In the spirit of my professed guilty amusement about the names of agricultural diseases, I just chuckled a bit at a promedmail update of what sounded like a biblical plague that had to be sent directly to the Apocrypha: Crayfish plague in Israel. Watch out, Pharaoh...
The FAO Food Price Index (FPI) remains at near record-highs, and this at a time when record droughts and calamitous famine threaten the Horn of Africa. Using the latest data from the FAO FPI page, I plot here the FPI time series from 1990-2011.
World food prices are high and have remained so since the beginning of this year, though there have been some pretty dramatic swings between 2008 and now. There is some argument that the real problem for poverty alleviation is actually price volatility and not high prices per se. However, a recent paper in Foreign Affairs by Barrett and Bellemare argues that the problem for the world's poor is really high prices (a more complete working paper can be found here). I find their arguments quite persuasive. Among these, the authors wryly note "Perhaps not coincidentally, [commentators' and politicians'] emphasis on tempering price volatility favors the same large farmers who already enjoy tremendous financial support from G-20 governments."
I've spent the better part of the day editing web pages as I prepare to teach two courses this spring. Given that I've more-or-less wasted the day with necessary but not especially intellectually rewarding tasks, I thought that I would take a moment to post something really important and scientifically interesting. Jennifer Burney, of Stanford's Program in Food Security and the Environment, gave a talk entitled "Food's Footprint: Agriculture and Climate Change" at Oregon State's Food for Thought Series. We've known Jen for a long time now. If memory serves me correctly, she was in my wife Libra's section of the American Civil War at Harvard in Fall of 1995. Later she was a student in Mather House, where we were resident tutors from 1997-2001. She went on to do a Ph.D. in physics at Stanford and then moved into a post-doctoral fellowship at FSE.
Jen and all the folks at FSE are doing great and fundamental work. In this talk, she presents results that may seem somewhat counter-intuitive. Namely, she shows that the agricultural intensification attendant to the Green Revolution has been good for global carbon budgets -- and feeding hungry people. It's all about counterfactuals. I am looking forward to reading this work since some of these counterfactuals depend critically on demographic assumptions.
As she says in the talk, just because the results suggest that intensive agriculture is good from a global warming perspective, doesn't take Big Agriculture off the hook. There are items that their models don't incorporate (but could in principle) and they don't consider anything other than carbon budgets. It would be nice to think of a way of uniting all the costs and benefits of intensification in a single framework.
This is very important stuff and the work highlights the complexities of population, environment, and food production. I look forward to seeing more work from Jen and her collaborators at FSE.
Information on our NICHD-funded April formal demography workshop on migration and adaptation is now posted on the website Stanford Center for Population Research (SCPR, pronounced "scooper"). SCPR is itself hosted by Stanford's Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IRiSS), which is also the umbrella organization for the Methods of Analysis Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS), a program that I currently direct. We will be having this little shindig at the new IRiSS facility on Alta Road, a lovely location on the hill behind Stanford's main campus, quite near the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. All of these workshops have been terrific, but I am particularly excited about this one because it brings together so many of the threads of work going on right here at Stanford on human ecology, demography, and the biophysical environment. Much of this work is facilitated by the Woods Institute for the Environment, where I and a number of the other Stanford-based speakers sit.
As a quick teaser of the kind of work that we will discuss, I want to draw people's attention to two papers by Stanford faculty participating in the workshop that are just out this week. Eric Lambin has a paper (which also happens to be his inaugural paper in PNAS as a member of the NAS) on the interactions between globalization, land use, and future land scarcity. I saw a talk on this last week and it was terrific. Lambin and co-author Patrick Meyfroidt argue that there are four socio-economic mechanisms (displacement, rebound, cascade, and remittance effects) that are amplified by by the process of economic globalization and that can accelerate land conversion. David Lobell has a new paper out today in Nature Climate Change in which he and his co-authors capitalize on a treasure-trove of historical agricultural trials in Africa to measure the impact of warming on maize production. They find that approximately 65% of areas will experience a decline in productivity with a one-degree rise in global temperature if rain patterns are optimal. If rain is sub-optimal, as is likely to be the case, then every site would experience reduced productivity. This supports David's contention that the effects on agricultural productivity of temperature increase from global climate change can not be understood except in the context of changes in rainfall as well.
Potential students who are interested in studying these issues at Stanford have a number of options. If anthropology is your thing, we have a Ph.D. focus area in Ecology and Environment within the Department of Anthropology. Bill Durham, Lisa Curran, Rebecca Bird, Douglas Bird, and I all teach in this area. Another option, for the more interdisciplinarily inclined, is E-IPER. This is a topic I will have to take up in more detail in a later post since I actually have to do some work organizing our workshop now!
An article in today's New York Times attributes much of the rise in price to uncertainty over coming harvests. It also notes the four main factors that contribute to increased price: weather, higher demand (from larger population size and greater demand for meat and dairy), smaller yields, and the diversion of food crops to biofuels.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization's food price index is at an all-time high, meaning that the food security of millions of people is in jeopardy. In the plot below (click to enlarge), we can see that the FPI currently just exceeds its previous high in June of 2008, when riots over food shortages were widespread. This is something to keep an eye on for the new year.
A mutant strain of the wheat stem rust fungus, Puccinia graminis f. sp. tritici, has emerged that threatens as much as 60 million tons of world wheat production. The story of this emergence can be found here. There is a clearinghouse of information on the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative website. The emergence of such a potentially devastating crop pathogen highlights once again the practical importance of evolutionary biology for understanding major world problems.
An opinion piece in the IHT this morning raises the important point that stepped up biofuel production may tax already strained world fresh water supplies. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman and former chief executive of Nestlé, suggests that if world biofuel production targets are met, water withdrawals for agriculture can increase by as much as one-third. Brabeck-Letmathe writes,
Seventy percent of all water withdrawal is already used in agriculture, and while all such activity requires water, growing enough soy or corn to create biofuels is especially water-intensive. For example, to produce just one gallon of diesel fuel up to 9,000 gallons of water are required. Up to 4,000 gallons are needed to produce enough corn for the same amount of ethanol. By way of contrast, producing enough food to meet the caloric needs of one person for one day in, for example, Tunisia or Egypt requires about 666 gallons of water, and twice as much in California (caloric needs and intakes vary widely from region to region due to dietary customs).
This is bad news considering that it is projected that by 2035, one third of the world (over three billion people) will be facing severe water stress. Even without the increased water pressure of extensive biofuel production, water usage will need to increase substantially in order to feed the world by the middle of the century.
These are the sort of issues that we need to take seriously before plunging headlong into a world where we grow the fuel that drives American (and, increasingly, Chinese) SUVs.
There is a new Rice Outlook report from the Economic Research Service of the USDA. I was surprised to see a forecast record harvest for the coming year, given the crazy price movements in rice this year and the dire predictions that were the rule earlier this summer. At Costco in California, they actually rationed the 25 and 50 lb bags for a while, fearing a run on fancy rice (like Jasmine and Basmati). I watched an irate shopper who was trying to buy 12 10 lb bags of rice get told that she couldn't do it. She nearly lost it.
I plotted a couple of price quote series (for Thailand Grade B and Thailand Super A1 100% Broken).
The plot shows an astounding price increase over the beginning of 2008, nearly tripling the November 2007 price before plummeting again at the end of last month.
It will be interesting to keep an eye on this. As I mentioned in a previous post, nearly three billion of the world's people rely on rice as a staple crop and most of these people are poor. When the price of rice triples, people go hungry. Roz Naylor has a nice video available on the Woods Institute for the Environment website explaining the food crisis of this spring and how it relates the the expansion of biofuels.