The End of Cheap Food?

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Over at The Atlantic Wire, my colleague Heather Horn has published a smart round-up of recent commentary on a (literally) life-or-death question: are food shortages and price hikes just around the corner? (Corby discussed the same topic in his Bloggingheads.tv debate with Robert Paarlberg.) In her article, everyone from Mark Bittman to the London Review of Books to an array of bloggers weigh in:

"The era of cheap, abundant food is over," declares The New York Times' Mark Bittman on his blog. To expand on this point, he links to his recent review of The Coming Famine, written by "veteran science journalist" Julian Cribb. This is hardly the first time people have questioned the sustainability of the current, industrial agricultural model. This month's egg recall due to salmonella infections has provided an additional sense of timeliness. Now, then, seems like a good time to revisit that debate: do population growth, energy costs, and safety concerns really mean the end of "cheap, abundant food"? Here are a couple different perspectives.

Food Shortages Ahead "In 1900 every human had 8 hectares of land to sustain them--today the number is 1.63 and falling," writes Julian Cribb back in April. "By 2050 the total area of farm land buried under cities may exceed the total landmass of China," while "many of these cities will have 20, 30 and even 40 million inhabitants--yet little or no internal food production capacity. They will be in huge jeopardy from any disruption to food supplies." Bittman, reviewing Cribb's book, explains that "like many other experts, [Cribb] argues that we have passed the peak of oil production, and it's all downhill from now on." But really, the most important factors are "population growth and overconsumption." Cribb, Bittman writes, "would have society mandate food and waste composting ... eliminate subsidies to the biggest agriculture companies; and finance research for new technology. (Big Food, he believes, should be compelled to contribute to this. Bravo.)" The tone is urgent, but Cribb does seem to see a narrow path out of the "morass."

Read the full story at The Atlantic Wire.

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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