2012 June 03 Sunday
US Southern Great Plains Groundwater Gone In 30 Years?

Unsustainable farming practices will come to an end in the southern US Great Plains.

Key farming regions in the US are drawing water from underground sources at unsustainable rates, with slightly more than one-third of the southern Great Plains at risk of tapping out its sources within the next 30 years.

This is before taking into consideration risks of a megadrought.

The Ogallala Aquifer is most at risk. Farmers in western Kansas and the Texas Panhandle will eventually have to stop growing crops that require irrigation.

"Basically, irrigated agriculture in much of the southern High Plains is unsustainable," said Scanlon.

Continued population growth combined with already overdrawn natural resources makes the future of many resources look pretty grim. One problem with this sort of depletion is that it removes a buffer. Imagine the Great Plains gets hit by a large drought lasting years or even decades. It has happened before. Without a big underground buffer of water the impact will be much more severe.

Given cheap enough energy water depletion would not have to make such a big impact. With very cheap energy (fusion energy some day?) water desalinization can provide us with as much water as we need, at least in coastal regions.

By Randall Parker    2012 June 03 10:12 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
2011 September 28 Wednesday
SoCal Bass Stocks Collapsing

Too much fishing off the coast of southern California.

The two most important recreational fisheries off Southern California have collapsed, according to a new study led by a researcher from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

Scripps postdoctoral researcher Brad Erisman and his colleagues examined the health of regional populations of barred sand bass and kelp bass-staple catches of Southern California's recreational fishing fleet-by combining information from fishing records and other data on regional fish populations. Stocks of both species have collapsed due to a combination of overfishing of their breeding areas and changes in oceanographic conditions, the researchers found.

As they describe in the most recent edition of the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, the researchers say the total amount, or biomass, of each bass species decreased 90 percent since 1980. Yet fisheries catch rates have remained stable for a number of years, even as overall population sizes dropped drastically. This is due, the authors say, to a phenomenon known as "hyperstability" in which fishing targets spawning areas at which large numbers of fish congregate, leading to a misleading high catch rate and masking a decline in the overall population.

This reminds me of what a Florida fisherman was just telling me: Off of the west coast of Florida the allowed catches and fishing seasons have been cut back drastically over the last several years. Fisheries have shrunk so far that regulators have cut back on allowed fishing. This has cut into demand for pleasure boats used for fishing.

The world's fisheries are being overfished and the world's population is still growing. Fisheries depletion will get much worse.

Deep sea fisheries which have long living and slow growing fish are also being harvested in an unsustainable fashion.

A team of leading marine scientists from around the world is recommending an end to most commercial fishing in the deep sea, the Earth's largest ecosystem. Instead, they recommend fishing in more productive waters nearer to consumers.

In a comprehensive analysis published online this week in the journal Marine Policy, marine ecologists, fisheries biologists, economists, mathematicians and international policy experts show that, with rare exceptions, deep-sea fisheries are unsustainable. The "Sustainability of deep-sea fisheries" study, funded mainly by the Lenfest Ocean Program, comes just before the UN decides whether to continue allowing deep-sea fishing in international waters, which the UN calls "high seas."

Life is mostly sparse in the oceans' cold depths, far from the sunlight that fuels photosynthesis. Food is scarce and life processes happen at a slower pace than near the sea surface. Some deep-sea fishes live more than a century; some deep-sea corals can live more than 4,000 years. When bottom trawlers rip life from the depths, animals adapted to life in deep-sea time can't repopulate on human time scales. Powerful fishing technologies are overwhelming them.

Planet Earth has become a big tragedy of the commons.

By Randall Parker    2011 September 28 10:21 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (19)
2011 February 21 Monday
Two Thirds Of Large Fish Gone In Last 100 Years

Yet more evidence that the world's fisheries are over-harvested.

Predatory fish such as cod, tuna, and groupers have declined by two-thirds over the past 100 years, while small forage fish such as sardine, anchovy and capelin have more than doubled over the same period, according to University of British Columbia researchers.

Led by Prof. Villy Christensen of UBC's Fisheries Centre, a team of scientists used more than 200 marine ecosystem models from around the world and extracted more than 68,000 estimates of fish biomass from 1880 to 2007. They presented the findings today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.

Their finding of the simultaneous decline of predatory fish and increase of forage fish provides the strongest evidence to date that humans are indeed "fishing down the food web" and impacting ecosystems globally. The UBC team also found that of the decline in predatory fish population, 54 per cent took place in the last 40 years alone.

Peak Fish like Peak Oil.

"It looks like we are fishing harder for the same or less result, and this has to tell us something about the oceans' health," he said. "We may, in fact, have hit peak fish at the same time we are hitting peak oil."

China's demand is growing even as fishery stocks are shrinking. So no relief is in sight.

Yet demand is growing fast, again most dramatically in East Asia. According to International Food Policy Research Institute research fellow Siwa Msangi, the rise in demand is largely being driven by China. Almost 50 percent of the increase in the world's fish consumption for food comes from Eastern Asia, and "42 percent of that increase is coming from China itself," he said.

The more China industrializes the higher Chinese consumer buying power will grow and Chinese demand for fish will go much higher.

In south Asia and Africa population growth will furnish more sources of demand. More hungry human mouths will increase demand for fish even further.

In 2011 the Earth's population will reach 7 billion. The United Nations (UN) reports that the total number of people will climb to 9 billion in 2050, peak at 9.5 billion, stabilize temporarily, and then decline. Despite the confidence with which these projections are presented, in an American Association for the Advancement of Science press briefing and presentation today the Population Council's John Bongaarts presents evidence that the actual population trajectory is highly uncertain.

What could happen depends on trends in fertility and mortality—and both variables are complex and not easy to forecast.

If technological advances are going to some day reverse these trends those advances are not coming soon enough.

By Randall Parker    2011 February 21 11:11 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (10)
2010 December 02 Thursday
Massive Fishing Expansion With Peak In Catches

The Earth's oceans are being overfished after a rapid decades-long expansion in fishing.

The Earth has run out of room to expand fisheries, according to a new study led by University of British Columbia researchers that charts the systematic expansion of industrialized fisheries.

In collaboration with the National Geographic Society and published today in the online journal PLoS ONE, the study is the first to measure the spatial expansion of global fisheries. It reveals that fisheries expanded at a rate of one million sq. kilometres per year from the 1950s to the end of the 1970s. The rate of expansion more than tripled in the 1980s and early 1990s – to roughly the size of Brazil's Amazon rain forest every year.

NB: View the study at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0015143.

Fisheries catches peaked in the late 1980s in spite of continued rapid expansion of fished areas well into the 1990s.

Between 1950 and 2005, the spatial expansion of fisheries started from the coastal waters off the North Atlantic and Northwest Pacific, reached into the high seas and southward into the Southern Hemisphere at a rate of almost one degree latitude per year. It was accompanied by a nearly five-fold increase in catch, from 19 million tonnes in 1950, to a peak of 90 million tonnes in the late 1980s, and dropping to 87 million tonnes in 2005, according to the study.

We need to set aside large areas of the oceans for fisheries recovery.

There's nowhere left to expand into.

"The decline of spatial expansion since the mid-1990s is not a reflection of successful conservation efforts but rather an indication that we've simply run out of room to expand fisheries," says Wilf Swartz, a PhD student at UBC Fisheries Centre and lead author of the study.

This is the Tragedy of the Commons. Can it be stopped. The forces pushing the overfishing seem like they are too strong to restrain. There's not much of an environmental movement to oppose these forces. At best some specific industrialized countries or small groups of countries might band together to restrict fishing in fairly small areas. But for most of the oceans I do not see enough nations signing up to agree to restrain their fishing industries.

By Randall Parker    2010 December 02 09:43 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2010 September 23 Thursday
China Top Fish Consumer

Expect more fisheries depletion.

WASHINGTON—China leads the world in tonnage of fish caught annually as well as the amount of fish consumed, according to new findings reported in National Geographic magazine.

It is troubling that even at current still fairly low per capita GDP ($6,567 per capita GDP in purchasing power parity in 2009) China already consumes more fish than any other country. Consider that at current GDP 98 countries (even Namibia!) have higher per capita GDP. Imagine what China's fish demand will be at double and eventually triple and quadruple its current per capita GDP. The ocean's fisheries already are harvested at an unsustainable level.

Japan is number 2 and the US is number 3. Enough Asian nations are industrializing that current Japanese and US fish consumption levels from wild catch are not sustainable.

The research, conducted by the University of British Columbia in collaboration with the National Geographic Society and The Pew Charitable Trusts, ranks the top 20 nations that have the greatest impact on ocean ecosystems through catching or consuming marine wildlife.

China's top ranking results from its enormous population, despite its very low per capita footprint of fish catch and consumption. Japan is high on the list too, a result of its rate of consumption (often by importation) of fish rather than its catch. The "top 20" lists of fish catch and consumption are unveiled in the October issue of National Geographic magazine.

The United States comes in third in both lists, due to its relatively large population and tendency to eat top predator fish such as Atlantic salmon. Peru ranks second in the world in catch though is not in the top 20 fish-consuming countries because Peruvians on the whole eat little seafood.

One might argue that the growth in fish consumption will come from aquaculture. Sure. But overfishing of fisheries will increase even as fish farming doubles and doubles again. Fishing fleets are already more than double sustainable size.

Humanity's demand for seafood has now driven fishing fleets into every virgin fishing ground in the world, the scientists say. A report by the World Bank and United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization suggests that even if the number of boats, hooks and nets now used were cut by half, the world would still end up catching too many fish to be sustainable for the future.

By Randall Parker    2010 September 23 09:39 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2009 October 27 Tuesday
Monsanto Wins FDA Soy Omega 3 Approval

Monsanto's genetic engineering to make soy beans produce omega 3 fatty acids (the kinds found in fish) has approval by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Last week, the US Food and Drug Administration made public its ruling that the oil produced by GM soybeans is safe to eat, meaning food companies can begin testing it in products such as margarine.

Developed by biotech giant Monsanto, the soybean is the first GM plant that has claimed health benefits for consumers, not just economic benefits to farmers. Two other companies, BASF (PDF) and Du Pont, say they are not far behind.

In Europe the specter of genetically modified (GM) foods elicits enormous political opposition. But in the United States people have much less fear of genetic engineering and I expect soybeans loaded with the omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA won't stir up much opposition.

I see this as a positive development for aquaculture because the soy could be used as part of the feed for salmon and other farmed fish. This would provide the farmed fish with a source of DHA and EPA without resorting to catching fish in the ocean to feed the farmed fish as is currently done.

A few years ago Monsanto was projecting high omega 3 soybeans to hit the market in 2011 or 2012. Sounds like they might hit the market sooner. Though I wonder if they've got to spend some years just growing soy to plant the resulting beans to grow even more soy before they have enough for large scale agriculture.

By Randall Parker    2009 October 27 07:34 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2009 September 28 Monday
Corn Ethanol Increases Soil Run-Off

Hey, it has been far too long since I bashed corn ethanol as a product of bad US federal energy policy. Higher demand for corn to produce ethanol causes more run-off of soil, pesticides, and fertilizer due to less crop rotation.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - More of the fertilizers and pesticides used to grow corn would find their way into nearby water sources if ethanol demands lead to planting more acres in corn, according to a Purdue University study.

The study of Indiana water sources found that those near fields that practice continuous-corn rotations had higher levels of nitrogen, fungicides and phosphorous than corn-soybean rotations. Results of the study by Indrajeet Chaubey, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, and Bernard Engel, a professor and head of agricultural and biological engineering, were published in the early online version of The Journal of Environmental Engineering.

"When you move from corn-soybean rotations to continuous corn, the sediment losses will be much greater," Chaubey said. "Increased sediment losses allow more fungicide and phosphorous to get into the water because they move with sediment."

Corn ethanol is a bad idea with incentives more aimed at subsidizing farmers than at doing anything useful for our energy problems. The energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) isn't high enough to be worth the costs and it can't scale due to limited availability of good soil. Plus,

Biofuel crops are seen as boosting the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by oxygen depletion as a result of fertilizer run-off.

Scientists in Pennsylvania report that boosting production of crops used to make biofuels could make a difficult task to shrink a vast, oxygen-depleted "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico more difficult. The zone, which reached the size of Massachusetts in 2008, forms in summer and threatens marine life and jobs in the region. Their study is scheduled for the Oct. 1 issue of ACS' semi-monthly journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Christine Costello and W. Michael Griffin and colleagues explain that the zone forms when fertilizers wash off farm fields throughout the Mississippi River basin and into the Gulf of Mexico. The fertilizers cause the growth of algae, which eventually depletes oxygen in the water and kills marine life. Government officials hope to reduce fertilizer runoff and shrink the zone to the size of Delaware by 2015. But that goal could be more difficult to reach due to federally-mandated efforts to increase annual biofuel production to 36 billion gallons by 2022, the study says.

Maybe genetically engineered microbes for biofuels production will prove useful. But using food crops to produce energy is a bad idea. Even without the demand for crops to make biofuels rain forests are getting shifted into agriculture due to population growth and Asian economic growth. We shouldn't make this problem worse with bad energy policy.

By Randall Parker    2009 September 28 11:48 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2009 September 12 Saturday
Half Of Consumed Fish From Aquaculture

On the surface this sounds like goods news since you might expect aquaculture fish to reduce the pressure to over-harvest wild fish. But no.

Aquaculture, once a fledgling industry, now accounts for 50 percent of the fish consumed globally, according to a new report by an international team of researchers. And while the industry is more efficient than ever, it is also putting a significant strain on marine resources by consuming large amounts of feed made from wild fish harvested from the sea, the authors conclude. Their findings are published in the Sept. 7 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"Aquaculture is set to reach a landmark in 2009, supplying half of the total fish and shellfish for human consumption," the authors wrote. Between 1995 and 2007, global production of farmed fish nearly tripled in volume, in part because of rising consumer demand for long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Oily fish, such as salmon, are a major source of these omega-3s, which are effective in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The problem: salmon and other aquaculture fish are fed with wild fish.

In 2006, aquaculture production was 51.7 million metric tons, and about 20 million metric tons of wild fish were harvested for the production of fishmeal. "It can take up to 5 pounds of wild fish to produce 1 pound of salmon, and we eat a lot of salmon," said Naylor, the William Wrigley Senior Fellow at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

The amount of fish oil in the aquaculture salmon diet could be lowered. But this seems like an inadequate response in the face of rising demand.

One way to make salmon farming more environmentally sustainable is to simply lower the amount of fish oil in the salmon's diet. According to the authors, a mere 4 percent reduction in fish oil would significantly reduce the amount of wild fish needed to produce 1 pound of salmon from 5 pounds to just 3.9 pounds. In contrast, reducing fishmeal use by 4 percent would have very little environmental impact, they said.

What is really needed: Genetic engineering to get land-based crops to produce the omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. Note that flax oil does not contain these long chain omega 3s. Flax contains Alpha Linolenic Acid.

Update: Some people in the salmon aquaculture industry say that they use 5 lb of feed with only 1.5 lb of that fish meal to produce 1 lb of salmon. That's not as bad as Naylor's 5 lb of fish to create 1 lb of salmon. Still, the ratio of fish meal to salmon has got to get well below 1-to-1 in order to take pressure off the oceans.

By Randall Parker    2009 September 12 07:54 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (24)
2009 August 13 Thursday
Northern India Ground Water Dropping

Some people are going to get thirsty.

Irvine, Calif. – Using satellite data, UC Irvine and NASA hydrologists have found that groundwater beneath northern India has been receding by as much as 1 foot per year over the past decade – and they believe human consumption is almost entirely to blame.

More than 109 cubic kilometers (26 cubic miles) of groundwater disappeared from the region's aquifers between 2002 and 2008 – double the capacity of India's largest surface-water reservoir, the Upper Wainganga, and triple that of Lake Mead, the largest manmade reservoir in the U.S.

People are pumping northern India's underground water, mostly to irrigate cropland, faster than natural processes can replenish it, said Jay Famiglietti and Isabella Velicogna, UCI Earth system scientists, and Matt Rodell of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

"If measures are not soon taken to ensure sustainable groundwater usage, consequences for the 114 million residents of the region may include a collapse of agricultural output, severe shortages of potable water, conflict and suffering," said Rodell, lead author of the study and former doctoral student of Famiglietti's at the University of Texas at Austin.

Imagine India with a few hundred million more people. Water will deplete at an even faster rate.

By Randall Parker    2009 August 13 11:47 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2009 June 20 Saturday
China Energy And Transportation Demand Up

More cars produced than in America for the first time.

For the first quarter of the year, 2.7 million cars were sold in China -- besting U.S. sales of 2.2 million for the first time to become the world's largest car market.

If the Chinese do not shift to electric cars powered by nuclear, wind, and solar power we are going to face a big problem with fossil fuels depletion and pollution.

Oil demand is rising briskly.

China consumed 33.23 million metric tons of oil in May, up a strong 6% from the same month in 2008, a Platts analysis of official data showed June 18.

Note: The Chinese are stockpiling too. It is not clear whether this figure includes demand for stockpiling. Is retail demand up?

Take a look at the larger trends behind these latest two reports. In 2007 China surpassed the US in CO2 emissions. In 2008 China accounted for 43% of world coal consumption.

China, which has been trumpeting its new wind and solar goals in recent days, led the way with a near 7% increase in the amount of coal it burned during 2008 despite average prices rising 73% to $150 (£129) per tonne. This accounts for 43% of global coal use.

Out of the major commodities the United States still only leads China in oil consumption. The same is true for most (all?) minerals.

Among the basic commodities—grain and meat in the food sector, oil and coal in the energy sector, and steel in the industrial sector—China now consumes more than the United States of each of these except for oil. It consumes nearly twice as much meat (67 million tons compared with 39 million tons) and more than twice as much steel (258 million to 104 million tons).

These numbers are about total consumption. “But what if China reaches the U.S. consumption level per person?” asks Brown. “If China’s economy continues to expand at 8 percent a year, its income per person will reach the current U.S. level in 2031.

“If at that point China’s per capita resource consumption were the same as in the United States today, then its projected 1.45 billion people would consume the equivalent of two thirds of the current world grain harvest. China’s paper consumption would be double the world’s current production. There go the world’s forests.”

The Earth's crust is made up of 8.1% aluminum and 5% iron. So we will have plenty of them even if China industrializes to the US per capita level. But for applications that use large amounts of rarer inputs we are going to have to shift toward other ways to accomplish what those limited resources do for us.

By Randall Parker    2009 June 20 06:09 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2009 June 01 Monday
Phosphorus Depletion Problem In Late 21st Century?

In a pretty good article written for Scientific American David A. Vaccari says we might run out of phosphorus reserves late in the 21st century. Since phosphorus is one of the 3 key elements in NPK fertilizer exhaustion of phosphate mines would cause a big problem for food production.

We obtain nitrogen from the air, but we must mine phosphorus and potassium. The world has enough potassium to last several centuries. But phosphorus is a different story. Readily available global supplies may start running out by the end of this century. By then our population may have reached a peak that some say is beyond what the planet can sustainably feed.

Moreover, trouble may surface much sooner. As last year’s oil price swings have shown, markets can tighten long before a given resource is anywhere near its end. And reserves of phosphorus are even less evenly distributed than oil’s, raising additional supply concerns. The U.S. is the world’s second-largest producer of phosphorus (after China), at 19 percent of the total, but 65 percent of that amount comes from a single source: pit mines near Tampa, Fla., which may not last more than a few decades. Meanwhile nearly 40 percent of global reserves are controlled by a single country, Morocco, sometimes referred to as the “Saudi Arabia of phosphorus.”

I'm not worried about the N (Nitrogen) part of fertilizer. I expect we will find ways to generate enough energy to reduce N from the atmosphere and attach hydrogen to it. If we have enough energy we have enough ammonia.

The K (Potassium as potash) reserves look like they'll last longer as compared to phosphorus. So I'm not worried about that one. But I am concerned about the phosphorus. Maybe we will find some more big deposits and kick the problem into a future century. But we can't be sure that's the case.

There's an added benefit to treating the phosphorus problem as real: If we take steps to reduce phosphorus run-off (e.g. use no-till farming) then we also cut back on algae blooms that eat up all the oxygen and cause deade zones.

By Randall Parker    2009 June 01 12:03 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
2008 October 12 Sunday
Scientist Sees Resource Constrained Future

Robert Criss says the big problem is exponential population growth.

Oct. 7, 2008 -- It's a 500-pound gorilla that Robert Criss, Ph.D., professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, sees standing on the speaker's dais at political rallies, debates and campaigns. Its name is population growth.

"Population growth is driving all of our resource problems, including water and energy. The three are intertwined," Criss says. "The United States has over 305 million people of the 6.7 billion on the planet. We are dividing a finite resource pie among a growing number of people on Earth. We cannot expect to sustain exponential population growth matched by increased per capita use of water and energy. It's troubling. But politicians and religious leaders totally ignore the topic."

Some argue that since disaster was predicted in the past and did not happen that pessimistic views of resource depletion should be dismissed. I'm reminded of the boy that cried wolf. The wolf eventually came.

A substantial portion of the American population are using non-renewable sources of ground water.

The United States is experiencing rapid population growth — at a rate higher than almost any other developed country — along with increased food production, Criss says. In many areas, especially the West, the practice of "mining" ground water to irrigate arid or semiarid land, which won't work in the long run, is becoming commonplace. "Energy and water use are intimately related," he says. "As water tables decline, you have to use more energy to lift the water out of the ground. That's what a pump has to do in places like Arizona where water levels have dropped many hundreds of feet. More people, more water use, more food, more energy. It's not sustainable."

Criss says approximately 150 million Americans use ground water, most of which is nonrenewable.

Market pricing of water can keep demand and supply in balance. But as water tables decline in Arizona will the price of water get so high as to make people migrate out of the state?

Some people do not see a resource-constrained future. They point to the big decline in oil prices as a sign that oil shortages are a thing of the past. But they aren't looking closely at the cause of the declining oil prices: US oil imports fell almost 10% in a single month. Fast and big dips in demand will lower prices.

The monthly trade report contains data on the price of imported oil. Friday's report said the average price per barrel in August fell to $119.99 from $124.66. Even with a price drop, U.S. crude import volumes eased to 308.38 million barrels from 342.02 million, amid a faltering economy.

Recessions and financial crises aren't what I want to count on to lower oil prices.

If we are headed into a economic Depression (and I have no idea) then oil demand will drop far enough that lower prices can be sustained for a while. But if we are (hopefully) not headed into a Depression then I would expect this oil price dip to be temporary. Economic growth in Asia will eventually boost Asian demand by more than enough to displace lost US demand. If one wants to be optimistic about future oil supplies one either has to point to large discoveries (and by large I mean each year discovering more than we used that year) or signs of a rapid scaling up of oil replacements.

Nanotechnology will eventually change the resource scarcity picture. In particular, energy limitations are solvable in the longer term. With nanotech assemblers photovoltaics will some day be very cheap and wind will become cheaper as well. With a lot of energy lots of materials become substitutable for each other. But I'm not expecting that sort of drop in fabrication costs in the next 10 years.

By Randall Parker    2008 October 12 06:08 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (22)
2008 January 19 Saturday
Biofuels Use Pushes Up Vegetable Oil Costs

A New York Times article by Keith Bradsher entitled "A New, Global Oil Quandary: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories" draws attention to the growing direct competition between using land to create food and to create energy. This is not new news for regular FuturePundit readers. But you can now discuss this as a legitimate mainstream topic, which is nice. Biodiesel causes food riots.

This is the other oil shock. From India to Indiana, shortages and soaring prices for palm oil, soybean oil and many other types of vegetable oils are the latest, most striking example of a developing global problem: costly food.

The food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, based on export prices for 60 internationally traded foodstuffs, climbed 37 percent last year. That was on top of a 14 percent increase in 2006, and the trend has accelerated this winter.

In some poor countries, desperation is taking hold. Just in the last week, protests have erupted in Pakistan over wheat shortages, and in Indonesia over soybean shortages. Egypt has banned rice exports to keep food at home, and China has put price controls on cooking oil, grain, meat, milk and eggs.

According to the F.A.O., food riots have erupted in recent months in Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

China's industrialization is putting the demand for more food by the Chinese middle class into direct competition with the demand for biomass for energy and for food for people in much poorer countries.

Half the demand growth for vegetable oils comes from use for biofuels.

Biofuels accounted for almost half the increase in worldwide demand for vegetable oils last year, and represented 7 percent of total consumption of the oils, according to Oil World, a forecasting service in Hamburg, Germany.

Also see Stuart Staniford's posts on The Oil Drum entitled Fermenting the Food Supply which I covered in my own post Will Biofuels Demand Cause Mass Starvation? aand his follow-up post Death Rates and Food Prices. Staniford reports that rural poor in undeveloped countries grow a lot of unexportable crops and are pretty isolated from the world food market. But the much more rapidly growing ranks of urban poor appear to be far more vulnerable to world food price rises. My reaction: We need a massive international effort to lower fertility rates in the very poor high fertility rate countries. We also need massive build-ups of nuclear and wind power to reduce the demand for agricultural products to create energy.

So how much can this demand growth push up prices? Quite a lot it turns out.

Palm oil commodity prices now sit above $1,000 per tonne on the strength of rising demand from increasingly prosperous Asian consumers. A year ago the price was $600.

Back in the good old days of 2001 when the world seemed so ripe with possibility palm oil leaped from $220 per tonne to $290 per tonne in just 3 weeks. But now it is almost 5 times more expensive with a recent price of $1040 per tonne.

Currently, the indicative price for refined palmolein is $320 a tonne and for crude palm oil $290 a tonne, both free-on-board Malaysia (and both up $70 a tonne in last three weeks)

What happens when oil production peaks (it might have already) and starts declining? The higher the price of petroleum oil goes up the higher vegetable will go up along with. Rises in fossil fuels diesel prices cause rises in the price that companies will pay for vegetable oil to use to create biodiesel. It is as simple as that.

Malaysia has seen a lot of panic buying of palm oil. But is this really panic buying or a rational response to expected future price rises? Buy sooner when it is cheaper.

The Malaysian Government has been forced to make an emergency palm oil injection into supermarkets and food stores across the nation to break a wave of panic-buying after prices of cooking oil soared.

The crisis, which has emptied shops completely of cooking oil, has already prompted palm-oil rationing in a country that is one of the world’s largest producers of the highly sought-after commodity.

I am expecting food exports to follow a pattern similar to oil exports. As big exporting countries start to find internal demand is growing rapidly the internal pressures will build to stop exports. Bans on exports will create the conditions for market prices for food and oil which are lower in many producers than on the world market.

By Randall Parker    2008 January 19 06:00 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2007 October 21 Sunday
US West Facing Long Drought?

The US West is in a drought. Lake Mead is only half full. Also, water is getting pumped up from deep aquifers much more rapidly than rain replaces it even when not in a drought. Yet the West's population is growing rapidly and water demand looks set to rise much higher. An article by Jon Gertner in the New York Times Magazine reports on the West's growing water problem.

But recent studies of tree rings, in which academics drill core samples from the oldest Ponderosa pines or Douglas firs they can find in order to determine moisture levels hundreds of years ago, indicate that the dry times of the 1950s were mild and brief compared with other historical droughts. The latest research effort, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters in late May, identified the existence of an epochal Southwestern megadrought that, if it recurred, would prove calamitous.

When Binney and I met at Dillon Reservoir, he brought graphs of Colorado River flows that go back nearly a thousand years. “There was this one in the 1150s,” he said, tracing a jagged line downward with his finger. “They think that’s when the Anasazi Indians were forced out. We see drought cycles here that can go up to 60 years of below-average precipitation.” What that would mean today, he said, is that states would have to make a sudden choice between agriculture and people, which would lead to bruising political debates and an unavoidable blow to the former. Binney says that as much as he believes that some farmers’ water is ultimately destined for the cities anyway, a big jolt like this would be tragic. “You hope you never get to that point,” he told me, “where you force those kinds of discussions, because they will change for hundreds of years the way that people live in the Western U.S. If you have to switch off agriculture, it’s not like you can get back into it readily. It took decades for the agricultural industry to establish itself. It may never come back.”

Agriculture uses most of the water. Plus, the agricultural water mostly evaporates. Whereas much of the home use goes out in sewers where it can be recycled. Cut out the East Coast lawns and Western houses could recycle almost all their water usage. But a long drought would drive up food prices and push agriculture toward wetter areas.

Since long droughts are a natural occurrence one will happen sooner or later. But if we heat up the planet (which I still doubt will happen since we are running out of fossil fuels) then the West could get hit by a mega mega drought. We are talking Turbo Drought.

An even darker possibility is that a Western drought caused by climatic variation and a drought caused by global warming could arrive at the same time. Or perhaps they already have.

An extreme drought would cut off electricity from hydroelectric dams of course. But conventional electric power plants also use water. So electric power generation could be cut even more deeply. A drought alongside an ocean at least leaves the potential for desalination. If you can afford to build nuclear power plants near oceans you can use the energy to desalinate ocean water. But Colorado is far from any ocean.

Agriculture would be much harder hit by a big drought. What little water the farmers could get would be worth more sold for residential use. So I would expect farmers to give up farming while residences would convert to heavy recycling of water.

Speaking as someone who lives in the West I see my local utility bill as a disincentive to efficient water usage. First off, the water doesn't cost all that much. Second, the water costs the same whether used in ways that go back down the sewer pipe or used to water lawns. It annoys me to water a lawn and pay more not just for the water but also for sewer service.

But if the goal is to reduce evaporative loss of water then water should cost much more. But here's a twist: the sewer flow should be metered and water that returns out the sewer should reduce the cost of the water. In other words, you should be charged less for water that you return to the sewer system than for water that you use on lawns and gardens.

Cheap solar power (when it finally arrives) will some day provide coastal communities with power to run desalination plants. Solar works well for this purpose because the bulk of the water conversion could be done during daylight hours for use all day long. The purified water could be pumped during sunny days to reservoirs and water towers and then used at night and on overcast days.

Coastal desalinization will reduce the need for river water by coastal communities. That will free up more of the Colorado River water for landlocked states. In fact, landlocked states will probably some day buy water rights from California and California can use the money to fund desalinization operations. So coastal desal will help inland communities.

By Randall Parker    2007 October 21 08:35 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
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