Commentary: Good news, bad news

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A new report from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) details some sobering news on the agricultural front.

Many industry organizations have been critical of FAO, principally for the infamous “Livestock’s Long Shadow” report in 2006, which blamed the “rapidly growing and intensifying livestock sector for severely damaging the environment” and attempted to outline “decisive measures at the technical and political levels for mitigating such damage.”

Plenty of criticism was heaped on that report, much of it right here in this space.

But OECD is a different story. Founded more than 50 years ago, the organization is comprised of some 34 mostly democratic countries that (theoretically, anyway) have banded together “to stimulate economic progress and world trade and promote the growth of a market economy.”

When such an institution weighs in on the challenges of global food production, it’s worth tuning in to review its findings.

The joint report, titled, “OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2103-2022,” noted a pair of sobering predictions:

  • Slower growth. Global agricultural output across all sectors is predicted to increase at a rate of only 1.5% annually in the next 10 years, compared with 2.1% per year on average during the previous decade. The reasons? “Rising input costs, growing resources constraints, and increasing environmental pressures, which are anticipated to inhibit supply response in virtually all regions,” the report stated. Not good.
  • Consumption growth. The consumption of all agricultural commodities is projected to increase, especially in developing countries, driven, the report explained, by “growing populations, higher incomes, urbanization and changing diets.” Coupled with the projected slowdown in food productivity, it’s clear that a potential crisis in terms of global food sufficiency may be developing, even in the next few years.

In addition, the report noted that “rising oil prices are an important but unpredictable factor in [food] price projections.” (Ya think?) Not only that, but “the depreciating U.S. dollar is expected to reduce the relative competitiveness of other exporters, while increasing the purchasing power of many importers.”

Translation: The United States is likely to slide further toward the status of a Third World country that exports its commodities (corn, wheat, beef, poultry) and raw materials (gasoline, coal, lumber), while importing more and more of its finished goods. Again, that’s not exactly cause for rejoicing.

Dissecting China’s ‘miracle’

What I found to be the most noteworthy analysis, however, was the section devoted to China’s agricultural prospects. Like its manufacturing sector, that country’s agricultural transformation over the past several decades has been phenomenal. China has reduced the rate of “food insecurity” (better known as “hunger and starvation”) from 20% of the population in 1990 to 12% in 2012. China’s farm output has tripled since 1978, and the increase in livestock production has risen by a factor of five. Overall, China feeds one-quarter of the world’s population on only 7% of the planet’s arable farmland.

The question is this: Is such an increase in production sustainable?

The short answer is “No.” Why? Consider some the issues related to China’s arable farmland, as noted in the FAO-OECD report:

  • China’s available farmland is shrinking at a rate that dwarfs a parallel problem in the United States. Between 1997 and 2008, the report stated, 6.2% of the country’s total farmland was swallowed up by factories and by urban sprawl. Worse, China has only one-sixth as much arable land as we do—just 0.22 acres of arable cropland per capita, less than half of the global average and only one-quarter of the average for OECD member countries.
  • A fifth of China’s land is polluted. The FAO/OECD report labels this problem a “declining trend in soil quality,” with about 40% of all arable land impacted by erosion, salinization or the effects of excessive chemical use, runoff from mining operations or other factors. For example, in May 2013, food-safety officials in the South China city of Guangzhou found high levels of cadmium in almost half of the rice samples from local restaurants, according to news reports The rice came from the Hunan province, “where factories, mines and smelting operations are situated side-by-side with rice paddy fields,” according to the New York Times.
  • China’s food production depends heavily on coal, the energy source for the country’s nitrogen production. In fact, China now consumes more than one-third of the world’s total nitrogen production, and its nitrogen industry relies on coal for some 70% of the necessary energy.
  • Much of China’s fresh water reserves, including its largest lakes, suffer from “dead zones” caused by excessive runoff of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

As a direct result of that last factor, the acidity of much of soil across China has worsened; the pH in many areas is now at around 5.07, whereas a pH of 6.0 to 7.0 is considered optimal for cultivation of grains and other primary food crops.

Already China is a mega-importer of raw materials, foodstuffs, meat, oil, coal and lumber, not just to power its economy but to feed its population.

The FAO-OECD report soft pedals the conclusions one inevitably draws from China’s current trajectory, but when—not if—its “agricultural miracle” can no longer be sustained in the face of dwindling soil and crop productivity, scarcer resources and limitations on available energy inputs, the looming crisis in global food security will have officially escalated.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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