The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Why Do I Talk About Real Food Shortages In The Future?

Well, this is one reason:

Martin Frick told the BBC that some of the most deprived areas had now reached a tipping point of having “zero” harvests left, as extreme weather was pushing already degraded land beyond use.

He said that as a result, parts of Africa, the Middle East and Latin America were now dependent on humanitarian aid.

Mr Frick warned that without efforts to reverse land degradation globally, richer countries would also begin to suffer crop failures.

The Global Environment Facility estimates that 95% of the world’s land could become degraded by 2050. The UN says that 40% is already degraded.

This seems… bad. Of course, we could do something about it. In theory:

But he argued such an eventuality could be avoided by moving toward localised farming that seeks to reinvigorate the land.

The food agency chief said there was currently an “unhealthy dependence” on crops such as wheat, maize and rice, and the few nations that are large-scale exporters of them – creating food shortages that particularly affect the developing world when those nations’ harvests are interrupted.

He noted how the Russian invasion of Ukraine had caused grain shortages in places such as East Africa.

Mr Frick said that to tackle hunger and land degradation at the same time, the world’s poorest should be incentivised to rejuvenate degraded land through regenerative practices –

Not till catastrophe, at least in most places.

This is on top of loss of nutrients from soil, more extreme weather events which effect crops, water shortages, groundwater being poisoned, and some of the richest agricultural areas having their climates change so they are no longer as productive.

This sort of thing is why the food per capita line on the chart below (from Limits to Growth) is so… dismal.

Notice how fast that food per capita line drops, and notice also that it drops below the food per capita in 1900, not a year where people were known for over-eating.

I want to emphasize, again, that just getting a garden isn’t sufficient for personal food security. Weather and climate variability are going to make growing outside unreliable, and when you need the food most is when it fails widely.


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  1. Ian Welsh is as old a dirt and this commentator is dirt + 20 in age. (Most estimates for topsoil creation are ~50 years.)
    Gabe Brown, a farmer and author of “Dirt to Soil” has ideas for using perennials in lieu of seed crops that rejuvenate and preserve topsoil.
    I cannot state with any certainty that his proscriptions for regenerative agriculture will work everywhere on the globe, but this is a 201 page book well worth reading. I hope that agriculture departments world wide are pouring over this text now.

  2. bruce wilder

    “should be incentivised to “


  3. Bill R

    There was a time when human waste – all the nutrients taken from the land and consummed – were returned. This was often called night soil in England. Unfortunately with so many toxic chemicals put into the sewage system, using sewage on farmland has led to large areas in US being poisoned. So we carry on flushing all the macro and micro nutrients into the sea and poisoning it. We then struggle to find and mine new sources to replace those lost maybe thousands of kilometres away as food is shipped all over the world, and most people in the West think food comes from a store.

  4. GlassHammer

    A planted field + a garden + fruit trees (or berry bushes) + livestock + hunting (or fishing) is the typical formula for family food security in the absence of a market.

    Utilizing just a single part of that formula is not a good plan and in the past most families figured that out pretty quickly.

    The hunting and fishing components really don’t get the attention they deserve. You preserve a decent size deer, or a decent number of fish, or a decent amount of small game and you have months of protein, fats, and calories.

  5. Chris West

    Why do birth rates spike in the second half of that graph? That makes zero sense

  6. bruce wilder

    the high temperatures across the Midwest and Northeast may be instructive: very high temperatures can accelerate drought from something that takes years or months to take hold into something that happens in weeks or days

    dumb has always envisioned “climate change” as simply higher temperatures or somewhat drier conditions, even while smart has long been saying the threat to civilization will be the instability and wild extremes. farmers and gardeners both usually depend on the predictability of seasons — ain’t going to be happening that way.

  7. bruce wilder

    Why do birth rates spike in the second half of that graph?

    I’d be interested in explanations, too.

    The death rate begins rising around 2020, which I think it has, with the pandemic making a contribution and the outbreak of serious war in the developed world adding a smidge to the always high background rate of the undeveloped world and the aging out of the developed world.

  8. Mike Brehm

    Maybe the birth rates spike in the second half of the graph just to keep up with spike in deaths in an attempt to keep the population somewhat stable.

    Hope I’m wrong, though.

  9. mago

    Soil degradation has been a studied and marked upon phenomenon since the thirties.
    Desertification has been a thing for over three decades
    I’ve been a long time proponent and practitioner of soil regeneration since the nineties.
    There are still pockets where local small scale healthy rejuvenation is possible.
    The now dominant corporate model in this realm and others is doomed by the weight of extremity.
    I probably won’t live to see it, and it’s likely to worsen, but I remain a believer in positive outcomes however partial and incremental.
    At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised to experience nuclear puke explode all over the line before I bite it.

  10. GrimJim

    Re: Birth Rate, that starts spiking after Industrial Output per capita flat lines and Food per capita starts inching up again.

    I’d say what we are looking at here is the expected return of the village farmlands. With industry toast, folks move back to subsistence farming to survive. You need lots of hands for subsistence farming, versus only bare replacement for modern industrial labor.

    Of course the problem with this theory is that industrialized farms are now the norm, with properties locked up hard. Plus, it does not account for the full effects of climate change and chaos, which will be magnitudes beyond the estimates used in these calculations…

  11. Hellscape

    The birth rate rises in tandem with the increase in deaths (and the overall population numbers – the black line). It isn’t due to a wholly concious effort to ‘keep the population stable’ per se, rather when things get bad clans need more members in order to survive.

    The most horrifying thing about the graph is that around 2050 it shows both the birth and death rates skyrocketing rapidly in parallel at the same pace, while the overall population numbers begin – and continue – to plummet precipitously.

    I’ve never seen anything like that, and I don’t know if it’s even possible to contemplate what that reality might entail. Needless to say, it’s extraordinarily dystopian.

  12. Hellscape

    The graph shows all the resources dwindling and subsequent massive procreation in an attempt to survive…almost entirely to no avail.

    The graph isn’t necessarily correct, of course. There are valid criticisms, and they aren’t all bankrolled by the oil industry.

  13. capelin

    “Why do birth rates spike in the second half of that graph?”

    Well, if we stop using mrna injections now, then the first uninjected cohort would be coming “online” about then…

    Just watched John Campbell’s short vid on big decreases in sperm moblity in Denmark, (the only country that checked). So I say the above only partly in jest. Many factors to most/everything, of course.

    “… in 1900, not a year where people were known for over-eating.”

    Hmmn, people were certainly eating _better food – no chem-shit, non gmo/older varieties with more nutrition, way less processing, shorter supply chains, pre-nuke…

    Even more true in rural communitiees. Even if you didn’t own a farm (you can’t live just off of a garden), you might work at one or do farm gate purchases, etc.

    People still had a concept of the importance and place of food. Now, people are just-in-time, food-from-a-store clueless. Food comes from a screen, doesn’t it?

    “Food per Capita” – if that’s based on “output/harvest” then “efficiency/waste/distribution” needs to also be considered.

  14. capelin

    The scaling up, mechanization, and automation of agri has in itself shifted people’s relationship to food – even in rural communities, there are less people directly “in the dirt”.

    It used to take all hands to get the harvest in, and those hands are gunna have claim to some of that harvest.

    Now their share gets converted to money which goes to JohnDeere, Monsanto, GoogAgri, and Big Supermarket.

  15. As society collapses access to birth control may become a distance memory.
    An increase in infant mortality means more births are required to have the same number of children per family.

  16. Revelo

    Historically children were valued as cheap labor when young, private army of sons and sons-in-law when grown, and then retirement plan. When the going gets tough, these factors will reemerge quickly, so that’s a possible explanation of rise in birth rates post “collapse”.

    Hard times will also causea reemergence of extended families and other social networks wherever these have been in decline. When food runs short, larger clans tend to massacre isolated individuals and small groups to get access to their supplies. Living on an isolated homestead and relying on guns to protect you is a formula for being picked off by snipers from a nearby clan: they can outlast you because of superior numbers. Smart preppers join the police or become essential workers who will be protected by the police, plus get involved in local politics so as to have friends in high places. Large armed clans are typically able to negotiate with government security forces, but government security still gets first dibs on essential supplies. See Ukraine right now, or any country undergoing civil war.

    I’m more of a tech optimistic than our host or the limits to growth crowd. In particular, I believe SO2 injection into the stratosphere can stop global warming and solar energy can provide enough ultra cheap locally produced energy to offset issues with declining availability of resources other than energy. But there will nevertheless be lots of local social breakdowns during the transition period.

    For citizens of developed countries, transition will manifest as massive change in living standards. I hesitate to say reduction in living standards, because I believe walking, shared housing and other physical infrastructure, acceptance of death as inevitable, diet that is moderate in animal protein is actually an improvement in living standards versus current model based on automobiles, under utilized single family homes in suburbia, frightfully expensive last years of life in nursing home followed by weeks in hospital intensive care, huge amounts of animal protein in diet. But for those attached to current model, transition will feel like collapse in living standards. Those who cling to current model will go bankrupt then become depressed and commit suicide. Those who adapt will do fine, IMO.

  17. different clue

    @David Lamy,

    I may be wrong but I believe that Wes Brown of The Land Institute is the person who believes in non-woody seedbearing perennial crops as the way to avoid annual row crop degradation of soil. So far, The Land Institute has been doing lots of science but has rolled out very few actual high-production seedbearing perennials.

    Now . . . there is a perennial based approach to significant-production fruits/nuts/seeds from perennials. It involves woody perennials ( trees/shrubs/bushes). And some people are combining bunches of those with annual crops and/or grazing in strips or zones between the perennial food crop plants. Here is someone pursuing that concept.
    There is also a more general version of this approach called “silviculture”.
    And there is a newish group trying to assemble into one reachable place all the developing information about ” edible savannah farming” and the variations there-on.

    Gabe Brown himself has been doing his work with no-till agriculture of row crop annuals using physical roller-crimper smashdown methods instead of chemical herbicide burndown methods to render multispecies cover crop plantings able to be row-crop planted through. Here is his book.
    (Behold how this book can be bought through the Acres USA bookstore itself, without having to given any undeserved support to the wicked Jeff Bezos and his Amazon Empire of Evil).
    Gabe Brown also makes videos about his work. I find them fun and informing to watch, within my time limits. Here is a link to a whole lotta buncha videos ( some featuring other irrelevant Gabe Browns, but they can be easily spotted and avoided).;_ylt=AwrEmSdAgXRmCAQA0TZXNyoA;_ylu=Y29sbwNiZjEEcG9zAzEEdnRpZAMEc2VjA3Nj?p=gabe+brown&fr=sfp

    Here is a book by Jeff Moyer, an early researcher-adopter of the roller-crimper no-till concept, called Roller/Crimper No-Till: Advancing Eco Agriculture

    In a past comment, Ian Welsh wrote that people will either move into high-density multistory “Arkologies” or they will refuse to move into them, in which case they will . . . ” die, bitches”. If urban society evolves in that direction, then some suburbanites will move into the emerging Arkologies, and others ( the bitter enders) will take their chances on staying in suburbia and maybe ” die, bitches” if that is what ends up happening. Enough suburban homes and yards will be abandoned that the bitter-ender remainers will evolve a new emerging mid-density peasant society, however squalid, and take their chances on “die bitches” outside the Arkology Walls.

  18. Carborundum

    Gross birth rate increases because services and industrial output per capita decline. A decline in services per capita means that birth control is less of a brake because education and family planning drop. A decline in industrial output per capita is correlated with increases in desired family size. Both drive the gross birth rate closer to the natural fertility maximum.

    Overall, it’s a pretty simple model and the treatment of the causal vectors isn’t very granular.

  19. bruce wilder

    “… in 1900, not a year where people were known for over-eating.”

    Hmmn, people were certainly eating _better food – no chem-shit, non gmo/older varieties with more nutrition, way less processing, shorter supply chains, pre-nuke…

    Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle describing the horrendous working conditions and poor sanitation in Chicago slaughterhouses was published in 1906.

    Chlorination of water supplies began in New Jersey in 1908.

    Obesity was hardly unknown. William Howard Taft supposedly got stuck in a White House bathtub.

  20. capelin

    @ bruce wilder

    For sure it wasn’t all sunshine, worse in cities. But even there, farmers markets absolutely occupied a larger share of the food supply/food economy than today.

    “Obesity was hardly unknown. William Howard Taft supposedly got stuck in a White House bathtub.”

    Anyone in a White House bathtub is not representative of most people. Look at public photos of the day. Obesity is rare. People are active, and eating much closer to the source. Compare and contrast with today. A generation or two of eating processed gluten-powered crap in front of a screen will do that. I blame public policy, or lack of.

  21. different clue

    A little more thought on perennial non-woody food plants . . . my understanding of Wes Jackson’s (and successors’) work at The Land Institute is guided by the concept of a designed prairie analog composed of non-woody perennials successfully bred to produce a meaningful yield of edible seeds year after year. They would all be harvested at the same time in one pass of harvester machines and all the different seeds would be sorted back out into their separate kinds by passage through a series of screens with different sized holes for filtering out the different sized kinds of seeds.

    So far work still continues, mostly without success, to breed up varieties of prairie or prairie-able plants with meaningful annual seed yields to design a mixed-species prairie from. The one success so far claimed is a perennial grain-yielder called kernza.
    Big claims are made for kernza. I remember hearing somewhere from some people who have actually tried it that it yields well in the first two years and then yields start declining. But perhaps the big claims may some day be lived up to. At the very least, it has been a good hard try.

    I see some perennial grains mentioned at a place not related to The Land Institute, and that is the Experimental Farm Network. They run a seed and start store and one of their categories is “edible perennials”. Most of those “edible perennials” are trees, shrubs and bushes . . . or non-grain perennials like rhubarb and such. But they offer a few perennial grains in that category. They are randomly scattered in among the non-grain majority of entries. And some which are already sold out for this year may become available again next year. For those who are interested, here is the link.

  22. bruce wilder

    Wikipedia: Pellagra was first reported in 1902 in the United States, and has “caused more deaths than any other nutrition-related disease in American history”, reaching epidemic proportions in the American South during the early 1900s. . . . The pellagra epidemic lasted for nearly four decades beginning in 1906.[50] It was estimated that there were 3 million cases, and 100,000 deaths due to pellagra during the epidemic.

    @ capelin

    I think you are projecting backward without knowing the history and substituting vague heuristics like “eating much closer to the source” for knowledge of mechanisms.

    Unregulated profusion of highly processed foods is contributing in some way to the obesity epidemic and chronic diseases, but imagining a past that never was is not helping to identify specific mechanisms on which public policy can act effectively.

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