Food scarcity, hunger, famine. These words are becoming increasingly familiar in everything from news reports to social media to friendly gatherings with friends and family. Here in the US, we’ve heard of apparently endless catastrophic famines in faraway places like Ethiopia and Somalia, and while we may have donated to relief efforts, ultimately, the death of one third of the country’s population in Ethiopia’s case feels remote. Active involvement is simply not part of comfortable daily life for most of us.
Since those living in wealthy, developed economies have been largely insulated from the effects of famine, it’s easy to embrace the notion that there’s actually plenty of food in the world, and persistent famine is a “third world problem” arising from inadequate distribution, government corruption, and poverty. As recently as 2016 we heard:
Generally, societies are getting much better at producing food: there’s 20% more food available than the global population strictly needs. Most places, even undernourished places, have a raw surplus of food. The problem is, one third of production is either not used productively, or it’s not used to feed the world’s underfed.
It’s true that the citizens of wealthy countries are largely insulated from the effects of food shortages. In fact, it may be true that even now, farmers, fishers, herdsmen, and ranchers across the globe are in fact able to produce enough food to feed the world’s population with room to spare, if only we could move it and distribute it rapidly and efficiently and without red tape. Still, the question remains whether those fortunate conditions will continue or are we pivoting rapidly to a situation where food inequality is increasing, farm productivity is dropping, and economic conditions are pushing farmers in the most productive parts of the world out of business entirely.
It’s an indisputable fact that, as nations, economies, and supply chains become increasingly interconnected, a shortage or disruption in one region of the world produces ripples that span the globe. Let’s take a look at some of the drivers:
Extreme weather and changes to weather patterns can be major hindrances in our ability to produce sufficient food in the future. Whether or not we recognize it, we’re already seeing the effects of these events through rising food prices attributable to devastating heat, drought, freezes, and floods the world over. For example, in 2021, one of the worst frosts in half a century hit Brazil, producer of about one third of the world’s coffee. The devastation created a worldwide coffee shortage which we’re currently seeing everywhere from the grocery store to our favorite coffeehouse.
Wheat supply was already a point of concern in mid 2021 when drought in Canada and the US wiped out wheat crops.
The most recent crop report published by the USDA found that just 11% of spring wheat across six US states is in good to excellent condition. That's down from 69% a year ago.
In Washington State, a staggering 93% of the spring wheat is in poor or very poor condition because of droughts, according to the Drought Monitor.
The effects of these disasters are far-reaching. Today, more than 95% of the Western United States is in some level of drought, and these extreme conditions have induced farmers to stop growing some crops altogether. It’s inevitable that fewer producers will equate to lower supply.
- Natural Disasters
Natural disasters of all kinds can affect food supply along every link of the supply chain. Extensive drought in the Western US, accompanied by the demand from thirsty urban populations, factories, and agriculture have led to the draining of the Colorado River, which continues to reach new historic lows. Cut off from irrigation water this year, farmers in Pinal County, Arizona have no choice but to let their fields lie fallow, unable to produce the corn and alfalfa that provide feed for livestock -- or meat that we expect to find on our dinner table down the line.
Even more direct effects can be found in Yuma, AZ, which produces 85% to 90% of all the lettuce, spinach, broccoli in North America from November through April. If water supplies are cut off to these farmers, it’s not possible to replace the food with imports, since repeated supply chain issues inevitably trigger long delays in shipping leading to rotting produce.
- Environmental Degradation
Environmental degradation is the deterioration of the environment through depletion and contamination of critical resources such as air, water, and soil. Issues with contaminated water, depleted soil and polluted air all throttle farmers’ ability to produce food, while climate change and natural disasters contribute further to the process of degradation.
Soil that’s been starved of organic material and artificially supported by the exclusive use of chemical fertilizers loses its ability to retain moisture. To make up for the loss, more intense irrigation is required, which in turn rapidly draws down limited freshwater supplies. Irrigation water that isn’t absorbed by the degraded soil flows through rapidly, picking up fertilizer, pesticides and weed treatments that haven't been taken up by the crops. Irrigation runoff is contaminated by these salts and nutrients, which carries them with it as it flows into rivers and streams. These contaminants acidify both water and soil within the watershed and can lead to deadly algae blooms downstream. Unfortunately, the interconnectedness of the entire ecosystem triggers an endless spiral toward destruction, inevitably gaining speed and intensity, with no obvious off-ramp.
- Social & Political Unrest
Of the top five wheat exporters in the world, Canada (#2) and the US (#3) are experiencing a long-term drought which has had a disastrous effect on wheat production. To add insult to injury, Russia (#1) and Ukraine (#5) are currently at war and are suffering from direct damage to valuable agricultural land and infrastructure, a massive displacement of labor meaning farmers are unable to harvest crops or plant new ones, and even actions ranging from economic sanctions to naval blockades that prevent any grain ships from leaving the Black Sea region. The damage will not be quickly repaired. Together, these four countries represent over half of the world’s wheat exports. It’s unrealistic to imagine that we won’t see significant effects on wheat markets in the long term.
Many other commodities are affected by this war as well, including components of agricultural fertilizers and sunflower oil, but shortages of wheat alone represent a significant crisis. As the leading source of vegetable protein for humans, wheat is the staple crop for about 35% of the world population and a major component of animal feed.
Social and political fallout related to food prices has already begun to affect economically developed countries. The recent election between French President Macron and opposition candidate Le Pen exposed troubling trends, where the candidates battled over proposed solutions to rising prices, including Macron’s proposal to institute a voucher program so middle and low-income families could afford to eat.