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Ear to the Ground

Bracing for a New Food Crisis

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Posted on Sep 25, 2010
AP / Pier Paolo Cito

Abdolreza Abbassian of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization briefs journalists Friday at a special U.N. meeting in Rome prompted by worries over high food prices.

The U.N. is warning that the world may be on the cusp of a new major food crisis as the result of a wave of recent environmental disasters (heat waves, floods, wildfires) and capitalist disasters (market speculation, inflation) that are pushing up the price of foodstuffs. —JCL

The Guardian:

The world may be on the brink of a major new food crisis caused by environmental disasters and rampant market speculators, the UN was warned today at an emergency meeting on food price inflation.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) meeting in Rome today was called last month after a heatwave and wildfires in Russia led to a draconian wheat export ban and food riots broke out in Mozambique, killing 13 people. But UN experts heard that pension and hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds and large banks who speculate on commodity markets may also be responsible for inflation in food prices being seen across all continents.

In a new paper released this week, Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s special rapporteur on food, says that the increases in price and the volatility of food commodities can only be explained by the emergence of a “speculative bubble” which he traces back to the early noughties.

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, September 29, 2010 at 10:01 am Link to this comment

Maani:

A typical nuke plant is located near a river or lake. Water from the river flows into the plant and is sprayed onto the hot primary cooling circuits located in those huge iconic cooling towers. What you see billowing from the towers is pure, clean, non-radioactive water vapor. All the rest of the water falls to the bottom of the towers and back out into the river, a little warmer, but otherwise no different than when it came into the plant. (It is only “recycled” in huge cooling ponds at those plants which are not near free water, and even then it is not irradiated.) Nuke plants use water for cooling like old grist mills used water to turn waterwheels, with opposite thermodynamic purposes: The nuke plants impart heat energy (and only heat) to the water while the waterwheel extracts kinetic energy from the flowing water and directs it mechanically to the grindstone. No water is used up, chemically or physically, in either process.

If any cooling water used in a nuke plant becomes radioactive, it’s because of a serious malfunction, not as part of the normal operation of the plant.

Chernobyl was a Model-T. Three Mile Island was an Edsel. Today’s nuke plants are Mercedes Benzes. Nukes will give us all the energy we need. Safely.

Now let’s get back to figuring out how to solve the world water crisis.

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By Maani, September 29, 2010 at 8:26 am Link to this comment

Rico:

You are partly right, and partly wrong.  Since the water is in a cycle, you are right that it probably takes less than I suggest.  However, it very definitely DOES get exposed to radioactivity - this is why even the tiniest spill of coolant water is handled in radioactivity-proof suits, and sets off Geiger counters.

Peace.

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By rico, suave, September 29, 2010 at 4:56 am Link to this comment

Maani:

Actually, not much. The plant only uses water passing through as a second stage coolant for the reactor. It doesn’t consume any water in the nuclear reaction and the coolant water is never exposed to radioactivity. It goes in one end of the reactor and comes out the other, a little warmer, but undiminished in quantity or quality. If you put the plant by the ocean, sea water would do the trick.

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By Maani, September 28, 2010 at 8:15 pm Link to this comment

Rico:

only one problem with your theory here…LOL.  Do you have any idea how much water is required to run a nuclear power plant?!  It would be self-defeating to run desalinization plants based on them.

Peace.

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By rico, suave, September 28, 2010 at 12:52 pm Link to this comment

Maani:

Whereupon autocratically led countries will have a huge leg up on the democratic ones, especially the squishy Western ones in thrall to the Green left. Their leaders will simply decree that nuclear power plants be built to provide the electricity to run desalinization plants. (I cannot imagine that China will EVER have a water shortage problem.)

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By Maani, September 28, 2010 at 11:31 am Link to this comment

All:

I had thought it would take longer than this, but…

I am now seeing at least one article per week - and sometimes more frequently - on the issue of water.  In this regard, rico’s “desperation point” may be coming sooner than we think.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/28/us/28mead.html?scp=4&sq=southwest&st=cse

Peace.

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By rico, suave, September 27, 2010 at 7:48 am Link to this comment

marcus:

“If the world’s population, which has doubled in our lifetime, doubles again by the middle of the (21st Century)” But most experts don’t believe it will (9 billion, max).

And what does your cocaine stat add to the debate? And, without context, what does the $370 per year figure mean to the debate?

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By cmarcusparr, September 27, 2010 at 7:30 am Link to this comment

In response to “rico, suave”:
“More than a billion people in our world today survive on less than $370 a year, while Americans, who constitute five percent of the world’s population, purchase fifty percent of its cocaine. If the world’s population, which has doubled in our lifetime, doubles again by the middle of the (21st Century), how could anyone hope to escape the catastrophic consequences—the wrath to come? But we turn our backs on such unpleasantness and contemplate the happier prospects of our technological dreams.” Thomas Cahill

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By rico, suave, September 27, 2010 at 7:14 am Link to this comment

Maani:

I agree that potable water is scarce in some parts of the world. But humans are the only species on earth too stubborn to move to where the water is. (You won’t find seagulls cruising Death Valley worried about lack of water.) Of course, the stubbornness is derived from our decision thousands of years ago to give up nomadism, drop anchor (inapt metaphor, I know), and become “civilized”.

I agree that tech will benefit those who can afford it. But that merely restates the difference between rich and poor. Which is where politics comes in.

And I agree that desalination is not yet “economical” on a large scale. But that is only because we don’t need it to be. Yet.

There will be no massive death caused by dehydration like there has been by famine. People will simply move to where there is water when they get thirsty enough- easier than moving to food, or waiting for food to come. Don’t forget, this won’t happen over night, and even poor people should be able to move faster than the depleting aquifers.

There may be water wars. Which, again is where politics comes in.

Drink eight glasses of water a day. Doctor’s orders!

Peace to you too.

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By Maani, September 26, 2010 at 1:13 pm Link to this comment

Rico:

Thanks for the support.  However, I take issue with one comment:

“And of course, we’ll never run out of water. Desperation will result in devoting energy to desalination of ocean water, and we will not go thirsty.”

Methinks you are being a tad over-optimistic here. In some parts of the world, potable water is already scarce.  And although desalinization of seawater is possible, it is not yet so on a large, much less global, scale.  And although “desparation” may or may not lead to “devoting energy” to this, by that time it is likely we will see deaths on a massive scale.  As well, the technology is almost certainly going to be used to benefit the wealthy nations (and their wealthiest inhabitants) first, with everyone else waiting for whatever they can get.

Peace.

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By rico, suave, September 26, 2010 at 12:55 pm Link to this comment

Many population experts believe that the earth’s population will rise to about nine billion sometime this century, then level off. Not for lack of food, but counter-intuitively, because of increases in overall standards of living, which have historically correlated with decreases in birth rates. Malthus has been overtaken by technology, and remains so.

Maani is right- water is the next big worry. Not because there is less of it, but because people insist on using water whee it isn’t readily available. Go to Alaska, Canada, or especially Siberia- huge river systems out in the middle of nowhere. Then ask yourself, why Las Vegas, Phoenix, or LA?

While agriculture has historically been considered the main culprit in water usage, it’s industrial processes which are taking up more and more as a fraction of the whole. Improved grain strains, including those dreaded GM ones, are using less and less water as technology improves them.

And of course, we’ll never run out of water. Desperation will result in devoting energy to desalination of ocean water, and we will not go thirsty.

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By Maani, September 26, 2010 at 12:14 pm Link to this comment

ITW:

“Aren’t they inextricably linked?”

They certainly can be, particularly, for example, re the use of water to irrigate crops.  But they are not always so.

cmarcusparr:

The last paragraph of your 9/26 3:05 post should be “must” reading.  Superb - and sad and scary - concision of a likely future.

Peace.

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By cmarcusparr, September 26, 2010 at 11:05 am Link to this comment

The concept of Malthusian Limit applies to the finite limits to oil extraction and economics as well as human populations. The Industrial Revolution may have granted us the illusion of breaking out of the Malthusian Trap or Limit. In Chapter One of his famous essay, Malthus wrote:

“…the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio….”

Population growth is nonlinear. It expands geometrically, resulting in exponential growth. Malthus saw that the difference between “population growth and resource growth (was) analogous to (the) difference between exponential and linear growth.” 

With respect to W. King Hubbert (of Hubbert’s Peak) we read the following:

“Since energy consumption is increasing much faster than population, and most energy comes from non-renewable sources, the catastrophe appears more imminent, though perhaps not as certain, than when considering food and population continue to behave in a manner contradicting Malthus’s assumptions.”

Ben Zuckerman, a physicist, wrote a letter to Physics Today in which he stated: “Population growth or growth in the rate of consumption of resources cannot be [indefinitely] sustained.” Albert A. Bartlett, emeritus professor of physics, quoted this statement in his paper on energy and population. It may be somewhat excusable that the common American has never read or heard of Prof. Bartlett or Hubbert’s Peak or even Malthus, but our leadership should be expected, and required, to have read and heeded the warnings of intelligent, farsighted men and women throughout history. Alas, commoner and leader alike largely ignore the lessons of history, indeed the lessons of technology.

Where will the Malthusian Limit take us? Where it usually does: catastrophe. As in Northern Europe of the early Fourteenth Century when the climate cooled dramatically, famine reduced the population and wreaked havoc on social and economic structures. This catastrophe, of course, was followed in 1348 by an unprecedented epidemic (that transmogrified into a cyclic pandemic over centuries) of the Black Death. Plague was responsible for reducing the entire European population, in some estimates, by as much as fifty percent. Although the Black Death is not the result of Malthusian Limit, in the previous century rapid population expansion (geometric) and limited resource expansion (linear) coincided, and undoubtedly contributed to the extent of devastation wrought by the Black Death.

Today, we’re living in a world nearing a population of seven billion human beings, unprecedented in human history. Compounding this fact is unparalleled resource extraction, manufacture and consumption on a global scale. The Malthusian Limit of human growth, both in numbers and economics, has been previously described, e.g., Peak Oil, the Population Bomb, Global Climate Change, etc. Whereas no consensus has been reached, and whereas the United States, the greatest consumer nation on earth, has repeatedly rejected all appeals to reduce consumption of fossil fuels, the lines of population growth and resource scarcity are rapidly approaching the point where they will transect. When this happens the consequences of Malthusian Limit will become immediately apparent to the poorest populations on earth followed by the rest of us in sequence as the global economy collapses, as climate change devastates food production and causes mass migration/starvation, as civil strife and war overwhelm regions of the world, and as civilization’s infrastructures fail to protect populations from the ravages of communicable diseases. Only then will our so-called “leadership” truly learn the lesson of Malthusian Limit, when it is too late to do anything to avoid the consequences.

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By Inherit The Wind, September 26, 2010 at 10:37 am Link to this comment

Maani:

Aren’t they inextricably linked?  Plus there are two more factors:  Transportation and legalized speculation.

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By Maani, September 26, 2010 at 9:14 am Link to this comment

Well…I hate being right (LOL), but…

Yesterday, I talked about how food is not the most important commodity, that water is.  And I suggested that “What we should REALLY be worrying about is a WATER crisis.”  I added, “Just watch the trend, and the news.  You will be seeing more and more articles about it more and more frequently over the coming months.”

From today’s NYT, front page:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/26/world/middleeast/26nile.html?ref=world&pagewanted=print

Peace.

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, September 26, 2010 at 7:02 am Link to this comment

ouroborus:

“Isn’t this about ... Equity?”

No. It isn’t.

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By aacme88, September 26, 2010 at 6:18 am Link to this comment

“noughties”?

Not one commenter has mentioned the obvious (maybe that’s why?)

“a new major food crisis as the result of a wave of recent environmental disasters (heat waves, floods, wildfires)”

Ring any bells?

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Ouroborus's avatar

By Ouroborus, September 26, 2010 at 5:43 am Link to this comment

Rico? You’re kidding surely! Who give a flying “F”
about Rico?
Isn’t this about food? Hunger? Starvation? Humanity?
Equity?
Pathetic! Truly pathetic!

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By Inherit The Wind, September 26, 2010 at 5:14 am Link to this comment

so left i am right, September 26 at 8:54 am Link to this comment

How many people here think Rico is not real? I mean not one single person? I have
come realize that for every comment he/she/it makes there is a strong corporate
benefit. Right out of the corporate PR playbook. Perhaps he/she/it is a
conservative PR group. Or a group of subordinates in a conservative think tank?
No one person can have all their opinions and beliefs always be all about
corporate benefit except maybe Palin or Limbaugh… I rest my case.

***********************

The last refuge….too frequently when someone on TD doesn’t like what someone else posts, rather than challenge the argument, or even the person, they challenge the authenticity of the poster.  “Say, doesn’t ‘Jonah The Whale’ sound a lot like ‘Alice The Mermaid’.  I’ll bet ‘Jonah’ and ‘Alice’ are the same person!” as if two people can’t have similar views.

Now it’s questioning Rico’s authenticity as a poster. Rico, who is easily the most rational Conservative to post here, far more than GRYM or “Diehard Wannabe” who calls himself “Call Me Roy”. Rico, who actually AGREES that those calling themselves “Conservatives” today are nothing of the sort.

I don’t agree with most of Rico’s takes on topics, but I have far more respect for him than I do for any of the other right-wing types here, with the possible exception of Fat Freddy.

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By M L, September 26, 2010 at 5:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A case for oversight and regulation of these world markets

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knobcreekfarmer's avatar

By knobcreekfarmer, September 26, 2010 at 4:54 am Link to this comment

How many people here think Rico is not real? I mean not one single person? I have
come realize that for every comment he/she/it makes there is a strong corporate
benefit. Right out of the corporate PR playbook. Perhaps he/she/it is a
conservative PR group. Or a group of subordinates in a conservative think tank?
No one person can have all their opinions and beliefs always be all about
corporate benefit except maybe Palin or Limbaugh… I rest my case.

Report this
Ouroborus's avatar

By Ouroborus, September 25, 2010 at 10:39 pm Link to this comment

If one accepts the fact; the world produces a surplus
of food. Which is to say there is more than enough food
produced every year to feed every man, woman, and child
on the planet earth. That should then beg the question:
Why are there people starving today?
The answer is at once interesting, damning and very
telling.

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By Inherit The Wind, September 25, 2010 at 9:01 pm Link to this comment

Rico,
Didn’t you read the article? It’s not about whether there’s enough food, it’s about how distribution of it, and, more importantly, pricing of it to the poorest people in the world has been manipulated by the same derivative and commodity traders who engineered the collapse of OUR economy.

I actually don’t have a moral issue with genetically engineered crops—mankind has been engaging in genetic engineering of crops of both flora as well as fauna for 10,000 years, only now there’s technology that can do it without multiple generations, random chance, or induced diseases (like hemophilia in humans or hip dysplasia in dogs).  BUT THAT’S NOT GOING TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM! It doesn’t even address the problem, which is of markets that are artificially “plugged up” to drive up prices and prevent distribution.

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By Maani, September 25, 2010 at 8:22 pm Link to this comment

It’s not a food crisis that we should be worrying about, since there has been a food crisis going on for decades.  (Not to suggest that we should not always be worried about the fact that too many people are starving - and dying - for lack of food.)

What we should REALLY be worrying about is a WATER crisis.  There are already “turf wars” going on re water in parts of Africa, the Middle East and, yes, the U.S.  And it is spreading pretty quickly.  Just watch the trend, and the news.  You will be seeing more and more articles about it more and more frequently over the coming months.

Peace.

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Queenie's avatar

By Queenie, September 25, 2010 at 7:44 pm Link to this comment

rico,suave:

Please read Vandana Shiva. Especially what she says about Golden Rice and neem. ‘Nuf said.

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, September 25, 2010 at 7:09 pm Link to this comment

Queenie:

“Markets” don’t profit. People do. That’s like saying the “football field” wins the game.

GMCs are not the be all and end all.

“If food was allowed to be labeled as being genetically “modified” most people, given a choice, would not buy it.” You have absolutely no evidence to support that statement.

GMCs are bred specifically to fend off diseases, which is one of the reasons they yield so well. The existence of GMCs in no way requires or leads to lack of genetic diversity.

And GMCs are EXCLUSIVELY about delivering food to the hungry. Why would a corporation sell a product, food in this case, if there weren’t hungry people to buy it, profitting the corp. in the bargain? If a corporation can feed ten people per acre, and you can feed one with your “all natural organic arugula” for the same cost, where do you think people are going to shop?

You may be fortunate enough to have the means to shop at Whole Foods, but the vast majority of people for whom securing food is a constant financial struggle are going to be very sensitive to price, and a kilo of GM rice is far cheaper than rice grown at some “green” hippie farm.

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Queenie's avatar

By Queenie, September 25, 2010 at 6:41 pm Link to this comment

rico,suave, “Let the market do its work.”

Markets profit while people perish. It’s markets who sell the unsuspecting and uneducated consumer on the idea of genetically engineered crops as the be all and end all in solving world hunger. It’s a very simple minded approach, and highly dangerous.

The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. If food was allowed to be labeled as being genetically “modified” most people, given a choice, would not buy it.

And one other point: There must be diversity in the food crops to fend off disease. If only one kind of wheat is grown, for instance, and that wheat develops a disease, withers and dies for whatever reason, there will be no wheat.

Genetically engineered crops are not about providing food to the hungry. They are about profit and damn the consequences for fiddle-dicking around with nature and the environment.

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By Socrates271, September 25, 2010 at 5:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

GMO sounds like a great idea, but it could also be the
next worst thing like lead-based paint or asbestos.  We
monkeys have a lot to learn.

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, September 25, 2010 at 4:20 pm Link to this comment

The answer of course is high yield genetically modified crops. Yields per acre are huge, water use is far lower. And, given that the current causes are transient, this crisis too shall pass and everyone will be fed. Let the market do its work. It’s much smarter than some bureaucrat in Brussels.

As for “capitalist disasters”, let’s compare Cold War grain production in the US vs the USSR. If memory serves, Russia, one of the most fertile nations on earth was reduced to importing grain from the evil capitalist US. Not because the CIA salted Russian fields, but because communist central planners totally fucked it up.

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