Food Shortages, Coming to a Country Near You?

We have all seen or heard words and phrases such as “drought”, “food shortage” and “crop failure” in media headlines. Usually, the country afflicted is a poor nation with limited fresh water resources that is far away from our home countries. Our response is usually to donate money to organizations such as World Vision so that they can purchase foodstuffs from more affluent nations in order to provide nutrition to those who cannot afford or acquire it themselves. This strategy works because more than enough food is produced around the world to feed everyone at a reasonable cost and drought rarely affects vast swaths of the world at once. This year has been different. The scale of the destruction caused by drought this year is not yet clear, but massive wheat, corn and soybean losses are expected in Russia, Canada and the United States due to one of the most severe droughts on record.

Millions of acres of crops have been scorched. ?Even this is not too severe a problem because of large amount of grain stored in reserve still allows the world to be fed, albeit at a higher monetary cost. The more dire problem that we face is how we will prevent a worldwide shortage of foodstuffs during sustained periods of crop failure. A single year of low yields is not too difficult to overcome because large amounts are stored on a yearly basis to be used in lean years. But what if next year massive flooding or frequent hailstorms again destroy a substantial amount of food? Our stockpiles will have been depleted, leaving us with nothing to fall back on.

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To make matters worse, the warming of the Earth (weather it is caused by human activity or not) will most certainly increase the frequency and intensity of events that could potentially cause crop failure. A disaster of this type will not only cause starvation in poorer countries, but could bring to a grinding halt civilisation as we know it. If the price of food skyrocketed, the middle class would be forced to reduce other spending in order to bid against each other for the right to survive. This would cause a systemic shock to the economy which would cause job losses, which would reduce the ability of people to purchase food. The poor, who often rely on soup kitchens and food banks, would be hit even harder as donations dried up because of reduced disposable income.

There would be disorder as those who could not afford the bidding war for the limited supplies take desperate measures to feed themselves and their families. This would be the worst case scenario barring something very extreme. However, it is not without both mild and extreme precedent. In 2007 and 2008, there were food riots in more than 20 countries because of food shortages amid dwindling global stockpiles. Before the situation got out of hand, good weather and reduced fuel prices brought food costs back down.

The more severe case was in ancient world, where a severe drought caused the collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt and the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia. In Egypt, the drought was so severe that they ate their children. There are several options for mankind to mitigate such a threat. One option would be to look at genetically modifying our crops to be more resistant to severe weather such as drought, or shortages of fertilizer. However, there are some potential consequences if we choose to go this route. What happens if we make a mistake in the genetic coding? We may not realize there is a problem until after it is widely deployed, such as in the case of DDT.

It could potentially affect thousands of important biological functions in unknown ways. We also would become heavily reliant on patented technologies and the ability of scientists to rapidly undo any problems caused by this reprogramming. Another potential option would be to build large amounts of infrastructure such as dams, irrigation systems and desalination plants. This would ensure that water would always be available for farms. The problem with this is that infrastructure is costly and governments cannot really afford to spend trillions of dollars.

There is no guarantee that it would ever be used and it would only solve a single potential problem. More traditional solutions such as sowing more land and using more fertilizer are no longer possible since we are already planting a massive amount of the Earth’s surface and the current levels of fertilizer usage are contaminating large amounts of fresh water and rendering it unusable, which is another threat to food security. The problem of ensuring a stable food supply is not going to be solved overnight. It took 4 years to design the first airplane, and 10 years to place a man on the moon. However, it is a serious issue that requires discussion in the political arena, within the scientific community and around one’s own dining table.