As a staunch vegetarian, I admit to thinking that any panic over reports last week of a bacon shortage in 2013 was misguided. As Matthew Yglesias writes in Slate, the bacon shortage reports were stoked by a press release from an “obscure foreign trade association,” the National Pig Association of the United Kingdom. The press release bore a “provocative lede” — “A world shortage of pork and bacon next year is now unavoidable” — that was made for internet buzz and playing into “the rise of bacon worship in recent years.”
This year has seen drought that has destroyed most of the global corn crop, so that corn prices have been higher. The price of meat is affected because feedlot operators have to pay more to feed their animals. It is not so much that there is a shortage of bacon, but that it will cost the customer more to bring some home.
Moreover, “bacon” in the UK means what people in the US would call “Canadian bacon,” meat from the back cut of a pig (it is “back bacon” in Canada). Yglesias explains that what Americans and Canadians call “bacon” is called “streaky bacon” in the UK.
A Real Shortage of Olive Oil
Severe drought is the reason that not only corn, but that the wholesale price of extra virgin olive oil is predicted to increase by 62 percent. Some 600,000 tons have been wiped out in Spain, the world’s largest producer of olive oil. Olive trees there were not only affected by drought but by an unexpected frost in the spring, which has led to the trees producing less fruit and olives that are not as juicy as usual. Spanish farmers have already been hard hit by lower prices last year when they had one of their best crops and there was a glut of olive oil.
Demand for the staple of the Mediterranean diet has grown around the world, though most countries have yet to catch up with the 14 liters a year consumed in Italy, the world’s largest consumer of olive oil.
The reports about low supplies of corn and olive oil, and the flurry of worry stoked by that pig association’s press release, show how food shortages strike us (pardon the expression) in the gut. In reality, for many of us, food shortages and higher food prices mean we may think twice before loading so many items into an already-full shopping cart; it’s just as well not to eat bacon if you are, like many of us, watching your intake of cholesterol and calories.
Could We Run Out of Carbohydrates?
In Scientific American, David Biello writes that the world population is estimated to grow to 9 billion by 2050. 38 percent of the world is used for agriculture and there is little more left to add, plus
… we may be approaching or have already passed geophysical limits for fertilizer application to fields in places like the U.S. or China, as well as the potential to increase the amount of irrigated land to boost crop growth. Finally, we’re already diverting more and more agricultural production away from stomachs and into fuel tanks, as exemplified by the U.S. practice of making ethanol from corn.
Biello considers a shortage far more basic than bacon, asking if we might face a shortage of carbohydrates. In the September 20 issue of Science, Steven Running, an ecological modeler from the University of Montana, says that we are approaching a planetary limit for photosynthesis, for plants to turn carbon dioxide and water into food with the aid of sunlight: we can only grow so many plants as there is only so much land available for agriculture. Therefore, the “obvious policy question must be whether the biosphere can support the 40 percent increase in global population projected for 2050 and beyond.”
Of course, “carbohydrate shortage” does not make as a great a headline as “bacon shortage in 2013″ does. So when you hear reports in the U.S. media of a “bacon shortage” based on a press release from a British trade association, you should think at least twice, especially as reports of a bacon shortage obscure far more urgent issues about food shortages in developing countries where the world’s poorest live, where “bacon worship” is no one’s concern.
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