Posts Tagged ‘agriculture’

Five potential emergencies- food crisis

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Today, we will resume the series on the self-sufficiency theme- food.

Global agriculture entered a new bull market since 2003. Look at this chart:

World Grain Production, Consumption

As you can see, the world has been consuming more grain that it produces for years already. There was a bumper crop in 2008-2009, but 2009-2010 is expected to return to deficit. That means, in the big picture trend, global grain inventory is running down. As Sean Brodrick wrote in The Ultimate Suburban Survivalist Guide,

The trend in global stockpiles has been lower- hitting 31-year-lows in 2008- as once-mighty surpluses were used up.

In the context of rising global population who needs at least an additional 31 million tons of grains per year. In addition, as the emerging consumers from China and India become wealthier, they are consuming more meat, which requires even more grain.

Also, if you believe in climate change (e.g. global warming), we can expect more floods, droughts, heat waves, cold snaps, crop-devouring pests around the world, which will affect agriculture yields.

Food inventory deficits are bad enough. Consider the fact that the average US meal travels about 1500 miles to get from farm to plate means that means that a looming energy emergency (see Five potential emergencies- energy crisis) will compound the problem further. Since much of the developed world is run on tight margins (see Another Achilles Heel of modern society- narrow margin), all it takes for many people to go hungry very quickly is an oil crisis. As Sean Brodrick wrote in The Ultimate Suburban Survivalist Guide,

The average supermarket only has about three to four days worth of food stocks on its shelves. In an emergency situation or real disaster, this food is going to disappear in a matter of hours as people stock up.

So, each day as you eat your meal in front of you on the table, do not take them for granted.

Can ethanol replace oil?

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

Recently, due to worries over the prospect of sustained high prices of oil, there had been renewed interest in alternative energies (see our article: Is oil going to be more expensive?) One of the considerations for an alternative to petrol for powering motor vehicles is ethanol.

Indeed, Brazil is a working example on the successful use of ethanol as an alternative fuel. For years, cars in Brazil had been running on ethanol, which are derived from their vast sugarcane crop. In view of this, will there be a day when ethanol supplants petrol as choice of fuel for cars in a mass scale, thus reducing a big source of demand for oil? Before we can answer this question, let us examine what it takes for this to happen.

Ethanol is produced from the conversion of carbon based agricultural feedstock (e.g. sugar cane, corn, sugar beet). Currently, the world does not have a sufficient surplus of agricultural feedstock to produce enough ethanol to supplant petrol. Diverting vast amount of agricultural produce from food consumption to ethanol production is unacceptable?the result will be mass starvation.

In that case, how feasible is it to significantly increase the supply of agricultural feedstock for use in ethanol production? We believe it is not likely to be so. There are too many issues involved. We would not be able to examine every issue, but we will look at two of the most important ones. A commercially viable mass production of agricultural feedstock will require vast amount of land and water. Clearing vast tracts of fertile land (assuming that such land are available in the first place) to grow the same type of plants for extended period of time for this purpose will bring about its own environmental and agricultural issues. The next significant challenge will be the procurement of vast amount of potable and agriculturally-suitable water, which is a major issue in many parts of the world. In Australia, the naturally dry continent made worse by the drought is a case in point.

With these factors in mind, although ethanol will have its limited role to play in the world?s energy problems, we are not confident of it supplanting petrol in a mass-scale in the foreseeable future.