Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Global Crop Production

Pursuant to yesterday's discussion, particularly for those looking for a bigger picture than just cereal yields.  The above shows global production, by weight, of the major food crops.  Even by weight, cereals are more than half, and if we were to look at calorie content this would be much more strongly true as fruits and vegetables have a lot of water content.

If we look at the total weight of all these crops, it's been increasing at a very slightly above linear pace:

And as with the cereal yields, fluctuations in the amount of food produced, as a fraction of the total produced, have been dropping over time:

Thus the picture is the same - global food production is increasing steadily, and the global food supply is becoming more stable.  This is not to say there aren't constantly problems with the weather/climate in various places, and many people going hungry.  But overall, at the moment, the trend is to greater food production and more stable supply.


dr2chase said...

Is the cereal crop production adjusted in any way for the portion which is converted to fuel?

sunbeam said...

First let me say I believe man is changing the climate. That said it is a big problem. A big, big problem that certainly seems as though it will profoundly impact civilization.

Now I'm not going to say anymore about that, and only peripherally mention an implication like effects on global food production.

Peak Oil.

When is the dog going to bite?

I'm pretty sure we will never see the old projections of oil production past 100 million barrels a day like the DOE used to project.

But while things have certainly changed I don't see anything apocalyptic, not even a vibe, right now.

And I personally can play around with efficiency numbers of PV cells, and our currently primitive energy storage techniques and make a perfectly viable scheme for an industrial civilization. Not this one, and it would require people of necessity to behave in certain ways. And that is without considering the fossil fuel asset that will still be available, and minor things like wind and tidal and whatnot.

But society is always changing anyway, and history has shown us some drastic changes in the behavior of populations when confronted with the inevitable.

And sometimes it shows us the Greenland Norse.

I'm not trying to derail your thread but I'm starting to become convinced of something. We are facing crises that are very serious, but there is a lot more time than I thought when I first started reading about things like this on the Oil Drum and a few other places. Certainly a lot more than Jay Hanson would think.

I don't put you in the doomer category, but I'm starting to think Peak Oil won't really be much of anything.

Climate change certainly can be, but consider the food crop yields you've covered in these two posts.

The "Singularity" frightens me more than ever however. I don't see anything that seems to be out of line with what someone like Kurzweil says to date. I personally think a true AI is... obviously not an irrelevant notion, but you don't need that to change absolutely everything.

That is a lot of words, but basically problems need to crap or get off the pot. As of now I don't think 8 or even 10 dollar a gallon gas would stop the US economy. It'd change a lot of things, but it sure seems like things would adjust even if they weren't for the better. Note that I would not consider a decade long Depression in the US an existentialist event.

I can see the world muddling along as it is now for decades. And while it is poo-pooed a lot, technology is progressing.

Sorry for the derail, but I think I understand most of what I read on sites like this, and I don't see the slightest sign of a zombie apocalypse.

But Climate Change... too long a subject.

To me that issues raised by computers and robotics are far more important than the other two in immediacy.

Stuart Staniford said...

dr2chase: no. That's likely responsible for much of the recent rise in prices, and also perhaps at least some of the acceleration in production in recent years.

Stuart Staniford said...

sunbeam: I agree with much of what you say, with the caveat that climate change has very long lags built in (between the ocean heat capacity, and the time it takes to change human infrastructure on a large scale). So our decisions today are affecting things decades and centuries from now, when the graphs above might have started to look very different.

John said...

1961: 0.62 tonnes per capita
2012: 0.68 tonnes per capita

That is, virtually unchange over 50+ years...

sunbeam said...

Care to wager that if we grew 5 times as much food per acre, that the per capita figure might be the same?

The Rational Pessimist said...


Your charts look look almost too well-behaved, which is a warning sign to me.

Looking at the FAO data you linked to, yield is defined as production divided by area harvest. But the data show a fall in production in 2009 and then again in 2010. which is driven by a commensurate fall in area harvested. So the yield numbers look well-behaved.

However, given what prices were doing over this period, it is highly unlikely farmers were taking land out of production over this period intentionally. A better explanation is that extreme weather is taking land out of production; we know this is the case for Australia in 2009 and Russia in 2010.

I know that the extent to which extreme weather events such as these are due to climate change is still disputed, but putting that to one side your yield conclusions seem flawed.

If and when climate change shows up in the FAO data (if it hasn't already done so), a large chunk of it will get caught in the area harvested line. True yield should surely take account of farmers intended area to harvest.

You are therefore following an indicator to track the impact of climate change which strips out climate change - which doesn't really make any sense.

Stuart Staniford said...

Rational: the graphs in the previous post were for yield. In this post, they are for total production - the product of yield times area harvested.

The Rational Pessimist said...

Yes, but my point is that climate change is showing up in area harvested making your yield graph in the previous post unreliable in terms of communicating anything about the impact of climate change.

Overall production is holding up quite well (sort of), but your linear graph also translates into a declining exponential rate of growth.

The FAO highlights this fact in their 2009 "How to Feed the World Report".

I don't know what is driving the declining rate of growth in yield: perhaps diminishing returns to fertilizer application and so. Is climate change in the mix? I don't know. But your graphs don't really exclude the possibility.

Ael said...

Is a slow linear increase in production "good enough". Given that population growth may not be linear.

Look at food stocks. What kind of buffer do we have?

The Rational Pessimist said...

Aei: No a linear increase is not good enough and extreme weather has been reducing stocks and giving rise to price volatility and hardship.

I generally agree with most of Stuart's analysis, but I find these two posts on agricultural production and climate change far too complacent.

I've posted a reply here:


Stuart Staniford said...

Ael, Rational: Food supply/capita has been increasing throughout this period.

Ael said...

I am confused then. I seem to recall last fall that global grain reserves were at a deep low.

So, if we are producing more per capita but have less food left over year over year, are we feeding it to the pigs instead? Maybe are cars are eating it (ethanol?)

Unknown said...

One point, much of this increase is coming due to increasing use of limited resources for things like water, fertilizer and marginal land utilization. I'm in the farming business and irrigation is increasing dramatically in many areas of the US.

Stuart Staniford said...

Ael: Yes, to first order the price issue is due to biofuels. I'm overdue to update this, but the basic shape of the problem should be clear from this 2011 piece:

A.Grinsted said...

Global population in 1961: 3b
Global population in 2011: 7b

Also an increase in the global average food production per capita.