Avoiding a food supply tipping point

In this TED Talk Sara Menker raises the possibility that global demand for food may outstrip supply and precipitate a tipping point of system collapse. Sara quit a career in commodities trading to figure out how the global value chain of agriculture works. Her discoveries have led to some startling predictions: “We could have a tipping point in global food … if surging demand surpasses the agricultural system’s capacity to produce food,” she suggests. “People could starve and governments may fall.” Menker’s models predict that this scenario could happen in a decade — that the world could be short 214 trillion calories per year by 2027.

Using the concept of ‘the calorie gap’ and global maps, she shows which countries produce fewer or more calories than they consume. By 2023 Africa, India and China will make up over half the world’s population. All three, driven by growth of population and consumer demand,  will be in calorie deficit, needing to import food from South and North America and Europe, the calorie surplus regions.  South America’s increasing productivity is, however, at the cost of deforestation, particularly in the Brazilian Amazon region.

She offers a vision of this impossible world of calorie deficit, as well as some steps we can take today to avoid it:

  1. Reduce food consumption patterns;
  2. Reduce food waste
  3. Increase production yields exponentially

The problem with these ‘solutions’ is that they require surplus regions to change their behaviour ob behalf of deficit regions. She therefore concludes that the  combined commercialisation of both small and large-scale farming in Africa and India is the key to increasing yields. Land and water shortage in China give that country less potential for home-grown solutions in the deficit regions.

This talk is another illustration of  how rapidly exponential pressures of increasing population and economic demand are running the world towards tipping points. Menker’s entrepreneurial solution is to commercialise agriculture and make its yields much  higher in the deficit regions. She does not mention the other variables that emerge from commercialisation such as increased need for artifical chemical fertilisers, their effect on the sustainability of organic soils, irrigation infrastructure and its affect on acquifers, fossil fuel demand for mechanised production and transportation, use of anatibiotics for livestock (see here) etc. Commercial solutions tend to focus on specific processes related to profit-making not on entire socio-ecologica systems perspective. The only long-term way to avoid the emerging  disatrous calorie gap is to reduce demand through de-growth of population and consumption. Who will be the first to volunteer?

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