Earlier this year, World Bank President Robert Zoellick sounded an alarm that the world was “one shock away” from a crisis in food supply. “For most commodities stocks are relatively low. You have one other weather event in some of these areas and you really start to push people over the edge.”
That is now. What of the future? Zoellick talks of “weather events.” This, in the face of dramatic changes in weather patterns and those to come as consequence of the world’s emerging economies and their growing industrial base exacerbating global warming. The World Meteorological Organization has already predicted that food output may be hurt as climate change brings more extreme weather over the next decade, with China likely set for harsher droughts and North America getting heavier rain.
This, in the face of dynamic growth in the world’s population. The U.N. projects its growth nearing 33 percent from the current circa 7 billion to 9.3 billion by 2050 and 10.1 billion by 2100. It is generally understood that with this expanding population and their changing eating habits, world calorie production will have to be doubled by 2050.
This, while facing dramatically diminishing returns in crop-yield in the years ahead as the ‘green revolution’ (intense application of fertilizers, herbicides and improved seeds) reaches the limits of its spectacular growth in crop-yields over the past five decades. From this point forward, yield growth from greater application of farm chemicals, genetically engineered seed varieties, mineral and chemical fertilizers will increase, but only marginally compared to the dramatic jump achieved in decades past.
This, in the face of the barely understood misnomer that food is an ever-renewable resource. Rarely taken into account is the prospect of a world fertilizer shortage that may make talk of the world’s ‘energy deficit’ sound like ‘the good ole days.’ Basic to maximizing agricultural yield and in turn food production are such core mined minerals as phosphates, potash and nitrates. Though nitrates can be substituted with natural gas based ammonia and other nitrogen based fertilizers, there is no such substitute for phosphates and potash that have to be physically mined and processed. Their presence and availability is neither limitless nor readily accessible. In future years, fables of ‘peak oil’ may well pale by comparison to ‘peak fertilizer.’
This in the face of enormous political uncertainty highlighted by the current political upheavals in the Middle East. Perhaps even more disconcerting was the abrupt embargo of Russia’s wheat exports last year (only recently lifted) to world consumers by the Russian government, thereby throwing grain markets into massive disequilibrium by further adding a precarious unknown to the availability of food supplies. That a major grain producer would unilaterally halt grain shipments augurs deep trouble ahead with the very real prospect of national politics trumping world dependency for free and unfettered trade in these vital commodities.
Among these looming uncertainties, America stands tall. It is already the world’s largest grower and exporter of corn, the largest exporter of wheat, the second largest exporter of soybeans, not to speak of other myriad crops such as rice, oilseeds, sorghum and on to cotton, etc. The American Midwest with its massive expanse of fertile agricultural lands will become the most important provider of food grains to the world, an ever more essential and scarce commodity. As world supplies of food become tighter, America’s position as the major provider of basic food grains to a hungry world will become ever more significant, a preeminence that is destined to relegate fossil fuel/energy exporters to a distant second in economic importance.
Our Midwest is blessed in that along with its vast expanse it harbors great human talent and a wide-ranging inland waterway system providing transport economies that permit our crops to reach world markets effectively and efficiently. The question needs be asked, are we preparing the nation for the tasks and responsibilities ahead?
Food, America’s potential in supplying the world in the years and decades ahead offers this nation the opportunity not only to reconnect once again to its agricultural roots, but to assume a role of visionary leadership in what will unquestionably become the primordial commodity extant. Are we prepared for America’s 21st Century Manifest Destiny?