Can Asia Urbanize Without Starving?
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Can Asia Urbanize Without Starving?


Is it a Malthusianism catastrophe, or the stuff of farmers’ dreams?

With forecasts of Asian food demand doubling by 2050, will the Asia-Pacific’s expanding middle class make agriculture the new oil?

Among those answering in the affirmative are commodities traders like Jim Rogers, who has warned of food riots and told investors to buy storable produce.

“We’re going to have serious food shortages, not just in America but in the world. When I speak to universities and students, I tell them all they should be studying agriculture,” he told the financial website Money Morning.

"Soon, stockbrokers will be driving taxis, while the farmers are driving Lamborghinis," added Rogers, who currently invests primarily in commodities and currencies.

In 2008, a spike in food prices worldwide precipitated a crisis that led to food riots in countries ranging from Bangladesh to the Philippines, where the cost of staples such as wheat, rice and maize doubled or tripled. Continued high prices have left an estimated one billion people worldwide without access to sufficient food, and another billion suffering nutritional deficiencies.

There is reason to believe that these trends will only worsen in the decades ahead.

Some forecasts have the world’s population growing to 9.2 billion by 2050. These 9.2 billion people, moreover, are expected to consume the equivalent of 12 billion people’s worth of food, based on current consumption levels, and the large increase in food production that will be needed will have to take place amid the reduced availability of water resources.

Reflecting economic and population growth, energy major Shell recently predicted that global demand for food, energy and water would rise by as much as 50 percent by 2030, and as high as 80 percent by mid-century.

Economic growth in Asia has already increased demand for higher protein and more diverse diets, including more dairy, fish and meat. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Asia’s meat consumption grew annually by a factor of 14 between 1961 and 2009, and higher levels of urbanization are only expected to exacerbate this trend further.

By 2025, nearly 2.5 billion people in Asia – over half of the world’s urban population – are expected to be living in cities, with the number rising to 3.3 billion by 2050. The increase in resources this greater urbanization will require should not be understated. After all, consumption per person in urban areas is up to two times higher than it is in rural areas of China and India.

In its “Australia in the Asian Century” White Paper, the Australian government forecast that the real value of global food demand would rise by around 35 percent by 2025 over 2007 levels, with most of the increased demand coming from Asia.

It also predicted that food production in Asia would need to be 70 percent higher in 2050 than the current level due to growing demand for more protein-rich food. While the gap is expected to be made up by higher yields and increased cropping intensity, the rise is not expected to be easy.

“While the increase needed in agricultural yields is comparable to those achieved in the past, crop productivity growth is slowing and producers face much greater environmental constraints and challenges than before. And in many areas, climate change is multiplying these challenges. By 2030, rising sea levels could expose large parts of the Mekong Delta to extreme salinization and crop damage,” the report said.

“The combination of resource and environmental constraints, along with higher input costs, will constrain the supply response in most regions, so coming decades will be characterized by high food prices. Stronger links between agricultural and energy markets, as well as more frequent extreme weather shocks, will also add to food price volatility,” it added.

May 18, 2013 at 22:09

one  of the  reasons for increase  in food  prices is  a large portion  of  bio fuels are made  out  of  ariculture  lands  and  products  


May 17, 2013 at 17:36

The much overlooked continent Africa can benefit itself and others by becoming a big agricultural producer. Despite common perceptions of being only desert or jungle, the continent actually has huge areas of arable land, if the bad governments can sort themselves out, there is no reason that Africa can start feeding the world (not the other way round).

[...] Juan Nagel, Transitions Fresh Off Border Spat, China Woos India – Zachary Keck, Flashpoints Can Asia Urbanize Without Starving? – Anthony Fensom, The [...]

Tom F
May 17, 2013 at 14:37

@Oro Invictus – " I can say with a fair degree of certainty that I do not expect any advancement in agriculture to materialize in the near future that will be significant enough to offset such short-fall that we will see"

I think you should pay Australia a visit, though not exciting in terms of new technology, the ability to grow things like tomatoes year round, with very little water, efficiently is enough to convince me the human race will continue to innovate.

Must admit I did fall into the whole Gaia thing, carrying capacity etc. until Jimmy started promoting nuclear, what a doozer for the father of Gaia.

As for Asia, personally, I think it's a rather brave thing to lump the whole region into one. The tropical region for one has ample water, fertile soil, access to ocean resources and is seasonally very consistent (ie not affected by severe cold that can influence cropping yield). IMO, the countries most at risk are the ones with a diverse habitat and geographical features because it's the disparity that dictates the wealth gap, which further leads to instability from unfair income distribution.

Then there's the rule of law thing, when there's no rule of law, there's no protection of the environment, that IMO is a bigger problem than progress in food production technology. Laos building dams that affects entire river ecosystem for an entire region comes to mind (using technology supplied by no other than the vandals that 'created' the 3 Gorges dam).

[...] Read Here – The Diplomat [...]

Oro Invictus
May 17, 2013 at 09:24

The short answer? No. The long answer? It is possible, but only if the governments in the region do something which, quite frankly, they will never do.

I’ve already, for years now, gone on about the nature of human overpopulation and poured over the large amounts of data which show how it is unsustainable, so I won’t repeat myself unless asked (just type my name and “overpopulation” and/or “high population” in the search bar if you want to see my previous posts, but also don’t hesitate to ask specific questions if you so wish). Instead, I will simply note a few things, first among them is how virtually all sociologists, ecologists, and others in fields related to sustainability believe our populations are unsustainable, while it is those in fields relating to base economics and politics that tend towards the opposite; this is, of course, extremely unsurprising given governments and capital economists would obviously resist calls to implement population stabilization and control measures since they will invariably result in (temporarily) smaller, albeit much more efficient and sustainable, economies. This is something which has repeated all throughout history as part of governments’ insistence on short-term benefits over long-term ones, even though there have been numerous examples of how smaller populations are for the better in the long term; indeed, if it hadn’t been for the black plague wiping out so much of Europe and weakening the social caste and feudal systems, then Europe would never have jumped so far ahead of the rest of the world via the resultant social revolutions (sorry to those who believed in the ridiculous idea that European culture was superior to others and that is why they enjoyed such an advantage for so long). Today? We could implement ethical measures which would not need to see such horrendous death and still reap the benefits, but it seems it will not be until such time has passed that governments will realize the opportunity they missed.

On the matter of technology solving this issue for us, this is something I am all too familiar with as part of my career. As a scientist, I have an enormous amount of faith in human ingenuity to overcome challenges; yet, as a scientist, I also know only too well how dangerous and how rarely rewarded blind faith in such advancement to make up for things as great as out systematic societal flaws is. Given my specialization leads me to have particularly extensive knowledge within the realms of the biological and chemical sciences (though, my focus is more medical), I can say with a fair degree of certainty that I do not expect any advancement in agriculture to materialize in the near future that will be significant enough to offset such short-fall that we will see. Of course, this does not mean it will not happen, there may well be some unforeseen advancement(s) in genetic crop engineering, synthetic food production, and/or hydroponics great enough to ensure sufficient global supply, but betting our future on the off chance we might discover something to overcome the negative effects of something which is not our best nor sole recourse going forward strikes me as a dubious proposition.

Now, in regards to Asia, that the governments there are willing to take the “quick fix” of (effectively) forced urbanization to speed up their economies is ludicrous, given how much it will worsen matters due to inefficiencies of such urbanization. Further rendering matters more dire is the nature of modern Asia itself, with all of its developing economies, its (worsening) relative lack of clean water and usable land, and chronic overpopulation. Factor into this climate change and… Well, Mr. Rogers might not be too far off when it comes to Asia, Africa, and (maybe) Australia. Still, his warnings are much less realistic when considering North and South America and Europe; while climate change will still hit these areas hard, populations are far more sustainable, urbanization has developed “naturally” and (relatively) efficiently, and the developed nature of many of these continents’ economies will buffer them against such things. In particular, the US, Canada, the European nations, and (maybe) Brazil will suffer by far the least, globally speaking; the risk of sustained and significant food shortage for these nations is minimal. This may offer some hope to the rest of the world if these nations are willing to share their food and water resources but, more likely, they will simply cease exporting such things/only export them at an extreme premium.

Essentially, Asia’s urbanization, if done without significant population control, will be speeding the world back into an age of repolarizing power structures and more regular conflict. In such an era there are no “winners”, however, it will be the nations of Asia which most sought to achieve short-term gain who will lose the most.

May 17, 2013 at 00:44

Another problem for China the Paper Tiger.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief