“Peak food”?

The leftie Independent newspaper alarmingly asks “Have we reached ‘peak food’?”. Experienced news-hounds will know the answer to newspaper articles titled “Have we…?” or “Is there… ?” is inevitably “No”. That’s also the case here, though you wouldn’t know it from reading the pessimistic article.

Food production volumes are not going backwards. Food production is still growing in volume, just not by so much. For instance, hitting alleged “peak eggs” in 1993 has not meant a global egg shortage, despite a rising and increasingly affluent Chinese population which adores eating egg-noodles. “Peak” is thus hardly the word to describe some slowing in the still-growing rate of global food production.

The notion of “peak food” appears to assume that food technology stops dead and makes no progress. That disease-spotting drones, precision and closer crop planting, animal hygiene improvements and the great many other ongoing farming advances all halt. That we stop reducing the need for expensive fertilisers and pesticides and water for crops. That improvements in crop wastage from storage, transportation, shelving and home storage all stop. That all the food genetics and crop science progress we’ve seen up to now simply halts.

I looked at several such news stories on “peak food” (it’s not at all new, with very similar reports back in 2013). In all cases “peak food” was quickly conflated with the “fact” that we’re soon going to need “twice as much food” to feed everyone. Shaky pessimistic fingers are then pointed accusingly at developing-world shrimp farms that have polluted their nearby mangrove forest. I don’t deny that Asian shrimp farms generally need to clean up their act. In Indonesia, many have already done so. But that fledgling industry makes a poor example if you’re aiming to suggest that our modern agriculture and aquaculture must now inevitably ravage all the fragile fringe ecosystems in order to feed the world.

The notion of a ‘doubling in food requirements’ appears to be based on a projected future in which the whole earth is guzzling on grain-fed meats and smoothie iced candy-drinks. I doubt that will actually be the case, even in North America. Again, this notion also assumes that certain key food technologies stop dead in their tracks. That in the future no-one ever makes a delicious scampi-flavoured crispy nibble from Quorn (mushroom mycelium) and batter, and thus helps wean us off scampi. That no-one ever manages to make viable vegetarian feedstuffs for big carnivorous pond-farmed fish (the breakthroughs are already happening).

But, hold on a minute. Global food production per person is actually increasing, and food is generally becoming both cheaper, fresher and longer-lasting during storage. We are using less land for more output.

“Oh, but what about India?” cry the eco-worriers. Well, despite the huge rise in population in India since 1945, and the dire corruption and wastage found in India’s ramshackle local food distribution system, overall India’s nutrition and daily calories per person has actually soared.

“But what about Africa?” cry the eco-worriers, in a last-ditch stand. Well, Bill and Melinda Gates — who are people you really don’t want to bet against — bet that Africa will feed itself within the next 15 years. Nottingham University specialists appear to agree with them. And Africa is where a large part of the world’s population growth is set to happen in the near future. In the next 40 years, the population of Africa is set to double. Perhaps this will lead to utter chaos, war and mass starvation of the sort seen during the continent’s long weary socialist decades. But that doesn’t seem to be the current trajectory for most African agri-economies. Bigger demand from bigger and richer populations, and consequent higher profit potential, will inevitably see a harnessing of the almost-unused African rivers for agricultural water. Such water will fill vastly more efficient African fields that will take advantage of the best lessons and most robust technology from around the world. My bet would be that large parts of Africa will eventually come to see a blend of: i) high-efficiency mega farms run by Chinese and Indian corporations; with ii) efficient smallholdings that have become vastly more sustainable, while remaining relatively small-scale.