June 10, 2011
How we view global food supplies parallels how we see many issues of Compression. How do you see global food problems? Using what evidence? How does that skew the further information you seek? This loop is sometimes called a ladder of inference.
For decades, environmental forecasters like Worldwatch relied on shrinking carry-over stocks of grains as a key indicator of coming food shortages. They tracked shifts in land use, population, water, weather, and crop yields — quantity indicators all pointing to shortages: More mouths to feed; production capacity hitting limits.
However, so far nearly all of humanity is fed, and some overfed. Worldwatch now reports how that is happening, little things like Africans learning to use plastic bags to improve food preservation. From this broader view, Worldwatch looks at overall food quality, not just grain quantity, but continues to warn of long-term resource overuse. For example, despite respite from recent floods, China is depleting water supplies, a big systemic problem that the Chinese must resolve to assure future food supplies.
Grain forecasts by USDA or the International Grains Council are short-term and market oriented. Right now, officials project no catastrophic world grain shortages in 2011-2012. “Gloomcasters” looking at the same data seek boom-bust swings as a precursor of starvation diets. They reason that globally rising food demand will overwhelm global supply when no major growing region has a bumper crop to sustain carry-over stocks.
Could this be the year? Spring weather does not augur bumper crops in any major growing area. Floods and draughts afflict both the U.S. and China. Russia and Ukraine appear poised for another summer dry spell. Officialdom now expects a so-so crop year, not total disaster, and if the world scrapes by, might not next season be a bumper year?
Variance in statistics lets us interpret them with a good deal of variety, including subjective adjustments for skewed data. For example, how much higher are world grain reserves than reported? Ukrainian growers probably hid an unreported stash last year, gambling on higher prices in 2011. That growers and processors game the system should be no surprise. This frustrates regulators’ efforts to mediate market stability agreements for 2011-12, which they desire in order to dampen market speculation.
Public officials look for signs of commodity market speculators amplifying a small pinch in world food supplies into tall price spikes, which they allege to be the major reason food prices soared to record highs in 2008. Evidence is insufficient to squelch speculators’ denial wheezes, but politicos seize on it to “do something now.” High food prices perturb social tranquility in countries where food consumes a huge chunk of family income, so officials fear political unrest. Unfortunately, any new governments may have no more money to subsidize food costs than the old ones.
Obviously, the global food system as it is now lacks the capacity to feed a few billion more people, but how it will change is murky. From the foregoing, all of us use our own ladders of inference to form our own limited, biased views of how humanity feeds itself now. Facts are remote and obscure. Just tracing the sources of any store-bought meal is a supply chain study, and as we can see after e-coli outbreaks, even the companies involved need time to dredge up specifics. Remote villagers, eating only self-grown food, are closer to the facts of a simpler system, but that does not assure that they are wiser, eat more nutritiously, or avoid e-coli.
But we may not need to shrink to village-scale to be closer to the facts of a food process, opening opportunities to more wisely transform it, and curbing unintended consequences before they run amok. Regard all workplaces as learning laboratories, just as a prize-winning household garden is really some enthusiast’s learning lab.
To increase food supply, many initiatives are coming from diverse viewpoints. Some are quantity-oriented, but pouring more resources on our problems seems likely to exacerbate shortages later. The quality-oriented ones seem more effective in the long run: try to use fewer resources while improving human nutrition.
That in a nutshell is Compression Thinking to simplify a more complex mess than anyone can fully comprehend. Food supply has to be a core concern, and who wants to be against better quality?