Food Futures: Sirens, Warning Lights, and All That

So I’m sitting on a rather large lump of volcanic rock in the North Atlantic ocean – Iceland – at the annual meeting of the Balaton Group.  We’ve already had several days of (truly) mind-boggling presentations on topics related both to the global financial system, and the global food system, and more on that later. But now I’m “live-blogging” one of the presentations:  Tom Fiddaman, walking us through the original “World3” global model, to show us how it modeled food. It’s amazingly rich. It covers land yield and conversion and fertility and regeneration, as well as food production and the social/industrial/economic processes attached to that. That’s already worth digging into, because it captures (in gross aggregate) a lot of the more detailed analyses we’ve been listening to.

But Tom has already moved on to mini-model-sketches and cartoons addressing the economics.  “How will I ever fit into that little car?” says an obese man. And a sign blinks:  “Rising Food Prices!”

This is what we’re all starting to expect after looking at the data and the dynamics for the past couple of days — *much* higher prices, at least over time, with spikes and valleys and unstable dynamics, partly driven (just one factor!) by the growing competition between food and biofuels.

This topic of food touches all of us. Literally. Food goes in the mouth and through the body. Even while sitting here, a sheet is being passed around by the restaurant:  “Veggie? or Beef?”  Is it okay to eat beef on Iceland, if the cows are eating grass?  Hmm, still dubious, given the belching of methane and the other environmental impacts.  But sheep?  Well, okay: a previous speaker however, has shown that even the cows will be necessary in order to capture the phosphorous in the system.

The feedbacks are complicated. The *system* is complicated. Tom reflects that solutions for a sustainable food system has economic (price), monetary (new currencies), social (getting people to like new things), paradigmatic (seeing different values), and many other dimensions.

I’m inspired:  there is so much to learn here, and it is so very important. Food is life. Food what we use the planet to create (big hunks of the planet, anyway). Food is something so intimately connected to social sustainability (avoiding famine, riots, war), to ecological sustainability (not paving all the ecosystems for pasture or soybeans), to economic sustainability (livability for farmers and farm workers around the world, which seems to be declining in terms of their wages etc.).

Watch this space:  there will be more on this topic.  And you can follow my Twitter feed, as well as friends like @GillianMMehers (and her blog,, Co-President with me in the Balaton Group.

One thought on “Food Futures: Sirens, Warning Lights, and All That

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