Guest essay by David Archibald
Things have improved over the last 25 years according to this recent WUWT post. The future doesn’t look so rosy if you look at a larger data set. The world’s population growth will at some stage hit a resource constraint with dire consequences. How that will play out in detail can be determined from grain production and import statistics. As Chairman Mao said,“Take grain as the key link.” Mao should know with the biggest score of deaths caused by any communist leader. His personal tally was 45 million, mostly from the 1959 famine caused by taking grain from the provinces to pay for imported machinery. He also left a time bomb in Chinese demographics. In 1960, Ya Minchu, then president of Peking University, called for the introduction of population control in China but was exiled to the country because Mao thought that history belonged to the ‘big battalions’. Population control in China wasn’t introduced until the 1980s. China’s population grew from 600 million in 1960 to some 1,380 million now. If they had stayed around 600 million people, they could easily feed themselves and environmental degradation in China would be much less than it is. China now imports 15% of its grain consumption and is vulnerable to potential crop failures in the northern provinces.
There is a strange notion that most countries’ populations are at their ideal level right now and they would be worse off if they were lower, where they had come from. Japan’s population in 1950 was 83.2 million after a few million came back to Japan after World War II. It is now 126.7 million. Young Japanese have reputedly lost interest in sex let alone spending a few years changing nappies. So Japan’s population is falling and the average age is increasing. Japan, though, has chronic underemployment. Japan spends only 1% of its GDP on defence but 6% on make-work schemes in the countryside such as concreting river beds. If Japan’s population fell back to the level of 1950, they would be able to feed themselves from their own efforts and remove a big existential risk to the country. Nobody would want to be a food importer in the next few decades if they knew what was coming.
Let’s try to divine what’s coming from graphical representations of the history of food production and some projections from those, starting with ground zero which is the Middle East.
Figure 1: Afghanistan Wheat Consumption 1960 – 2015
Afghanistan’s recent history is written in its wheat statistics. It was mostly able to feed itself up to the mid-1970s when imports started rising. Production and imports collapsed a few years into the Russian occupation but population growth didn’t fall below 2% per annum. When the U.S. got involved in 2001, Afghanistan’s population was 21 million. The U.S. occupation provided perfect breeding conditions for the Afghans because you don’t want people starving to death while you are trying to do some nation-building. So the population growth rate accelerated and there are now 12 million more Afghans than in 2001. One day the grain trucks will stop arriving and then Afghanistan’s population will fall below its carrying capacity of some 13 million.
Figure 2: Egypt Wheat Production and Imports
Egypt had been the granary of the ancient world. At the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Egypt’s population was 4 million. It is now 96 million with a doubling time of 36 years. They ran out of spare water decades ago so all that population growth is made possible by imported grain.
Figure 3: Egypt Wheat and Corn Production and Imports
More than half of what Egypt eats is imported. Near the end of President Morsi’s period in office, the country was down to three weeks of stocks. That precarious situation was possibly one of the drivers that got the Muslim Brotherhood regime chucked out. The Egyptian government subsidises bread production with price of each type of loaf related to the proportion of corn flour in it.
Figure 4: Egyptian Oil Production and Consumption
Egypt used to pay for its food imports with the revenue from its oil exports. It is now a net importer as well as a major grain importer though the large gas fields being developed will help offset that.
Figure 5: Iran’s Population Growth from 1960 with the Proportion fed from Imports
Iran has reached the limits of its agricultural production system and now approaching having half its population is dependent on imported grain to keep body and soul together. Iranian agents have murdered Jews at gatherings as far afield as Buenos Aries. More recently Iranian proxy forces have been lobbing ballistic missiles from Yemen at Saudi population centres. If they upset enough people, eventually the rest of the world will stop feeding them. This is an option going forward.
Figure 6: Tunisian Wheat Consumption per Capita
The Tunisians are the world most enthusiastic wheat eaters with wheat providing most of the daily calorie requirement. Tunisian population growth is down to one percent per annum but, with imported wheat providing half of what they eat, that won’t save them when some other country with more money wants to bid up the wheat price.
Figure 7: Yemen Grain Consumption
Yemen’s population growth is still galloping away despite the civil war there. What is interesting about Yemen’s situation is that wheat imports took off as soon as the country started exporting oil in the mid-1980s. That was followed by imported corn which is cheaper to feed chickens with. Oil production has been in decline for years and the country could not afford to feed itself with or without the civil war.
Figure 8: Domestic and Imported Grain in the MENA Region
The whole Islamic belt from Morocco in the west to Afghanistan in the east is much the same with imported grain providing more than half of consumption. Israel is no different but Israeli GDP per capita is some eight times that of the surrounding region so they will have a better chance of getting themselves fed. The Israelis are able to grow commercial crops using desalinated seawater. It takes one thousand tonnes of water to produce a tonne of grain. Nuclear power at $0.03 per kWh would produce wheat from desalinated seawater at $700 per tonne, more than three times the current price.
Figure 9: Wheat and Rice Production in India
What is remarkable about India is that their grain production has kept pace with population growth. In fact India is now exporting wheat to Afghanistan through an Iranian port. Their last famine was in 1967 when a drought killed one million people. The Indians are well aware that they are reaching the limits of their agricultural production while population growth is grinding on at one percent per annum. To ameliorate that they intend to apply more nitrogenous fertiliser. This will provide more protein if the crop is not water-limited.
Figure 10: U.S. Grain and Soybean Production
Wheat has the best amino acid profile of the major grain crops and is a near-complete foodstuff for those who do not have allergies to it. The amino acid profile of soybeans complements that of corn with the ideal ratio between them being 30 percent soybeans and 70 percent corn. The reason for this is the essential amino acid make-up of each component. Maize protein is deficient in lysine and tryptophan but has fair amounts of sulfur-containing amino acids: methionine and cysteine. On the other hand, the protein of food legumes is a relatively rich source of lysine and tryptophan but is low in sulfur amino acids. This is a near-complete meal for adults but is not suitable for children without an animal protein supplement. Given that human corn consumption is only limited by the availability of soybeans, US soybean production of 90 million tonnes per annum would allow human corn consumption of 210 million tonnes. US production of wheat, soybeans and corn combined could feed just over one billion vegetarians on the basis of per capita consumption of 350 kg per annum.
Figure 11: U.S. Corn Production by End Use.
The mandated ethanol requirement increased corn production by over 100 million tonnes per annum, showing how quickly US agriculture can respond to a price signal. It is also an indication of further latent potential in the system. The 100 million tonnes of corn going to the ethanol requirement could, if combined with 42 million tonnes of soybeans (just under half of the soybean crop), could feed 400 million vegetarians at a 350 kg per capita rate. The United States has a substantial agricultural buffer over its minimum domestic requirements and it should strive to maintain that buffer. Another way of putting that is that every extra immigrant increases that chance that someone within the continental United States will starve during a climate-driven reduction in grain production.
Figure 12: Mexico Grain and Soybean Imports
NAFTA wiped out three million small holders in Mexico when they could not compete with the more efficient gringos. That suggests though that there might be some latent capacity in the system that might be awakened by a price signal. The Mexican population growth rate of one percent per annum means that their population is ratcheting up at one million souls or so each year, in turn requiring another 300,000 tonnes of grain as adults to keep those souls with their bodies. All this will come across the border from the U.S.
Figure 13: Mexico Oil Production and Consumption
As with a number of countries, Mexico has been able to pay for it grain imports with the revenue from its oil exports but is now close to the crossover where it has to start paying for imported oil and food.
Figure 14: China Grain and Soybean Consumption
China’s economy started taking off from about 2000 and so did its grain consumption as it changed the animal protein to vegetable protein ratio in the Chinese diet. China is at its limit of agricultural production with state subsidies for application of nitrogenous fertiliser wringing the last out of the system. Nitrogenous fertiliser in China uses coal as the feedstock, not natural gas. Chinese coal production is forecast to peak in 2020 after which making things from coal will become more expensive. China’s oil production peaked a couple of years ago.
Figure 15: US and Brazilian Soybean Exports and Chinese Imports
China has the world’s largest herd of swine. Pigs have a protein conversion efficiency of 13 percent, halfway between cattle at five percent and chickens at 25 percent. Pork is so important in the Chinese psyche that the Chinese government keeps an emergency stockpile of frozen pork and live animals. To keep its swine herd fed, China has become a giant vacuum cleaner for soybeans, taking close to 100 million tonnes of the combined U.S. and Brazilian exports of just over 120 million tonnes. Soybeans have three times the protein content of wheat so, in protein content terms, those imported soybeans equate to about 300 million tonnes of wheat. Processed through pigs, imported soybeans provide 20 percent of China’s minimum daily protein requirement.
Figure 16: Russian Wheat Production and Consumption
Under communism, Russian wheat production used to be less than its consumption. After 1990, consumption fell as waste was removed from the system and more food options became available. It took a few years for production to recover as de-collectivisation dragged on, with droughts thrown in. In the last few years though production has taken off suggesting that market signals are extending through the system and Russia’s latent potential has started to contribute. Russia has 40 million hectares of cleared land that is producing nothing. At 2 tonnes to the hectare, wheat production could double from here.
Figure 17: South Africa Wheat and Corn Production and Imports
To make the stuff that white people eat, bread, South Africa is now importing more than half its wheat. The country tends to import more corn when droughts impinge upon domestic production. The staple diet of black South Africans used to be sorghum. It is now corn and that has caused an epidemic of squamous carcinoma of the oesophagus. This is caused Fusarium fungi grow freely on corn, producing fumonisins, which reduce nitrates to nitrites and synthesise cancer-producing nitrosamines. Fusarium fungi do not grow well on sorghum with the production of fumonisin from sorghum being two orders of magnitude lower than from corn. Another Sword of Damocles hanging over South Africa is its HIV rate. which is 13.6% in blacks and 0.3% in whites. In the 15 to 49 year old age group, the incidence is 16.6% of the population. South African life expectancy fell from 62 years in 1992 to 51 years in 2006. It is now 56 years. HIV isn’t the killer it once was because of anti-retroviral drugs. Provision of these drugs costs the South African government US$1 billion per annum and a further $0.5 billion from donor countries. There are localised hotspots of higher infection rates with some schools in the Natal province having 28% of schoolgirls HIV-positive. If the government broke down to the extent that the anti-retroviral drugs weren’t distributed, then the black population growth rate would go negative. It is currently 1.6% per annum. Of HIV-positive mothers, one quarter of the babies they bear is infected with the virus. If South Africa failed as a state, it would be missed. Amongst other things, it produces 68% of the world’s platinum.
Figure 18: Wheat Imports in Some African Countries
Africa now has the world’s fastest growing populations with most of that growth fed by imported grain. There are plenty of projections of Africa’s population exceeding 800 million by mid-century but those ignore the question of where the food is going to come from. A major famine in the Middle East is likely to trigger panic stock-building which will exacerbate the situation. That is when grain ships will stop arriving at African ports with a consequent African population collapse. The Middle Eastern oil producers have the money and so they will get the grain.
Figure 19: African GDP per Capita 1980 – 2015
There is a theory that once a society gets wealthy enough and the women of that society get an education then population growth will fall to the replacement level or below. Africa’s GDP per capita figures suggest that few countries on the continent will reach that escape velocity.
Figure 20: Philippines Grain Consumption
The population growth of the Philippines is still galloping along at 1.6 percent per annum. So with a population of 105 million, another 1.7 million new Filipinos are created each year who, as adults, will consume the equivalent of half a million tonnes of grain per annum. That grain has to arrive in ships.
Figure 21: Indonesia Grain and Sugar Imports
There was a prediction in 1976 of the fall of the Soviet Union based on increased infant mortality rates, indicating a society in decay. Therefore an indication of declining infant welfare in Indonesia deserves close scrutiny. After declining over decades, childhood stunting in Indonesia has increased from 28.6% to 36.4% over the decade from 2005 to 2015. Indonesia’s GDP nearly doubled over that decade so lack of money shouldn’t be the cause of the increased infant malnutrition. Most of the income growth went to a small subset of the population though. McKinsey counts 45 million members of a consuming class with household income of US$7,500 or more. Some 82 percent of Indonesia’s population, 200 million people, live on less than US$4 per day with half of those under US$2 per day. Indonesian rice production has plateaued at about 35 million tonnes per annum from 2003. Domestic rice production per capita has declined from a peak of 171 kg per capita in 1991 to the figure now of 144 kg per capita. Food imports started taking off from the same year as per Figure 21.
The situation is a little more complicated than that in that Indonesia has significant corn production now approaching 10 mpta. A significant proportion of that and the imported soybean meal would be going to conversion to animal protein for the consuming class. While Indonesian per capita foodstuff consumption has increased, for the bulk of the population the quality has declined, as reflected in the childhood stunting statistics. Though the stunted children might be getting an adequate amount of food, they are missing the micronutrients that come with animal protein. The most important organ in the body is the brain with most of the brain cells being created and refined in the first four years of life, so nutrients are prioritised for brain development and the rest of the body misses out. Severe protein deficiency results in kwashiorkor, the symptoms of which include brain damage.
Figure 22: Percentage of Grain and Soybean Consumption Imported
The Asian region is a big net importer of grain and soybeans. Of the larger countries in the region, Malaysia is one of the most vulnerable to supply disruption.
Figure 23: Colombia Domestic and Imported Grain 1990 – 2016
All of Colombia’s population increase has been fed on imported grain. None of the Latin American countries north and west of Brazil are self-sufficient in food.
Figure 24: World Animal Protein Production per Capita
Though it is possible to survive as a vegetarian, we have teeth shaped for cutting flesh. Animal protein consumption has doubled over the last fifty years, mostly in chickens and farmed fish.
Figure 25: Protein Conversion Efficiency by Major Animal Type
The reason for the relative rise in the production of poultry and fish meat production is the fact that these are the most efficient animals for converting vegetable protein into animal protein and therefore produce the cheapest meat. This was aided by the cheap grain of the last 30 years or so. Cheap meat from penned and caged animals made meat from grazing animals less valuable, and the land they grazed on. When grain prices rise again, there will be a ‘grass arbitrage’ making grazing land more valuable. Lactose tolerance developed in Europe and Africa because of the efficiency of cows in converting grass into protein through milk which is eight times more efficient than growing cows to kill and eat them.
Figure 26: World Production of Major Grains
With the world’s population at 7.6 billion, total production works out at an average of about 350 kg per head.
Table 1: World Population Growth relative to Grain Supply
The world’s population growth more than tripled since 1930 but grain prices are at their lowest level in human history. The reason is that grain supply outran population growth by a wide margin with the excess grain converted into animal protein and fats.
Figure 27: Wheat Yields in Developing Countries
The Limits To Growth isn’t discredited, just a couple of generations too early. This is largely due to the efforts of Norman Borlaug who pioneered the development of wheat, corn and rice varieties that didn’t use energy for making stalks more than absolutely necessary so the proportion going to the head could be increased. It seems that all the potential gains from that technology have been achieved with wheat yields in developing countries plateauing from 2000.
Figure 28: Wheat and Corn Prices 1916 – 2017
This graph begins at a time when horses provided motive power on farms. The horses required that 20 percent of a farm’s production was feed to keep the horses going. Much the same holds today if a farm tried to make its own biodiesel for tractors. About 20 percent of the farm’s land area would be required with a consequent 20 percent reduction in food output. Farming only takes two percent of fuel consumption but it is the most vital two percent. This graph ends with what appears to be the first signs that the world’s agricultural system is near its limits. The right price signal will increase the area under grain until the world bumps up against its land area limit. That is mostly 40 million hectare in Russia and possibly another 150 million hectares of as yet uncleared Brazilian rainforest. This might keep world population growth going up until the mid-2030s until that wall is hit.
Figure 29: Wheat and Corn Prices 1784 to 2013
When the current age of abundance is over, the situation will return to what it was like prior to 1916. For most of human history grain prices were much higher and far more volatile. In the graph above, the big spike on the left hand side was due to the eruption of Mt Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. The price of oats, what horses are fed on, in the northeast U.S. went up close to 10 fold. In Switzerland people resorted to eating their horses and then their cats. Climate-caused famines in Europe over the last thousand years have been well documented. A cold period due to low solar activity in the late 17th century killed 30% of the population of Finland with lower numbers further south. A sudden cold snap in Ireland in 1740 killed of 20% of the population. This was 100 years before the better known potato famine.
Why This All Matters
There will be an end to the global warming hysteria at some point. But global warming is only the warm up act to an even bigger monster called the UN Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 of them. Global warming, now one of the lesser gods, is goal 13. Goal 1 is to end world poverty and Goal 2 is to end world hunger. The UN’s ambition has grown from the $100 billion per year they wanted under the Paris climate agreement. They want to spend $175 billion per year and $267 billion per year respectively on Goals 1 and 2.
There will be no rest.
David Archibald is the author of American Gripen: The Solution to the F-35 Nightmare