• Incremental returns from increasing fertilizer use will steadily decline on the margin for fertilizer use has increased five-fold in the last 50 years and the easy pickings are behind us.
• There will be increased weather instability, notably floods and droughts, but also steadily increasing heat.
The last three years of global weather were so bad that to draw three such years randomly would have been a remote possibility. The climate is changing.
• The costs of fertilizer and fuel will rise rapidly.
5. Even if we could produce enough food globally to feed everyone satisfactorily, the continued steady rise in the cost of inputs will mean increasing numbers will not be able to afford the food we produce. This is a key point that is often missed.
6. On the positive side, scientists are now very optimistic that they will be able to engineer more efficient photosynthesizing “C4” genes (corn belongs to that family) into relatively inefficient but vital “C3” plants such as rice and wheat, in 20 to 30 years. If successful this would increase output up to 50% and would buy time for a less painful transition to a sustainable population.
7. Many of these increasing difficulties were reflected in the original 2008 food crisis and the 2011 rebound. The last six weeks’ price rise is more threatening because it occurred despite very much larger plantings than were available in 2008. Global demand is now so high and rising so fast and reserves are so low that price sensitivity to weather setbacks has become extreme.
8. It seems likely that several countries dependent on foreign grain imports have in fact never recovered from the 2008 shock. Countries like Egypt saw the percent of their consumer budget for food rise to 40%. At this level, social pressures may be at an extreme and probably have already contributed to the Arab Spring.
Any price increases from here may cause social collapse and a wave of immigration on a scale never before experienced in peacetime. Another doubling in grain prices would be catastrophic.
9. Strong countermeasures to prevent a food crisis would be effective in curtailing the current crisis and preventing the development of a much greater crisis, but these measures will likely not be taken. This is because the price signals for the rich countries are too weak – they can afford the higher price – and there is inertia in all parts of the system. Also, the problems of malnutrition in distant countries are not generally felt as high-order priorities in the richer countries.