Saturday, 19 August 2017

Standing on Zanzibar

In my lifetime the world population has doubled. Ironically it was the same year I was born that John Brunner released 'Stand On Zanzibar' his science fiction novel which has proven in part to be perfectly prophetic. In 1968 the world's people could shoulder to shoulder stand on the Isle of Wight, but he correctly predicted it would double from 3.5 billion then and we would be required to Stand on Zanzibar by 2010.

What are the likelidhoods then that we will see an equal rise to around eleven billion people within the latter part of my lifetime? What will this mean for food security, health and the environment? Can the world fundamentally feed itself and avoid catastrophic consequences caused by pressure on resources?

In biology and ecology they talk about set point for any population of organisms. This is a natural equilibrium point where resources are limiting and a population is sustainable or in other words, declines as it reaches diminishing resources. The typical example given, and much studied, is grass-rabbits-foxes. When the foxes get too proliferate, they eat up their own food resources. When the rabbits become too plentiful they too eat up their food resources. When the grass declines the whole ecosystem collapses. Each though has its own risk for population collapse because it reaches a point when suddenly the resources are for practical purposes of availability, used up.

Farmer propogandists who want more power, susbidy and freedom for agriculture and in particular GMO, state that we need food security and we all must match the demand from Stand on Next Island. However these are largely in the west. Europe the USA and to some extent Russia and the former USSR countries havce reached large scale over production. This is from the post war (and post US dust bowl) policies of rewarding new productivity in meeting regional demands for self sufficiency and also in having secure stores of preserved food in the event of a nuclear war. It is only in the last five years that the EU has turned away from this policy of rewarding glut, and is moving towards a free market for the commodities themselves, while rewarding farmers more for defending the natural and global environment.

Some authors and scientists point to the nonsense that we in the west need to feed the developing world or be caught in a global price and resources war. Firstly food security is still a regional area of policy, it is not purely a global free market for big capitalism to exploit and say 'tough luck' when an imagined future declining western economy can't afford the price of bread. Secondly because of this essentially socialist /social democratic reign of subsidy and over production, we already in the west produce enough calories and protein for the entire world population. We will come back to the trouble of inefficiencies and waste around this but first what happens to that overproduction at a higher level, as it aggregates to silos and national figures ?

Here we get into a rather insidious dark side of 'food aid' for the third world and 'affordable food' outside the west. The US is the largest single exporter of aid in commodities of food stuff to in particular, Africa. Within our lifetimes and post war era, the vast majority of Africa has in fact moved away from subsistance and barter to monetary linked economics.  Aid looks good on the headlines, but what it does apart from emptying the near-date reserves in the silos, is dump free food on the market not only the area affected by famine, but with direct and indirect ripple effects beyond. Firstly it displaces the monetary economy outside just the worst effected agricultural areas and refugee camps. It is not that well directed and it is plentiful. Secondly some inevitably ends up stolen and on the black market, sold cheap, because unfortunetly, Africa has many corrupt actors. A ring effect to this is that farmers in those regions of Africa who have a monetary supply chain to the affected areas and their surroundings who are 'flooded' with cheap grain, rise and maize. This all keeps US farmers in subsidy for commodities without there being sizeable destruction of food, which would be a scandal. Instead there is a well established 'do gooder' get out clause. The reality is that Africa can feed itself already it only requires sustainable prices such that farmers can expand those crops which are most needed in areas of famine or under production. Susbidy in the west could be used then as aid money directly to this supply chain, but of course we are back to interferences inthe market and corruption. However in rewarding countries who fight corruption and establish the rule of law and monetary economics, a great favour is done to Africa as a whole. It becomes regional cross border trade and the subsidy is used by buyers who are acting carefully so as not to distort the market price too much. In effect an area of famine represents a decline in demand for African produce in the monetary economy anyway so there is potential for some balancing.

We come back to over production of calories and how the west on a large scale, wastes this. Firstly the largest inefficiency is feeding beef in particular. Cattle used to be grass raised, which is fine in the alluvial and high pastures but these lands became expensive and meat prices went up. As cattle were then ranched and driven over huge areas of poorly vegetated land, this in turn became self limiting during drought or over grazing. So the US turned first to maize (part of the E.Coli 0151 scandal, another story) which is not a natural feedstuff for cows but they grow quickly on its high carbohydrate and reasonable protein content in semi arid areas, like much of Texas. Then the entire western worlds farrmers fell in love with the even higher yielding addition of high protein Soya to the diet of cattle. Soya now is as much as slash and burn catatstophe as Palm Oil but in a far wider scale - from the Rain Forrest of Brasil and other S. American countries, to the 'clearances' of small farmers in central Africa, we have created demand for a cash crop by our love of the burger, mince n' tatties and the satruday night fillet steak.

Secondly we in the west now throw away a huge amount of food at the consumer level, and a smaller amount (which oddly enough attracts all the scandal calling) in the value added supply chain. Some US and EU households are throwing away between a quarter and a third of food they buy or have cooked too much of. On average one estimate is an eight, 12% is simply thrown out after meals or straight from the fridge and larder. This is for two reasons. Our love affair with variety and that food is now a far lesser proportion of our expenditure, and seen as cheap. The USA has a particular issue with large pack sizing, and here we come to another form of deliterious 'waste' of calories. Obesity.
Now I am overweight, I have a reasonably sized beer gut despite being quite active. I represent a sub clinical mass of middle aged folk, while the biggest threat to morbidity and premature mortality in very many western countries is obesity and the related illnesses of heart disease and diabetes. Our excess calories, beyond c.2000 kcal per day for a man like me, go onto our bellies. 'Super sizing' and processed food prioduction are cited as major causes of this epidemic, a western lifestyle pandemic, but in fact we can all afford healthy food if we cut down on the calorie intake and avoid expensive meats if not just becoming vegan. Even two meals a week vegan would help.

In future then we actually have a plus side of obesity in a macabre fashion. Firstly we may as farmers warn, experience rapid price inflation on the basics of food, and in particular on beef as it wastes so many potential calories in the slow and 'farty' growth of cattle. So people will start looking at the food they eat and what it takes out their wallets, and western farmers will see less need for subsidy and in effect also price support if not price fixing. Secondly we see a sharp rise in mortality amongst fifty to seventy year olds over the next decade, coupled to the stagnant birth rate, leading to less domestic demand for foodstuffs as the population declines.

The market increase in price of goods, in particular animal protein, which the rapid rise in population forward will probably entail, means also that farming becomes a more lucrative business in developing countries and standard crops suited to a climatic or soil area of a country, become cash crops on the world market. This means that people will eat less meat in the third world per head, and focus more on affordable plant protein and energy. We reach a chinese diet , where traditionally a small amount of pork of chicken (both more efficient per kilo input of plant stuff for making protein) coupled to nutritious vegetables in a larger amount, then with plain carbohydrate for energy in each evening meal. We then see more people having more vegetarian only days, purely by market mechanism, and 'mock meats' made from vegetable and myco proteins (fungus, Quorn for example).

(Fisheries are now very much in question in terms of sustainability, and the same for aquaculture which has been shown to be very 'dirty' in terms of its supply chain including unsustainable palm oil, third world soya, and fish protein like sand eels which threaten the north sea's econ system. Already in the last two decades we have seen that local substiance fishing and local market economy fishing is being globalised rapidly and then becomes almost immediately unsustainable as over fishing races to the bottom in each poor area, and destroys the fishery and sometimes entire eco systems. We also have the back drop of accelerated global warming which will threaten many fisheries, although may extend the population of some palgiant species greatly. )

We have a quaint view of the third world as being simple, local and subsistant in terms of small farms, fisherman and hunter gathering and this is completely out of date. It is perpetuated because those areas which still indulge in this are photogenic, pure and simple, colourful and quaint and no longer representative of the globalising and monterising factors of all natural and agricultural food supply chains. GMO was sold to us as curing the ills of the third world, while in fact it has created more overproduction and local environmental problems in the west, and locked many third world farmers out of international markets or some crop types because they are too expensive to buy seed for, and too expensive in particular to then manage with the high doses of herbicide and pesticide which the west affords itself. The largest selling GMO crops are engineered with resistance to herbicide so that higher levels can be used. We have a frankenstein monster which is more of economic nature than a biological threat.

We touched on self limitation of rabbits and foxes, and then also on what is happening to human health in the western world with for the first time since 1945, a declining life expetancy on average and a spike of premature death related to obesity, lack of exercise and smoking. In future if we start to see relative rises in food prices and even availability in more areas of the developing world, then this too leads to a self limiting growth in the population as children cannot be fed. We have the risk of famine, where infants are the victims and fertility is also reduced in malnourished women.  However it is not just plain biological limitations, there are economic limits in theory.

Doom sayers have long since told us that if the third world was to aspire and achieve the western material standard of living, then the physical world would have to be three times the size it is now. However there is a paradox here in terms of population. In the UK for example, birth rates fell from the cliche'ed 1970s 2.4 kids, to an average brood of 1.6, meaning in effect domestic population decline as we fail to even make up for our own prescence on earth. This is also true of the USA. Both nations have for many years been reliant on immigration to boost their populations and work forces, and both nations have a large proportion of the 'angry white worker' population who have become super sceptical to immigration, as their standard of living has ceased to better itself and declined in many urban areas. Fine when you are getting  a mexican gardener or polish builder to do a job at a fraction of the cost of an indigenous firm, on time too, but not when as a mass they supress wages and inflate the cost of housing Such is the rentier nature of economics these days.

Here comes the greatest irony. Immigrants have traditionally come from developing countries with eitther Catholicism or Islam as their religions with their anti contraception conditioning, or from other lands where a large family is the culture. However within two generations the descendents of those 'one of a family of twelve' have normalised to within the average of the national average. In part you can say that they have learned the value of contraception and family planning in a secular society, and turned their back on religious doctrine,. However that is really not the story. It is the emancipation of women and the cost of housing which drive the western birth rate down. The two exacerbate each other actually. Demand for a better material and experiential lifestyle and inflation in the 1960s and 70s lead to the widescale entry of women back into the workforce.This in turn lead to inflation in the property ladder as back then families competed for desirable 'two ups/two downs' in the metropolitan suburbs. Then as women became more emancipated in the 80s with their own independent careers two things happened. Firstly there was more demand for starter flats and single occupant rented accomodation. Secondly the average age of first birth in women jumped from mid twenties to late twenties, and among more educated and affluent middle class women, it went on into their mid thirties.

Also we have then that other great western social phenomena relating to the emancipation of women and the secularisation of society - divorce, and the lesser documented seperation from unofficial partnerships. Common reasons for divorce are conflicts of interest over career and work/family balance, relocation of one partner for work, fertility issues and the now old chestnut, men's poor willingness to do housework.  This is then as much a symptom then of economics as it is of any social or biological phenomenom. In turn this is a major effect on the rate of birth because the eventual biological limit is around 44 in women, and many couples experience poor fertility in their 30s on either or both gonadal sides. People are more aware of the price of housing per bedroom too. In effect due to pressure on income and stagnant wages for a large swaithe of salaried workers in administration, customer service and semi technical proffessions, there are less kids planned and more break ups due to poor economic prospects.

Housing is a key in this equation, meaning that western workers are locked into dependency on metropolitan jobs and a dependency on a very high proportion of income going on mortgages, and increasingly, just on renting and perhaps never affording property. Housing is the key thing in terms of the western aspirational model for bringing up a family. It becomes a limiting factor and owning or having access to suitable housing for raising families becomes a goal of both newly educated men and emancipated women in developing countries. Is this a real phenomenon? Well it is an exponential  phenomenom in China and some metropoles in Africa. We have an increasing rich poor divide in the west and a move to the rich owning and the average renting. This could see a sharper divide in developing countries in future as they fully moneterise and open their capital real estate markets to global investors.

The western lifestyle for the majority of workers in the US, the UK and Japan as the prime examples, actually means a contraction in average wealth and material possessions, excluding that must have status symbol the car. We also have technology which reduces our expanding consumption. The mobile smart phone for example, has eaten into sales of everything from PC's to watches, cameras and torches (flash lights). The internet means less use of public entertainment like cinemas or pubs - people can be sociable at home and not use petrol and consumer services elsewhere. Whole supply chains have moved on line, electronically. As the older. pre internet generation declines as a proportion of the population (death of a baby boomer) then on line shopping will come to predominate and supply chains of delivery will become far more efficient in matching the rising demand.

The doom sayers are though quite probably still right to some extent as to the rapid growth in the populations of India and Africa in particular, while command economy and party dictatorship China may enforce the one child policy yet again. With a challenge to immigration laid out in the oldest of capitalist economies, we will see inevitable trend of decline in population especially as the baby boomers shuffle off this mortal coil. There are ecological/biological limiting factors where famine is a result, and global warming is a clear threat to this. Some say that many colder areas of the world will become fertile, but the endless tundra is not going to be cultivated within the next generation or two during whose times, the main growth of population will happen. It is then perhaps the very act of economic development and the extention of the western lifestyle and western rentier economics to the developing world which will limit the growth in population as plain supply, demand, income and pricing limits the breeding potential of the human race.