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    8 Signs We’re Headed for a Global Famine

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    8 Signs We're Headed for a Global Famine

    It’s hard to believe that something as dire as “famine” could occur in places like the United States or Europe. However, the evidence is mounting, and Ertharin Cousin, former executive director of the World Food Program, calls it “a perfect storm in global agriculture.”

    Famine is not uncommon. It continues to occur in many parts of the world, particularly in Africa and parts of Central and South America and the Middle-East.

    As a confluence of untimely events continue to merge, conditions in those regions will get worse and the threat of famine will spread, especially in the midst of an intensifying agricultural disaster.

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    Food Insecurity Hotspots

    What’s the Difference Between Food Insecurity and Famine?

    Food security encompasses the many factors that enable someone to eat food and live a happy, healthy life. Being food secure means having sufficient nutritious food that is accessible and affordable and can be utilized by the body.

    Famine is basically the extreme, darkest form of food insecurity. While food insecurity is relatively common — experienced by about 795 million people around the world — famine is rare.

    In order to be classified as famine, an area must exhibit some very specific metrics, notably that 30 percent of the local population is acutely malnourished and that there is a high mortality rate attributed to lack of food.

    According to National Geographic, “Famine is a widespread condition in which many people in a country or region are unable to access adequate food supplies resulting in malnutrition, starvation, disease, and high death rates.”

    And it doesn’t always present itself as rail thin children with bloated bellies. The first threat from malnutrition is a compromised immune system.

    That’s why disease is often the cause of death, and that’s where things get complicated. People can still find some food among the limited choices, but their overall nutrition is so poor that they become susceptible to a range of diseases due to their weakened immune system.

    The U.S. is No Stranger to Food Insecurity

    While famine is not a common event in the United States, food insecurity is a persistent challenge to millions of Americans. The big question is whether these ordinary challenges can grow into something official defined as famine.

    U.S. Food Insecurity Chart

    The Famine Factors

    Right now, 8 events are occurring that are threatening all aspects of food supplies globally. Any one of these events could affect food security, but when combined they create a real and growing threat for famine. These 8 threats include:

    1. The Global Fertilizer Shortage
    2. Increasing Droughts and Floods
    3. War in Ukraine Restricting Trade
    4. Spiking Fuel Prices
    5. Supply Chain Issues
    6. Dwindling Insect Populations
    7. The Erosion of Our Topsoil
    8. Soaring Inflation

    All of these events are what define the “perfect storm” and they are affecting many nations including the U.S. We'll start with the global fertilizer shortage.

    1. The Global Fertilizer Shortage

    In even the least-disruptive scenario, soaring prices for synthetic nutrients will result in lower crop yields and higher grocery-store prices for everything from milk to beef to packaged foods for months or even years to come across the developed world.

    And in developing economies already facing high levels of food insecurity, lower fertilizer use risks engendering malnutrition, political unrest and the otherwise avoidable loss of human life.

    Commercial farmers rely on a combination of three key nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — to fuel their harvests. Those inputs have always been key, but it was only about a century ago that humanity learned to manufacture mass-produced ammonia-based nutrients. 

    The discovery of the Haber-Bosch method in the early 1900s, which is still used to make fertilizer today, has allowed farmers to vastly increase their yields. The agriculture industry has since come to depend on — even hinge on — man-made fertilizer.

    Although soil’s needs are different from region to region, the general trend is pretty undisputed: More fertilizer use brings more food production.

    But as costs for synthetic nutrients have skyrocketed — in North America, one gauge of prices is nearly triple where it was at the start of the pandemic — farmers have had to start paring back use, sometimes dramatically. That’s put the world in uncharted territory.

    To sum up: Farmers will have to pay more for what little fertilizer they can get, and they will definitely see reduced crop yields in the coming months. These will push food prices even higher.

    U.S. Fertilizer Price Index

    2. Increasing Droughts and Floods

    Whether you think climate change is caused by humans or just a natural cycle, there's no denying that the Earth is getting hotter. As a result, dry places are getting drier, and wet places are getting wetter.

    Farmers across the world are dealing with unprecedented droughts. But in many cases, farmers are finding their fields buried by floods from torrential rains.

    According to Sara Menker, chief executive officer of Gro Intelligence, an organization that gathers and analyzes global food and agricultural data,

    “It is important to note that the lowest grain inventory levels the world has ever seen are now occurring while access to fertilizers is highly constrained, and drought in wheat growing regions around the world is the most extreme it’s been in over 20 years.”

    U.S. Drought Monitor

    California is having its driest year ever. In West Texas, no one alive has seen this little rain. The vast underground lake that feeds the Great Plains, which helps produce one sixth of the world’s grain, is shrinking.

    Drought—historic drought, not just a year or two or three of dry weather, but a famine of rain so severe that some say you have to go back to the 1500s to find a rival—extends from the Pacific coast as far east as Mississippi, Wisconsin and Illinois.

    Food prices are already stratosphericWheat prices, worsened by a shortage due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, have spiked. Soybeans are the highest in ten years. Avocados haven’t been this expensive since the 1990s. Corn prices are flirting with an all-time record. America’s drought will push them and others even higher.

    Produce that will be most affected include peaches, plums, nectarines, grown in areas of high drought in California, as well as almonds and pistachios. A study published in Nature has confirmed a worst-case scenario: Climate change is responsible for deepening drought.

    “This drought will very likely persist through 2022, matching the duration of the late-1500s megadrought,” the study found.

    Weather events are getting more extreme, with heavy rain flanked by long dry periods. Higher temperatures could be another contributing factor.

    U.S. Precipitation Index

    The amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere is now more than 50% higher than pre-industrial times – and is at levels not seen since millions of years ago when Earth was a hothouse ocean-inundated planet.

    “Carbon dioxide is at levels our species has never experienced before,” said Pieter Tans, senior scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Global Monitoring Laboratory.

    The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas releases “greenhouse” gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into Earth's atmosphere and oceans. The emissions have caused the planet's temperatures to rise to levels that cannot be explained by natural factors, scientists say.

    Global Temperature Change

    3. War in Ukraine Restricting Trade

    Russia and Ukraine used to provide nearly a third of the world’s wheat exports and are in the top five exporters of corn globally. Combined, they used to export 75% of global sunflower oil supplies.

    All Ukrainian ports remain closed, making it impossible to move any of Ukraine’s harvested grain across its borders. Shifting to rail will move less than 10% of the prewar flow. It’s not enough. Russian exports, which also include fertilizer, are limited because of Black Sea maritime hazards.

    And even worse, there are credible reports that Russia is stealing Ukraine's grain and only selling it to countries that agree to support Russia's invasion.

    Some people, including president Zelenskyy of Ukraine, believe Putin's plan is to starve the developing world. Then when the food riots begin, he can blame Ukraine. According to Zelenskyy, this will result in the world experiencing a severe food crisis and famine.

    And it’s not just about Russia and Ukraine. Civil wars and uprisings are a continuing pattern around the world and severely restrict traditional domestic pursuits like farming and food processing.

    The biggest challenge is the inability to export or import things like food during times of civil war or widespread civil unrest. This not only affect the people living in those countries, but also the people who receive any food exports from those countries.

    The World At War In 2022

    4. Spiking Fuel Prices

    Few people around the world are unaware of the escalating price of gasoline, diesel fuel, and natural gas. Prices are rising and there’s no end in sight.

    The impacts on agricultural efforts are significant not only as it relates to equipment for farming, food processing, and transportation, but for fertilizer production as well. Natural gas is a critical component involved in the creation of two widely used synthetic fertilizers – ammonia and urea.

    Global Gas Prices

    To put it in perspective, in the United States we are currently using an equivalent of 80 gallons of gasoline to produce an acre of corn. This equation translates to other food crops on any large scale.

    The consequences are simple. As fuel prices rise, the cost of food will rise and the nutrient quality of crops will diminish as less fertilizer is used due to its cost and lack of inventory.

    Average Gas Prices Rising in U.S.

    5. Supply Chain Issues

    Very few food products in grocery stores are locally grown or produced. Most if not all foods are manufactured in processing plants across the U.S. and around the world. More and more, our produce is grown in other countries and shipped to U.S. markets.

    The COVID pandemic challenged almost every aspect of the global supply chain and has not only revealed some inherent weaknesses but cast doubts on its future reliability.

    Shipping containers move some 1.9 billion tons per year by sea alone, including virtually all imported fruits, gadgets, and appliances. Shipping rates have soared in this environment. Prices on major east-west trade routes have increased by 80% year on year, which is bad news for economic recovery. Even a 10% increase in container-freight rates can reduce industrial production by around 1%.

    Worker shortages were particularly evident with truck drivers in the U.S. and other countries. The sector already struggled to recruit and retain drivers because of pressures of rising demand, an aging workforce, and worsening working conditions.

    A longer-term issue is to what extent supply chains change. The pandemic raised new doubts about outsourcing production to far-away countries with lower labor costs.

    Equally, problems were aggravated by strategies to maximize supply chain efficiency, such as just-in-time manufacturing, in which companies keep inventories to a bare minimum to reduce costs. Supply chain may never fully recover as growing doubts about dependable shipping continue to impact inventories, prices, and inflation.

    6. Dwindling Insect Populations

    The total number of flying insects has declined worldwide by nearly 40% in less than 20 years, and it's only going to get worse. This is a big problem. There are millions upon millions of insects that function as an essential part of our food chain. Without them, ecosystems can't function properly and plants begin to die.

    Even worse, many of the disappearing insects are also pollinators such as bees, butterflies, wasps, hornets and other insects that feed on plant pollen.

    U.S. Bee Colony Losses

    The biggest problem is that so much of agricultural, particularly as it relates to fruits and vegetables, is reliant on pollination. The result is that more and more produce needs to be imported to compensate for the reduced yields of unpollinated fields and orchards in the US and Europe.

    Couple those imports with the supply chain problems and the effects that wars and civil unrest have on many of the suppliers of fruits and vegetables, and shortages are not only inevitable but happening right now.

    7. The Erosion of Our Topsoil

    Although people don't talk about topsoil often, they should. Most people don’t realize that you can’t use the same land to grow crops year after year forever. Eventually, the topsoil erodes away until there's nothing but bedrock. When that happens, the land is no longer able to grow food, which is why topsoil erosion is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity.

    Why is topsoil so important? Because plants need more than just dirt and water to grow; they need all sorts of minerals and microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, bugs, and tiny plants. All of these things work together to create healthy soil for growing food.

    We tend to think of topsoil as a renewable resource, and it is, but not on timescales that work for us. It takes at least 500 years for nature to generate just one inch of topsoil. At present, our topsoil is being swept away between 10 and 40 times faster than it can be replenished, with a loss of about 36 billion tons of soil every year.

    So far, the world has lost about 70% of its topsoil, and 30% of the world’s arable land has already become unproductive because of this. You might be wondering how much topsoil we have left. According to the U.N., we only have 60 years of farming left if we don’t change the way we grow food.

    Although that might sound like a problem for the next generation, topsoil erosion is already reducing crop yields and adding to our food supply problems. As with the declining insect populations, this problem is only going to get worse.

    8. Soaring Inflation

    Gro Intelligence estimates show that price increases in major food crops year to date has made an additional 400 million people food insecure.

    U.S. Inflation Chart

    Inflation is the factor that creates an ominous dilemma. Even when food is available on the shelf, the higher costs make any grocery shopping trip an exercise in restraint and changing food choices. When 12 packaged chicken wings cost $18, it forces many people to rethink the most basic purchases.

    The result could be a family diet that is devoid of nutritional diversity and density, resulting in various levels of malnutrition. As nutrition is compromised, so are our immune systems.

    That’s particularly bad news in the midst of a pandemic that won’t seem to quit, to say nothing of a host of other diseases endemic in any population like influenza.

    In the ultimate irony, food-borne illnesses may increase as food quality measures become compromised due to lags in supply chain distribution and weakened immune systems. The dilemma can and will grow as the factors affecting the global food supply go from bad to worse.

    Preparing for Food Insecurity and Possible Famine

    Even if we don’t see a global famine this year, based on everything we know about agriculture, raw resources, climate change, and population growth, it is inevitable that we’ll see a global famine eventually. And the more people prepare for it, the better off everyone will be.

    Here are some considerations to prepare for the coming challenges and possible global famine:

    1. Plant a Robust Garden
    2. Stockpile Staple Foods That Have a Long Shelf Life
    3. Practice Food Preservation Techniques
    4. Think Beyond The Garden
    5. Learn Basic Nutrition and Consider Vegan Diets
    6. Learn to Wild Forage

    1. Plant a Robust Garden

    An obvious solution to any food shortage is to grow your own. There are seed packet kits available on Amazon and also at many home centers and hardware stores. Buy them. Especially if you see them on sale. Store them in a cool, dry place and proactively plant them. The idea is to create a survival seed bank.

    If you have a yard, start a garden. And don’t make it a postage stamp garden if you can help it. If it’s going to save you money and give your family the food security you may need, it’s worth the effort to expand the size of your garden.

    If you have a small yard, there are techniques for high-density gardening that allow you to grow more vegetables in a smaller space. Regardless of where you live, you’ll need to protect your new crops from rabbits, deer, and other critters that can devastate your efforts.

    If you live in an apartment, you can take a container gardening approach or a hydroponic setup to at least provide you with some nutrient dense alternatives to supplement your diet.

    2. Stockpile Staple Foods That Have a Long Shelf Life

    Regardless of what you can grow, some foods are hard to make. You can turn many things into flour but simply stockpiling whole grains which have a long shelf-life will make it easier to grind your own flour.

    Refining sugar is not an everyday task, so stockpile sugar or if you have some maple trees on your property, make maple syrup your new sweetener of choice. What you have to look at are the things that are processed or refined in a way that’s difficult or impossible to do yourself and try to stock up.

    Here’s a list of staple foods that require significant effort to process or make that are worth stockpiling, especially vegetable oils that are also beginning to show spiking prices and significant shortages.

    • Oils like olive oil, canola, and other vegetable oils.
    • Flour or whole grains like wheat berries that can be ground into flour (don’t forget to get a flour mill).
    • Pasta and rice when on sale or in bulk.
    • Salt, pepper and other spices that can’t be easily grown like bottled sauces including soy, teriyaki, and that MRE favorite: Tabasco.
    • Herbs that you either don’t have space to plant or won’t grow in your area.
    • Baking and cooking additives like baking powder, baking soda, yeast, cornstarch, and other ingredients you frequently use for cooking but would be challenged to make from scratch.
    • Dried beans and legumes particularly for their high protein density.
    • Dried or powdered milk, eggs, cheese, and chocolate.
    • Various canned goods when on sale. If it says, “Limit of 10” – buy 10. Think in terms of proteins like tuna, chili and yes…Spam.
    • Watch the sales and take advantage of those times when you can stock up.
    • If in doubt, stockpile.

    3. Practice Food Preservation Techniques

    Anyone who has aggressively planted a vegetable garden or orchard knows the experience of harvest time. There’s plenty to eat but the excess can spoil fast. Especially fruits. Take the time to learn about and stock up on supplies to preserve foods in the following ways:

    4. Think Beyond The Garden

    If you have a yard, start using the whole yard as a garden. Instead of planting a Redbud tree, plant an apple tree or other fruit tree. Instead of planting a Burning bush, plant a blueberry bush. Instead of Clematis on your trellis, plant grape vines. Many plants that bear fruits blossom and provide shade plus the benefit of food for the table.

    In the flower garden, think about perennial vegetables like asparagus and artichokes. If you need a ground cover, plant perennial herbs like lemon balm, chives, mint and tarragon. Or plant prolific annual herbs like chamomile or any other herb you commonly use in your cooking. Learn how to create a food forest.

    The point is to take advantage of every square foot of your garden and see if there’s an edible alternative that’s pleasing to the eye and the palate.

    5. Learn Basic Nutrition and Consider Vegan Diets

    Vegans live on a plant-based diet, and as the cost of meats and seafood continue to rise, there will be a growing need to find cost-effective protein substitutes.

    What’s critical is to think beyond basic protein to micro and macro nutrients like thiamin and niacin that are found in animal proteins. Various beans and legumes can provide these nutrients including:

    • Soy beans
    • Navy beans
    • Black beans
    • Garbanzo beans
    • Kidney beans
    • Haricot beans
    • Green and yellow beans
    • Peas

    A good Vegan cookbook can not only help you grow or stockpile protein alternatives but give you some good ways to make them taste better than you’d expect.

    The key is nutrition diversity that provides a diet with sufficient nutrient density to keep you and your family both well fed but healthy with limited choices. There are also many everyday food items you customarily buy in a bottle, can, or box that you can easily make yourself.

    6. Learn to Wild Forage

    As food types become scarce or too expensive for your budget, there are surprising alternatives that you can find in forests, fields and even your own backyard.

    Dandelion and plantain leaves have the same nutritional value as spinach and kale. Cattails are the wild super food. Wild nuts like black walnuts, acorns, pine nuts and chestnuts are calorie rich and have an excellent nutrient density including proteins and omega-3 fatty acids. And many plants in nature can be ground into flour.

    Keep a book or two on the shelf about wild foraging and if you live close to water, forests, or field, you could even consider hunting to supplement your protein needs. And don’t think it’s all about venison and wild turkeys. Rabbits, squirrels, birds and even mice and rats are fair game in a famine.

    And on a side note, in many parts of the world, insects are a primary source of protein. And don’t forget to fish if you can.

    Can a Famine Really Happen in the United States?

    For some people, it already has. Below is a chart of food insecurity rates in the United States “before” the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Overall U.S. Food Insecurity Rates

    Much of the food insecurity in the United States is driven by economic factors like low-income levels. What’s alarming in the next map is the level of child food insecurity in 2020, and this was before the baby formula shortage occurred.

    Child Food Insecurity Rates

    Food insecurity is the final step towards famine and as of June 2022, the USDA reports that 38,300,000 Americans are food insecure and 770,000,000 people worldwide.

    It’s hard for many to imagine a life or lifestyle where food is scarce or highly limited, but consider the kind of statements we're hearing from credible organizations:

    “A perfect storm in global agriculture.”

    Higher grocery prices for months or even years to come across the developed world.”

    “Carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere is now more than 50% higher than pre-industrial times – and is at levels not seen since millions of years ago when Earth was a hothouse ocean-inundated planet.”

    “Drought—historic drought, not just a year or two or three of dry weather, but a famine of rain so severe that some say you have to go back to the 1500s to find a rival.”

    “The total number of flying insects has declined worldwide by nearly 40% in less than 20 years.”

    “It is important to note that the lowest grain inventory levels the world has ever seen are now occurring while access to fertilizers is highly constrained, and drought in wheat growing regions around the world is the most extreme it’s been in over 20 years.”

    The facts are both chilling and unprecedented. The experience is real, and we’re all starting to feel more and more of it every day. Add to it the uncertainties of ongoing wars, the current and continuing threat of pandemics, and the potential for growing and spreading civil unrest, and surviving a famine may in fact be the least of our problems. Unfortunately, it just may be the next one we face.

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