Spring 2011

Our starvation diet

The cost of food can be measured in oil, land and lives

Feature Image

Dinnertime: a French cheese appetizer, a thick steak from Texas, nutty basmati rice from Thailand, some crisp spinach from California, a vine-ripened tomato from Peru for color and a nice Australian Shiraz to wash it all down.

Tonight’s menu is a global wonder, with food from five continents delivered fresh to our table. But underlying this bounty is a system of farming and distribution that relies on fossil fuels and contributes to climate change. Our diet is marinated in petroleum and broiled by global warming.

There is a tangled relationship between the food we eat and the environment. Current climate models developed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predict a global temperature increase of 1 to 3 degrees C (roughly 2 to 6 degrees F) by the end of the century that will damage soil and fisheries, create water scarcities and increase crop-destroying severe weather phenomena. These uncomfortable facts raise serious questions about our food supply. Are current agricultural methods sustainable? Will climate change threaten the very climate, soil and water conditions necessary for growing food? Billions of lives hang in the balance.

“People have been warning about worldwide starvation ever since the time of Malthus, but they have always been proven wrong,” says Binghamton University Geography Professor Mark Blumler, referring to the 18th century philosopher’s prediction that the world’s population would outrun its food supply. But Blumler, whose research includes biogeography and environmental history, fears that the coming decades will be different. “We are walking on the edge for many poor countries, with worldwide food supplies at less than 70 days — this is an historical low.”

The future is bleak, according to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). More than 10 million people die each year from starvation and hunger-related diseases, and their numbers will climb in coming decades. By 2050 food production will plateau, and food prices will increase by as much as 50 percent. Meanwhile, the world’s population is increasing by 200,000 people per day — reaching 9 billion in the next four decades.

With the food supply stretching to the breaking point, Blumler worries that an external shock, such as a major economic crisis, could push the world into a hunger crisis: “If there is another collapse of the economy similar to what almost happened in the credit system in 2008,” he says, “and farmers and food shippers can’t get credit to conduct business, we could see many nations plunge into a massive famine.”

Close to the tipping point?

We may already be seeing what the future might look like. In 2008 wheat and rice prices soared by 50 percent, spurred by changing diets, widespread extreme weather, diversion of cropland from food production, speculation in food markets and, most importantly, a spike in the price of oil, which peaked at nearly $150 per barrel. The resulting food riots caused turmoil in 23 nations across Asia and Africa, bringing down the government of Haiti. Increases in the costs of basic foodstuffs also have been implicated in the rioting that convulsed the Middle East this January, leading to widespread unrest in Egypt and causing the removal of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Blumler says the price of oil affects both food prices and the environment. It increases the cost of fertilizer and makes profitable biofuel substitutes, especially corn-based ethanol. “If current trends continue, we will see as much as 40 percent of the corn crop used to make ethanol — already we are seeing large areas of cropland plowed under to make room for ethanol production. It’s getting so we can’t even consider corn to be a food crop.”

Binghamton Biology Professor Richard Andrus agrees. “Ethanol production,” he says, “is the stupidest idea, a kind of technological gimmickry” that takes arable land out of the food-production chain. He is particularly concerned that growing corn for ethanol does nothing to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming.

Andrus, whose research focuses on the biology of native mosses, says, “global warming is happening right now. In Alaska, the effects have been dramatic in terms of declining sea ice and glacial melt.” He worries that climate change will fundamentally alter some of the world’s large-scale weather and ocean systems that are crucial to agriculture, such as the annual monsoon or deep ocean current patterns. “The crisis will likely come within 30 years,” he says, “and then all the contradictions will catch up to us.”

Andrus is deeply concerned about the future of the environment and our ability to feed a growing population. “Perhaps it is a fatal flaw in human biology that we are unable to see (or respond to) long-term threats. Our social institutions are myopic — the corporate and industrial organizations that essentially run agricultural policy are beholden to shareholders and can’t think ahead. By the time we recognize the problem, the game will be over. It makes no sense to think about winners or losers in terms of global warming — in the end we’re all going to lose.”

People in some of the world’s poorest nations are already suffering the nutritional effects of global warming, according to Binghamton University graduate student Beniam Awash, senior research aide for the University’s Institute for Asia and Asian Diasporas. Last year Awash received support from the Harpur College Dean’s Office to attend a NASA-sponsored conference on teaching about the environment in the social sciences.

Awash believes that global warming is already harming some of the poorest nations in sub-Saharan Africa, where crop-killing droughts are occurring with greater frequency. Also facing near-term threats are the Himalayan watersheds of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China. More than 2 billion people in this region depend on the water that flows from glacial runoff from the Hindu Kush for irrigation of staple crops. Hunger in these areas is becoming endemic. “In the short-term, we are seeing an increase in water and flooding as snowmelt increases the annual runoff, but in the end there will be less water and the amount of arable land will shrink,” he says.

“Part of the problem,” Awash says, “is that people see climate change as a long-term issue, rather than a today or tomorrow thing,” turning concerns about hunger and the environment into abstract political discussions. But “the problem of hunger has an ethical component — the question is whether there is a ‘right to eat.’ If you accept the notion that hunger is a moral issue,” Awash says, “then there is an implied obligation to solve it. The problem is how?”

Blumler suggests that the answer may be technological. “It is possible that someday scientists might be able to engineer plants that can convert more sunlight into food through photosynthesis. Currently, plants are only 3 to 4 percent efficient in converting sunlight into chlorophyll. Even a 1 to 2 percent increase would dramatically improve the ability of plants to grow and produce food.”

Awash, on the other hand, argues that technological solutions will require new ways of thinking about politics and social change. “Most Americans,” he notes, “think their government is broken and is incapable of solving large-scale crises. What we need is ‘sub-national actors’ to step forward,” he says. “It is important to see global warming not as a crisis, but as an opportunity — individuals and businesses can profit from new investments in wind and solar power technologies as alternatives to petroleum, and states can do more to develop higher fuel efficiency standards, for example.” In the end, Awash says, “You have to be optimistic: people are the driving force — only they can push corporations and governments to be more responsible.”