Sunday, May 08, 2011

Tale of two charts...

First consider this surprising new population estimate.

 But the most dramatic changes are national, not global. America's population, now 310m, is likely to rise to 400m in 2050 and 478m in 2100. China's is forecast to fall by 400m between now and 2100. Russia’s population is now 142m; Afghanistan’s slightly more than a fifth of that; Niger’s barely a tenth. But by 2100, Afghanistan is forecast to have the same population as Russia (111m) and Niger will be larger. Such forecasts need to be taken with a bucketload of salt: tiny shifts in today’s birth rate extrapolated over 90 years produce huge changes. But the general picture is probably right.[More]
Ominously, it is not about Asia (China and Russia). In fact, the projection for China is mind-boggling.

It's about Africa, and I think it is one more indicator of what we are overlooking most often about the future. Africa has been easy to ignore, but just like the wholly unexpected uprisings in Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Egypt, etc. it is more a case of casual indifference from the West than lack of evidence.

It is hard to say we need to get over China, but for certain longer time frames, this suggests we should widen our view.

Now combine that with this growing uneasiness.

Why is food production slowing down? This is from Michael Roberts:

Is this because of changes at the intensive or extensive margins? That is, is the slowdown due to declining productivity on existing land, e.g. from bad luck with the weather for several years in a row, or a more permanent change like global warming? Or is it because world growth is bringing marginal, less productive land into production? Whatever the cause, Michael Roberts thinks it's likely a permanent rather than a temporary problem:
There are many reasons for high commodity prices. But recent data from FAO shows a pretty rapid slowdown in productivity growth. The price spike in 2008 occurred in a particularly bad year in which yields declined on a worldwide basis for three of the four largest food commodities. In 2009 all four of the majors saw yield declines, something that hasn't happened since 1974. 2010 couldn't have been much better and was probably worse, given how bad things were in the U.S, the world's largest producer and exporter (worldwide data for 2010 isn't available yet).
The yield slowdown comes at a particularly unfortunate time, with accelerating demand from emerging economies like China and subsidy-driven expansion of ethanol. Keep in mind: we need productivity growth to accelerate considerably to keep up with projected demand growth. FAO says we need 70 percent higher yields by 2050. (Although I'd like to do my own projections, and will one of these days...)
Maybe it's just bad luck with the weather. But I think it just may be a longer run phenomenon.
Yeah, resource scarcity will be in the news for awhile yet. [More, with apologies for the generous extract]

These are not two compatible trends, folks. It may take a few more production years like 2008-2010 for growers to question how soon we'll get to "800 bushels per acre", even if we do buy every seed, machine and chemical being touted to get us there.

Personally, I think it is the extra moisture in the atmosphere, but the idea this could be what the crop future looks like is becoming less unthinkable.

To cap it off, there was this alarming "Dr. Drought" comment in this week's ProFarmer:

That means there’s still a chance for “normal” corn yields in the Corn Belt — but that’s not what Taylor anticipates. Based on current conditions  and his summer weather outlook, he puts 70% odds on below-trendline yields with his “most likely” current yield at an eye-popping 147 bu. per acre
All these are simply projections, and population estimates 90 years out should be taken as possibilities not prophesies. Still this is the first I have seen of 1) the staggering change in Africa's demographics and 2) the equally unexpected sharpness of China's decline.

All in all, those who confidently predict the current commodity boom is another brief interlude between overburdening surpluses need to provide their own data, not simply history, to buttress their conclusions from now on.

Jeez - just think of the fallout from a 147 bpa crop!

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