent surge in food prices is the prospect of a poor harvest in China because of drought there.

I can see how cutting global use of biofuels can help to ease demand pressures on global food prices but “Brazil is the world’s second largest producer of ethanol fuel and the world’s largest exporter. Together, Brazil and the United States lead the industrial production of ethanol fuel, accounting together for 89% of the world’s production in 2009” so there is evidently not much scope for effective unilateral action by Britain:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethanol_fuel_in_Brazil

Is it likely that Brazil and the US will agree to cut their production of biofuels?

Even an early acquaintance with the possible causes of the recent surge in global food prices shows that this is certainly not just a “scientific issue”.

66. Jim

> It is difficult to see what possible benefit a climate change denier brings to a debate about World’s food production.

Exactly. In my experience, they bring nothing but bollocks to every subject. Whatever prevents them grasping the reality of global warming prevents them grasping the reality of a cornucopia of issues. “Dare to be cretinous!” is their motto.

Anyone who can remain in denial or ignorant of the mountain of science – or think they’ve outwitted the planet’s scientists after reading a couple of blogs – should really be sat at the short table while grown-ups are talking.

~~~

68. Cylux

> For god’s sake don’t get him onto the subject of Nazis and Commies, otherwise you’ll get a right eye opener.

I tried really hard but could not muster an ounce of surprise. 😉

> Oh shit!

If he blows, you’re clearing the mess up on your own!

Can’t we club together and buy the numpties their own website? Brilliant Bob and Tim Worstofall could compete to see who bores the other to death first. Battle of the Titans!

Bob B @ 69

It happens that I’m not a global warming denier, just an agnostic attempting to deal with fanatics.

How can you be an ‘agnostic’ on a science when you clearly haven’t got a clue about what the theory actually is?

and I’ve not been convinced by any argument that I’ve come across that The Economist is wrong

Hmm, but you have been convinced that scientists have missed the Medieval Warm Period when calculating the amount of extra heat will be trapped in the atmosphere by human CO” emissions?

Sorry Bob, you are simply not equipped to deal with any subject objectively, because your Right Wing ideology blinds you from facts.

FAIL.

Suitpossum @ 67

No-one will be surprised to see the World’s parasites making money from other people’s misery. Nor will anyone be surprised that their apologists have absolved them from blame.

However, it really goes to show that the long-term solution for food is to somehow move it away from the large Global markets. These vermin will deliberately starve millions of people to death for a few fucking quid.

One thing I would look at would be the huge subsidies we give to farmers in Western Europe. With so many of our newer EU member still in mainly agricultural economies, surely to Christ it makes sense to pay agricultural workers in poor agricultural Countries to produce Europe’s food. I don’t have any objection to each member Country subsidising their own farmers, but isn’t there a way we in Britain could divert generous farm subsidy from greedy British farmers to poorer Romanian ones?

Who are you referring to when you say ‘the world’s parasites’? Are they the same as the ‘vermin’? You seem to know a lot about this problem – please explain how the issue of food speculation works.

Romania is covered under the EU CAP. France has the powerful farming lobby. Most British farmers I’ve met seem like nice chaps, didn’t realise they were so nefarious.

Suitpossum @73

British farmer seem like nice chaps only because they drain the rest of us of funds via huge subsidy. A subsidy that is left over from the Post War settlement. Everyone else’s subsidy and protection has been removed since that time, but the farmers have managed to keep theirs intact. Take away their handouts and see how ‘nice’ they become.

I do not have problem with the French subsidising their farmers, using their money of course and would happily see the CAP completely scrapped in favour of something that rewarded poorer EU Counties for producing more food.

It cannot be right for European taxpayers to pay British farmers to transport thousands of people, thousands of miles to grow stuff under poly tunnels. Surely it makes more sense to pay Eastern Europeans to grow food in their own Country and export produce to the rest of Europe. It must surely be cheaper to farm in, say Lativa, than it is to transport everyone here and spend thousands on heating up a poly tunnel?

@42

Said like a Malthusian

73. Suitpossum

> Who are you referring to when you say ‘the world’s parasites’?

Here’s (part of) my answer to that question: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/07/food-water-africa-land-grab

Also, watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5eKYyD14d_0

Our food system is an industrial operation run by entities that are focused on one thing: profit. Everything and everyone suffers if it gets in the way of that. It’s sick. It’s hurting the environment and hurting people.

I can’t remember if it’s the Food Inc. documentary, but I watched something that described how multi-nationals were growing crops in Africa for consumption mainly in Europe, although they sold them in local markets as well. The local farmers could not compete with the prices so they had to look for work elsewhere… many ended up working for slave wages on European factory farms.

And what we’ve seen recently in Bristol is a symptom of that. Corporations forcing themselves on local communities who bring in their own security force (i.e. the police) to protect their interests at the expense of the community.

One of the reasons that the residents of Stoke Croft in Bristol do not want yet another Tescos is because it means they become dependent on a single corporation for their food. As oil prices climb, so will food prices. People are no longer in control of the most basic requirement for life. Growing locally gives control back to local communities.

Referring back to post 73, I’m still interested in who the parasitic vermin are. I think I might be one of them. Just started a blog about being a rat. Resilient creatures.

Anybody got any idea about how to alter the long-term demand side of the food equation towards increased direct consumption of grain, rather than indirect consumption of grain through meat? It would be useful to discover how this might be achieved… taxes… educational campaigns… vegetarian revolution. It seems misguided to focus all the attention on how to increase grain supply, if we don’t address issues of how it’s used.

Farmers in poorer countries do not want or need subsidies to grow food. They just want access to our markets and for surplus subsidised produce not to be dumped in their markets. Our lot in the Western EU want their lifestyles to be subsidised by the rest of us. Apparently the countryside needs someone to look after it although it managed perfectly well for millions of years before them.

A bit of context from an FT article the other day with what is happening in the wheat market would not go amiss.

” With last year’s devastating drought in Russia still fresh in their memories, traders and food industry executives are eyeing this year’s wheat crop with apprehension. Key wheat-growing regions in the northern hemisphere – from western US states to Europe’s farming heartland of France and Germany – have suffered a lack of rain in recent months.

Crop moisture index, showing wheat price and production is still early in the growing season, but already analysts are beginning to mark down their forecasts, and the market is reacting.

The price of benchmark wheat futures in Chicago has risen 22 per cent in the past five weeks and on Wednesday broke through $8 a bushel – nearly a two-month high, although still below recent February peaks. Wheat futures in the UK rose to an all-time high of £222 a tonne.

“We all become meteorologists over the next three months,” says Gary Sharkey, head of wheat procurement at Premier Foods, the UK-based bread maker. “We need some rain quickly to help the crops in both Europe and the southern US. We are on a knife edge.”

” Moreover, given fears of a full-blown food crisis, increases in the price of wheat are disproportionately felt by the world’s poorest, who rely on bread for sustenance. ”

” The focus of most concern is the US. There, the key western growing belt for hard red winter wheat – Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas – is suffering from such hot and dry conditions that some farmers are calling the crop the worst they have seen, while traders are circulating photos of parched fields.

The region is “in a really dire state”, says Luke Chandler, a commodities analyst at Rabobank, a top lender to the agricultural sector. Surveys by the US Department of Agriculture show 36 per cent of the US wheat crop is rated poor or very poor, compared with just 6 per cent this time last year.

From November 28 to April 17, the portion of the winter wheat crop rated in very poor to poor condition climbed from 26 to 68 per cent in Texas; 8 to 69 per cent in Oklahoma; and 25 to 42 per cent in Kansas.

David Streit, senior meteorologist at Commodity Weather Group in Maryland, says: “You will see probably about half of [the] winter wheat crop suffering some significant yield declines unless something drastic happens as far as precipitation activity in the next two to three weeks.”

But the US is not alone in suffering less than ideal weather. Almost all major wheat-growing regions have problems. In Europe, Germany, France and the UK have seen significantly less rainfall than usual in the first four months of the year; so has China. In Canada and the north central US, the problem is snow, which is preventing farmers from planting spring wheat – as well as corn and soyabeans. And Russia is still feeling the effects of last year’s drought, which lingered long enough to hinder development of the winter wheat crop.

The bad weather is making the outlook for high-quality wheat, used to make bread, look particularly tight. While lower-quality wheat futures, traded in Chicago, are roughly flat since the start of the year, higher-quality wheat grown in the plains and traded in Kansas City has risen 10.5 per cent over this period.

Mr Chandler has downgraded his forecast for the US crop of high-protein hard red wheat from 800m to 750m bushels, compared with more than 1,000m last year; some analysts think it could fall as low as 700m. ”

” But the rash of poor weather is prompting some to draw comparisons with last season, when a string of misfortunes, from heavy rain in Canada to drought in Europe and the former Soviet Union, led prices to jump 90 per cent between June and year-end.

“We are extremely nervous about weather conditions, and it’s starting to filter into the market even this early in the game,” says Sterling Smith, analyst at Country Hedging, a commodity broker in St Paul, Minnesota.

Or as one senior food executive puts it: “Here we go again.”

Now feel free to blame the price rises all on speculators. People have done so since the beginning of time and there are lots of vested interests who seek to do so again. All you are doing is channeling the US Right who need a scapegoat because parched fields can’t possibly be anything to do with the climate. I think price rises are a perfectly rational response to actual and expected supply interruptions. All the information is out there and the market is responding as it should to parched prairies.

I am not a scientist so I don’t know how much of this stuff is just weather and how much can be attributed to general climate change. However, I do know if supply drops the price will rise. I do concede that there is some genuine concern with the operation of some futures markets. However, most of the blame speculators meme is on the same level of blame children in the developing world for not dying in infancy.

The debate around food speculation isn’t really about whether food prices should or shouldn’t be rising. Of course they should be rising. It’s about the extent to which it increases volatility of food prices, creating disruptive price signals (e.g. through self-referencing technical trading patterns in futures markets.) and how those price signals can feed back into physical food markets.

I don’t think it’s the biggest issue in the long term. I think it’s a serious concern in the medium term.

78. Richard W

Excellent comment. Thanks for the info.

> Apparently the countryside needs someone to look after it although it managed perfectly well for millions of years before them.

I’ve had several conversations with The Usual Suspects who assured me that forests don’t work properly unless a timber company is in there thinning out the trees.

> …I don’t know how much of this stuff is just weather and how much can be attributed to general climate change.

The general rule is: you cannot ascribe any single event to anthropogenic climate change, but the increasing frequency and intensity of storms and droughts is exactly what is predicted. ‘100 year’ events become a lot more frequent than every 100 years. Russia’s killer heatwave was a ‘1000-year event’ – but some climate scientists have said it would not have happened at all without the 40% increase in atmospheric CO2 that we are responsible for.

* James Hansen: “…would these [extreme] events have occurred if atmospheric carbon dioxide had remained at its pre-industrial level of 280 ppm? … almost certainly not.” http://climateprogress.org/2010/10/01/hansen-extreme-events-2010-2012-record-high-global-temperature/

The other area to add to those you listed suffering from severe droughts: the Amazon. It’s very bad. And we all know what happens to forests whey dry out….

We’re going to pay a heavy price because a few sociopaths want to make a few more billion $$$s that they can’t possibly spend. And they’re defended by cretins like Brilliant Bob here. It’s a formidable enemy: billionaires backed up by moronic footsoldiers.

82. Charlieman

@77 Suitpossum: “Anybody got any idea about how to alter the long-term demand side of the food equation towards increased direct consumption of grain, rather than indirect consumption of grain through meat?”

I’d add a further question. How do we create a rational debate about consumption of less desirable meat products? It makes sense to eat as much as possible of animals and some of the bits (tongue, cheek, heel) sound yuk but make a tasty stew.

Mechanically recovered meat is as nutritious as “real” meat, and the problems with its use are about representation (failing to declare its origin and padding with undigestible animal products). Celebrity chefs sneer at Turkey Twizzlers whilst falling over one another to advocate previously unfashionable cuts of meat. Why can’t they recognise that Turkey Twizzlers appeal to kids and that TTs need to be made better?

On the original question, I’m unsure whether increased consumption of meat has replaced human consumption of grain. Bread, couscous, noodles, pasta etc have always been eaten alongside something. When humans eat less meat or fish owing to economic circumstances, they consume more vegetables, legumes and pulses. We’ll see that shortly in the markets of Greece and Portugal.

@81: “How do we create a rational debate about consumption of less desirable meat products? ”

Good question.

Year after year, in comparative international stats for average life expectancy at birth, Japan comes out among the affluent OECD countries with the longest life expectancy:
http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/22/36/45270718.pdf

I think most observers attribute Japan’s longevity to its unusual dietary preferences, especially a preference for a relatively high proportion of fish in their regular diet.

In February this year, the British government released this report:

Experts from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition are expected to tell consumers to eat no more than 500g of red or processed meat every week, or 70g a day.
http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23926521-eat-less-meat-government-experts-warn-britons.do

Last year, apropos nothing I had said, my GP advised me to eat no red meat. I keep her advice in mind when shopping.

84. Charlieman

@82 Bob B: “I think most observers attribute Japan’s longevity to its unusual dietary preferences, especially a preference for a relatively high proportion of fish in their regular diet.”

There is a correlation with longevity and fish consumption in other countries. But the “unhealthy” French diet also suits them.

“Experts from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition are expected to tell consumers to eat no more than 500g of red or processed meat every week, or 70g a day.”

That’s less meat then the ration your parents received in World War II, Bob.

Japan’s life expectancy numbers are distorted through hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of very old people being counted as alive when they have been dead for many years. Pensions are collected by families so they do not report the death. For example, nearly a quarter of a million centenarians alone can’t be accounted for and are probably dead. Nobody really knows exactly how widespread the fraud of non-existent elderly in Japan. They probably do have a high life expectancy and a healthy diet. However, the national life expectancy figures are not accurate.
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/11/world/asia/11japan.html

@83: “That’s less meat then the ration your parents received in World War II, Bob.”

Perhaps so but try this on the environmental impact of meat production:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_impact_of_meat_production

It takes more than 11 times as much fossil fuel to make one calorie from animal protein as it does to make one calorie from plant protein.
http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/meat-wastes-natural-resources.aspx

I do strive to follow my GP’s advice and avoid red meat although I admit to being ocassionally tempted. As best I can tell, most east Asian countries, including Japan, have higher proportions of vegetables as well as fish in their regular diet. Judging by supermarkets in Britain, Chinese stir-fries, with or without sea food added, seem to be increasingly popular.

87. Charlieman

@84 Richard W: “Japan’s life expectancy numbers are distorted through hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of very old people being counted as alive when they have been dead for many years. Pensions are collected by families so they do not report the death.”

This theory has been popularised in recent months owing to two disclosures of fraud. What do you do with the body, Richard, when you live in a flat complex? When you may not own a driving licence, let alone a car? The cottagers in Yoyogi park must be stumbling in the trees over pensioner graves, dry freezed corpses diminished in an apartment by the air conditioner, transported to interment in a golfing bag.

It isn’t very plausible, is it? Fraud will be small town fraud. Tens of thousands in small towns.

It is only a minority of cases where families have concealed the body. What leaves a lot to be desired is Japanese government cross-referencing with other arms of the state and that leads to distortions. Countless elderly people have died and their remains dealt with conventionally, but the government still pays out pensions to families because one department has poor communication with another department. If the government are recording people as still alive at aged 150, it calls into question the accuracy of all their other figures.

” Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital. “

“Tens of thousands in small towns.”

Japan, with a reported population of 125 million, has enormous conurbations in which it may be easier for old folk to disappear than in the communities of small towns and villages. About 40% of Japan’s population is concentrated on the coastal plain encompassing Osaka and the vast Tokyo-Yokohama conurbation. About a quarter of Japan’s population is aged 65 years or older.

Reflections on: “Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”

How well I remember reading that in Readers Digest in the late 1940s – and too many rely on it avoid any quantification so discussion can ramble on conveniently fact-free, which is often most helpfully conducive for all sorts of nonsense to flourish.

As Disraeli, himself, is reported to have said: There are lies, damn lies and statistics. He also said: Read no history, nothing but biography, for that is life without theory,” which is an even more powerful motivation for the promotion of enveloping opacity. It also perhaps helps to illuminate why, in English culture, academic and intellectual are pejorative expressions and why education is held in such low regard by so many.

Permit me to quote something the late Professor Sir Geoffrey Elton said in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge: The Future of the Past (1968):

Now one of the most curious things about the English, I think . . . is that they suppose themselves to be conscious of history and to be enveloped in History. They are not. They are both indifferent and ignorant as far as history is concerned. If you want a really historically conscious country you have to go either to Central Europe, where they have too much history . . . or to the United States, where they have so little of it. I think that England could do with knowing more about its past, but that’s always been so.

Quoted in Norman Davies: The Isles (1999). Geoffrey Elton was born in Tübingen, under the name of Gottfried Ehrenberg. He fortunately managed to reach Britain in 1939 and, in due course, became Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. He was uncle to Ben Elton.

My motivation for posting links to official data sources is to enable readers to become better aware of accessible sources already in the public domain – and of sources which they have mostly paid for through taxes.

91. Charlieman

@87 Richard W: “Countless elderly people have died and their remains dealt with conventionally, but the government still pays out pensions to families because one department has poor communication with another department.”

Systemic fraud? The concept of conspiracy in Japan? Where your neighbours might know the colour of your undergarments before you wear them?

“The concept of conspiracy in Japan? Where your neighbours might know the colour of your undergarments before you wear them?”

In the big cities in Japan, the residential population densities are very crowded – I have had experience of eating evening meals in Japanese homes. In traditional households, you sit on the floor – really. The high residential densities are often cited as (credible) explanations for how polite and conformist the Japanese are and to account for the low crime rates. Other parts of the explanation relate to the means of social control applied by the Tokugawa shogunate which governed Japan from 1603 through to 1868.

Travelling on the Tokyo subway during rush hour is a unique experience.

The reason foreign car manufacturers found it so difficult to break into Japan’s home market is because cars were typically sold by door-to-door salemen, which meant that foreign manufacturers were obliged to recruit teams of salesmen to do this.

This morning’s Financial Times article about Glencore (world’s biggest physical commodity trading house). Contains some rare insights into the world of physical grain trading…

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/aea76c56-6ea5-11e0-a13b-00144feabdc0.html

Glencore asking the Russian government to suspend exports does not at face value look good. Although, in fairness they did not benefit from force majeure and prop. trading is not a big factor in their business. However, having such a large dominant trader of physical commodities is always going to be worrying. Going public is only going to draw more attention to them because up to now it was true for most people that they were “the biggest company you’ve never heard of.”

The IPO is only going to make them bigger – where are they going to spend all that equity capital they raise: Acquisitions


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