By David L. Brown
According to an article in the British newspaper The Guardian, a bidding war for a potash mining company reveals a looming problem: Finding the resources to feed a world on the brink of hunger
According to the article, which you can read here, the attempted takeover of Potash, Corp., the world’s largest source of potash, by mining giant BHP Billiton:
…lays bare the global struggle for resources on a planet struggling with water and food shortages, overpopulation and pollution. And it highlights a question that overshadows the 21st century: how to provide enough food for a global population that is set to rise from 6.8 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050, according to the United Nations.
The world is waking up to the coming era of food shortages, with governments and corporations scrambling to gain control of land, minerals, energy, and food markets. The flurry of activity is based on the further prediction by the UN that food production must be increased by 70 percent to meet the needs of the projected population of 2050.
Well, not to rain on anyone’s parade, but there are two comments I want to make.
First, it is troubling to witness global corporations lining up to make huge profits from this “opportunity”. It reminds me of war profiteering, “bad capitalism” run amok.
Second, I have to say that the chance of increasing the world’s food production by 70 percent is about as likely as a 400-lb. Hampshire sow sprouting wings and flying to the Moon. We are running out of resources folks, and our industrial agriculture is built on those very resources. Without increasing amounts of oil, gas, minerals such as potash, and fertile land itself, there is no way that we can increase production, and it would probably be a tremendous achievement even to keep it from peaking and beginning to drop.
Industrial agriculture depends upon increasing amounts of the resources it needs, and the outlook is for those resources to begin to decline just as world population continues to explode. Taking potash, the subject of this latest resource grab, as an example, here’s a graphic from Potash, Corp itself that plots demand, the gray bar, against the major world sources of the mineral.
If there was ever an example of demand running ahead of supply this is it. Demand is already running far ahead of the supplyNote that from 2008 on world production remained virtually level. That is the indication of a peak, and resource peaks are generally followed by a decline. Meantime, demand will continue to rise. Through extraordinary action production might be able to temporarily get back ion an upward path—but that’s not the point. The question is how much potash do we need to increase food production by 70 percent and, even more important, where is it going to come from? And if population continues to go up, how can harvests keep up?
Many parts of the world are already lagging in food production for want of sufficient potash. For example, here’s an excerpt from The Guardian article about the situation faced by China and other over-populated nations:
Experts say crop yields are low in many regions, partly due to the historical under-application of fertiliser in many developing countries. China has 20% of the world’s population but just 6% of its arable land – which has dwindled as Chinese industry has ruined previously fertile tracts of ground through pollution and heavy industrialisation. The Fertiliser Institute in Washington says China and India use only half as much potash on their fields as American farmers.
Many of these “developing” countries have depended upon purchases of grain and other foodstuffs. As production begins to lag in North America and elsewhere, and with grain crops being diverted to the production of ethanol and biodiesel, those imports cannot be counted upon in the future. To vastly increase domestic production in places such as China would require immense quantities of resources—which are going to be available in declining quantities and at soaring prices. The result: a global outbreak of food wars, waged by the powerful and the desperate, in which resources will be sought at almost any cost. Those wars are already taking place, as this passage from The Guardian indicates:
In Africa, the Chinese are forging mining joint ventures and investments linked to China’s hunt for resources to fuel its fast-industrialising economy. Africa is also seeing a land grab that has been likened to Europe’s carve-up of the continent at the end of the 19th century. An Observer investigation earlier this year established that 50m hectares – more than double the size of the UK – had been acquired in the last few years by foreign governments and wealthy investors with state subsidies.
Ethiopia alone has approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural schemes since 2007. Saudi Arabia is thought to be the biggest buyer as it turns to Africa to meet domestic demand, a move that helps it to conserve water at home.
Charities have complained that foreign expansion has been at the expense of African smallholders and that overseas investment exacerbates hunger as land is increasingly turned over to growing crops for export. There have also been reports of evictions without compensation, bullying and rising crime.
Some of the African deals have been eye-wateringly large: China has signed a contract with the Democratic Republic of Congo to grow 2.8m hectares of palm oil for biofuels. Before it fell apart after riots, a proposed 1.2m-hectare deal between Madagascar and South Korea’s Daewoo would have included nearly half the country’s arable land.
The ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” comes to mind. Interesting, indeed, perhaps the most interesting ever. Watch this space.