It’s still true: you can’t eat money

August 23, 2009

“Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money.” – Cree Saying.

This quote, possibly the biggest cliché in the environmental literature, inspired Jared Diamond’s seminal work “Collapse“. But humans seem to succumb to boredom fairly quickly, so the real crisis, which is after all about something as mundane as food, has slipped off of the radar. The global meltdown of the banks, a grand Greek drama of the folly of the gods if ever there was one, has captured our attention. Have the problems with food thus disappeared? I think not. They are here to stay and getting stronger.

The problems we saw with the huge price rise in 2008 are still around, bio-fuels, huge agri-businesses exploiting market power, and so on. It is a myth that this was driven by increased demand from China and India, downwards pressure on wages in developing countries has actually reduced per capita food intake in the poor majority of these countries. Adding speculation in food markets yields a lovely recipe for population control (Thus Passim). Over the past two years, evidence has grown of the impact of Climate Change on agriculture. An FAO report by Cline in 2007 put agricultural yield losses by 2080 at between 5 and 20% globally. This hid a regional picture where India could lose 30-40% of its yield. As if this was not enough, he pointed out the glaringly obvious problem with equilibrium models, which mean even greater declines in food production.

These models assume systems tending to a steady state, and are used in both agro-economics and climate modeling. They mask extreme events and chaotic systems that refuse to settle down. Extreme weather is a fact of life in India, whose climate is driven by the dynamic monsoon weather system. No-one quite knows how this system will respond to changes in climate, but what we do know is that around 40% of India’s population depend directly on the rain. They live in terror of extreme weather, and this year, with a major drought from failure of the monsoon, India is importing food again. This just after India signed an accord to turn land over to fuel production to help keep American engines going.

Finally, there is sea-level rise to consider, something also not included in Cline’s report. For instance Egypt is facing the loss of much of its prime agricultural lands along the Nile Delta. So worry about the banks that hold in your money all you like, the food problem is not going away.