The Food Forecast

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on April 29, 2009 · 0 comments

The meat you eat could be getting a lot more expensive in coming years.

Thirty years ago, we didn’t know about trans fats, and Whole Foods didn’t yet exist. Those are just two small examples of how eating today is different. How will it look three decades from now?

Trend watchers at the Institute for Alternative Futures have taken a careful look at the global food system and predicted what the future may hold. And what they’re most concerned about is that food prices will go up—a lot. That’s especially true for meat.

You don’t need me to tell you food has gotten more expensive lately; just take a trip to your local grocery store. Food prices have risen 83% worldwide since 2005, with some staples getting even more expensive. Wheat has increased 141% and rice 130%.

Local factors, like a citrus freeze in California, affects food prices in the short run. But over the next 20 we will be addressing serious, long term, global issues regarding food.

More widespread affluence and upward mobility in developing countries is a good thing. But with that comes the demand to eat “like Americans.” In China, for instance, as incomes rises so does the demand for meat. The per capita consumption of meat has risen from 44 pounds per person per year to 100 pounds a year. (In the U.S. we eat double that.)

Meat is one of the most resource-costly commodities to produce. It takes 2 to 3 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of poultry meat, 4 to 5.5 pounds of feed to produce a pound of pork, and a whopping 10 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of beef. For every acre of land used to support cattle production, we produce 20 pounds of protein. Plant that same acre with soybeans and the yield is 356 pounds of protein; rice gives you 261 pounds, beans 192 pounds and wheat 138 pounds.

We may not have the luxury to use land for meat production in the future. Land is becoming scarcer every year due to urban sprawl, industrial expansion, and highway construction. Yearly, in the US the population grows by 3 million, and at the same time we lose approximately 3 million acres of farmland to development.

Lack of water is a serious obstacle to agricultural development. By 2015 nearly half of the world’s population, more than 3 billion people, will live in countries that are water-stressed. Most seriously affected will be Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and northern China. Water tables are falling rapidly in the US, China and India; countries that produce half of the world’s food.

The search for alternative fuel sources has shifted land use from food production into crops needed to produce biofuels. Corn-based ethanol, added to gasoline, has cut down on the amount of corn and corn-based products that enter the food supply. You may be thinking, so I’ll eat less popcorn or corn on the cob. Are you aware that corn is used in over 600 different products, from biodegradable plastics to animal feed to fuel for husk-burning furnaces? Not to mention the corn products we eat—breakfast cereals, corn chips, cornstarch, cornmeal, oil, corn syrup, and whiskey, just to name a few. Divert corn corps to ethanol production and we see increases in prices and shortages in supplies for foods and products we use daily. In 2008, almost one-third of the U.S. corn production was used for ethanol production, triple the amount in 2003.

As the global food supply tightens, food producing nations will limit or stop exporting foods. For countries that rely heavily on imports, food prices will climb higher. Add in global warming and it starts to look like a crisis. The Hadley Centre for Climate and Research in Great Britain forecasts extreme droughts by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not dramatically reduced. That could reduce the world’s usable agricultural land surface by 30%.

Does the future have to be this bleak? No. Forecasts are predictions of what could happen if we stay the course. Major global initiatives to address land use, climate change, water usage, energy utilization, and alternative energy development could produce an entirely different scenario. But, they won’t be effective unless more of us realize that the planet’s food chain is in jeopardy.

For more information on planet-friendly eating click on Our Books and look at The Healthy Wholefoods Counter.

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