Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Bill McKibben, the skeptics best friend, can always be depended on to provide interesting claims. Never one to let a good crisis go to waste, he opines on the tsunami and our “shrinking margins” over at the Guardian. A number of people have highlighted various of his ideas, not all of them favorably. One claim of his that I have not seen discussed is the following:
We’re seeing record temperatures that depress harvests – the amount of grain per capita on the planet has been falling for years.
Figure 1. Food and Protein per capita. The LDCs are the “Least Developed Countries”, the poorest of the world’s countries. Red and orange are total food supply (right scale). Dark and light blue are protein (left scale). DATA SOURCE
Let’s start by considering the real issue. People eat a host of things, not just grains. So the issue is not the number of kilogrammes of grain produced per person. That’s only part of the story. The real issue is, how well are we feeding the ~ 7 billion people of the world?
The first thing that Figure 1 shows is that after years of making little gain, since the early 1990s the food supply in the LDCs has been improving (orange line). There’s still a ways to go, but the trend is upwards.
The next thing is quite surprising. In the year 2007 (the last year for which we have data), the people in the poorest countries (orange line) were getting almost as many daily calories as the global average in 1961 (red line). To me, this is an amazing accomplishment. Remember that during this time, the population of the planet more than doubled. Despite that, both the poorest of the poor, and the global population as a whole, are better fed than at any time in history.
Finally, globally there is no sign of any recent decrease in nutrition levels. Nor do nutrition levels appear to be connected in any way to the temperature.
However, to be fair, that wasn’t McKibben’s claim. He said that grain production per capita on the planet has been “falling for years”, so let’s check that. Figure 2 shows those numbers, with the data again from FAOSTAT.
Has global grain production per capita been “falling for years” as McKibben claims? The observations say no. Globally, it peaked at just above 350 kg per person around 1980 and has dipped less than 10% and come back up since then.
For the LDCs, on the other hand, their domestic cereal grain production was unable to keep up with their domestic population growth until the early 1990s. Since then, due in part to decreasing population growth rates, LDC grain production per capita has been rising steadily. There’s no sign of any recent change in that rising trend. Anything is possible tomorrow, of course. But there’s no sign of falling grain production as McKibben claims, from temperature or any other cause.
So, what’s the current score in the battle of the farmers of the planet to feed the ever-increasing masses?
Farmers: 1 … Malthus: 0.
Oh, and McKibben’s score? … -1 for truth content, but high marks for entertainment value.
PS – The continued ability of the world to feed itself, despite adding a total of four billion people to the planet in the last fifty years, is an unparalleled and largely unrecognized success for humanity. I am so tired of people like McKibben not only not acknowledging that, but going so far as to claim that the trend has reversed and that things are getting worse. That’s nonsense. In terms of world nutrition, things are better than they have ever been, even for the poorest countries. Not only that, but they continue to improve. That’s a huge success.
So rather than incessant whining about how terrible things are, how about we take some pride in that success, and think about what it is we’ve done right to achieve that, and how to do more of whatever that was that got us here?
[UPDATE TWO WEEKS LATER] Here’s the latest of Bill McKibben’s “depressed harvests”, from the WSJ … India has so much grain from several years of record harvests that it has run out of warehouse space to store it.
India Foodgrain Output to Hit Record High
By BANIKINKAR PATTANAYAK
NEW DELHI –India’s foodgrains output is set to rise to a record 235.88 million metric tons this crop year, according to government estimates, a figure which is likely to pave the way to lifting the export ban on wheat and common rice varieties.
Citing the government’s latest crop estimates, Farm Minister Sharad Pawar said wheat output during the year through June is likely to rise to 84.27 million tons from 80.8 million tons last year, while rice output will increase to 94.11 million tons from 89.09 million tons over the same period.
“The government should now give serious thought about storage, allocation to states and export of rice and wheat,” Mr. Pawar told a news conference.
India imposed a ban on the export of wheat and common grades of rice three years ago to curb prices, and since then the government’s grain stocks have swelled to more than double its requirement.
Consequently, state-run warehouses ran out of space last year and the government was forced to store some of the grain in the open. The storage crunch may worsen this year because of the record output. The government is expected to make a decision next month on lifting the export ban on wheat and common rice grades.