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A Global Storm in the Making
Volume 14, Number 44: 2 November 2011

Purdue University's Thomas W. Hertel, in his role as President of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, writes in his Presidential Address to the group (Hertel, 2011) that "the number of people which the world must feed is expected to increase by another 50% during the first half of this century," and "when coupled with significant nutritional improvements for the 2.1 billion people currently living on less than $2/day," he says that "this translates into a very substantial rise in the demand for agricultural production." In addition, he writes that the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization "estimates the increased demand at 70% of current production, with a figure nearer 100% in the developing countries (Bruinsma, 2009)."

"At the same time," as Hertel continues, "the growing use of biomass for energy generation has introduced an important new source of industrial demand in agricultural markets," as outlined by the Energy Information Agency (2010) of the U.S. Department of Energy. And compounding matters further, he notes that water, which is a key factor in agricultural production, "is rapidly diminishing in availability in many parts of the world (McKinsey & Co., 2009)," while "many soils are degrading (Lepers et al., 2005)." And, last but not least, Hertel draws attention to the "global economic effects of changes in crops, pasture, and forests due to changing climate, carbon dioxide, and ozone," as described by Reilly et al. (2007) in a paper of the same title published in Energy Policy.

So Hertel asks the question: "Can we expect a perfect storm?" And in response, he cites the report of the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), wherein Buchanan et al. (2010) write that "numerous factors are converging to make 'the perfect storm' in global food and agriculture." He notes, for example, that CAST's "associated arguments are compelling: the global farm and food system will be asked to feed several billion more people, fuel millions of vehicles, supply power for electricity, supply fiber to the global textile industry and sequester carbon to mitigate climate change, all while yield growth is slowing, agricultural land is being degraded and/or removed for urban uses, and water is becoming increasingly scarce."

Truly, the outlook is not good. Although the earth can supply all of our many needs, agriculture -- by itself -- cannot. It should be able to put the food we will require by 2050 on our tables; but we will not be able to similarly grow the energy we will need at that future date. Instead, we will have to extract the materials for producing it from deep within the earth. Thank God for coal, oil and natural gas!

Sherwood, Keith and Craig Idso

Bruinsma, J. 2009. The resource outlook to 2050. By how much do land, water use and crop yields need to increase by 2050? In: Session 2: The resource base to 2050: Will there be enough land, water and genetic potential to meet future food and biofuel demands? Proceedings of a Technical Meeting of Experts, Rome, Italy, pp. 1-33.

Buchanan, G., Herdt, R. and Tweeten, L. 2010. Agricultural Productivity Strategies for the Future -- Addressing U.S. and Global Challenges. Issue Paper No. 45. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.

Energy Information Agency. 2010. Annual Energy Outlook 2010. U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, DC, USA.

Hertel, T.W. 2011. The global supply and demand for agricultural land in 2050: A perfect storm in the making? American Journal of Agricultural Economics 93: 259-275.

Lepers, E., Lambin, E.F., Janetos, A.C., DeFries, R.S., Achard, F., Ramankutty, N. and Scholes, R.J. 2005. A synthesis of information on rapid land-cover change for the period 1981-2000. BioScience 55: 115-124.

McKinsey & Co. 2009. Charting Our Water Future: Economic Frameworks to Inform Decision-Making. 2030 Water Resources Group, McKinsey & Co.

Reilly, J., Paltsev, S, Felzer, B., Wang, X., Kicklighter, D., Melillo, J., Prinn, R., Sarofim, M. Sokolov, A. and Wang, C. 2007. Global economic effects of changes in crops, pasture, and forests due to changing climate, carbon dioxide, and ozone. Energy Policy 35: 5370-5383.