Is This the End of Cheap Food?

The debate about industrial agriculture, population growth, and food safety

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"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."
  • 'The Era of Endless Food Is Winding Down,' is how Jeremy Harding summarizes "the latest strand in the table talk" in the London Review of Books in May. He summarizes the doomsday prophecies of a number of recent books, and then presents last year's findings from "a team of experts and strategic analysts recruited by Chatham House." The big factors are the following:
The first is the nature and extent of population growth ... The second is 'the nutrition transition': generations that once lived on grains, pulses and legumes have been replaced by more prosperous people with a taste for meat and dairy. ... The third factor is energy: the industrial production of food is sure to become more expensive as fuel costs rise. ... Land is the fourth.... Worldwide, one in three people face water shortages--factor five--and by 2030 the ratio will have narrowed.
  • Or Is It? "So far the people worried most about these issues are often the ones with the least economically informed answers," points out economist Tyler Cowen. Still, he says, "I wouldn't write off these worries so quickly." Here's his take on Jeremy Harding's summary of the Chatham House findings. He thinks free trade might still be the answer:
On the list, #1 and #2 do not impress me per se, but they do require that market mechanisms of adjustment be allowed to operate. Note that agriculture and land markets are highly regulated around the world and that you don't have to read this as a story of market failure. As for #3, most energy is mispriced today. Keeping it cheap means growing pressure on that externality, while taxing it means a solid whack to a lot of food markets. #5 stems from bad government policies. ... I believe these factors mean a stronger case for agricultural free trade, rather than "localism," yet at the same time removing the subsidies for sprawl.
  • Farmer's Market-Solutions Do Seem a Little Fantastical, points out Mary Ellen Wales, a blogger who says she is currently studying "international agriculture" at the Georg-August Universität in Göttingen, Germany. Completely aside from the interests of advanced economic powers, "developing countries view trade with the West as a way to develop their own economies," making a purely regional system of agriculture seem unlikely. It's "worth a look," though, she says.
  • Food Safety This latest recall means "Americans are finally coming to terms with the true cost of their wondrous 26-cent breakfasts," writes journalist David Kirby at The Huffington Post. "Salmonella is largely a problem for factory-farmed eggs." He says that since he began his book Animal Factory, he's been sticking to "organic, humanely produced eggs in [his] supermarket." They cost "about 42 cents apiece," he admits, but "what good is a 13-cent egg if it's going to get you hospitalized?"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.