Now “plentiful” does not mean everyone on the planet will have enough food no matter what. There will still be Evil Politicians who want people to starve and there will still be Stupid UN Food Programs that either let those Evil Ps drive the process or just are so poor at getting food where it needs to be that folks still die.
No, what I mean by “plentiful” is that on a global basis there is plenty of ability to grow food. We can still be expected to ‘cock it up’ in lousy distribution, “power first” and “people second” politics, and general stupidity. But that’s because of us, not because of any natural “limit” placed on food supply.
First off, realize when going through these numbers that, from time to time, a given grain will be talked about in terms of how much is used for “animal feed”. That still ends up in the mouths of people, but after being in the mouths of animals. Each animal has a particular feed conversion efficiency (as does each grain and feed process). But, in general terms, some animals are more efficient than others.
So, worse comes to worse, we can just eat the animals AND the grains we would have fed to them.
Realize that does not mean going ‘vegetarian’ is better for the planet. Many parts of a plant are not edible by people. Like leaves and stems of grain grasses. Feeding those to animals (called “forage”) increases the total food supply. “Feed conversion ratio” is only a benefit to the extent that we feed grains to animals. So even in a complete food panic, you want some ruminants around dealing with the forage and slash. (Slash is stuff cut off a plant that isn’t quite up to forage quality. Like letting goats eat weeds you have cut down, or plants toxic to cows that the goats don’t mind.) There are also some lands where attempting to grow a grain crop is just not going to work, but letting some animals range over it gives you a cow or two per acre, or a couple of goats. Not surprisingly, that kind of ground is called “range land”. It can even be “free range chickens” for smaller areas.
So when I say we can stop feeding cows and eat them and then just eat their grain, I’m not suggesting doing that now. That’s an ‘emergency strategy’. And even after that, we need some number of cows and other ruminants to eat the slash, forage, and work the range land. Being omnivorous is the best and most efficient approach.
OK, on to feed conversion efficiency.
Just a couple of quick rules of thumb. First off, feed is “dry weight” while animals are “wet weight”. That means that a pound (or kilo) of grain is about 1 pound (or kilo) of real food. A pound of beef steak is about 75% water.
Then you need to allow for the fact that the animal used some of the feed energy staying alive, moving around, making fur or feathers. Just staying warm. In the end, there are some ‘rough rules of thumb’ that net it all out.
Animal Efficiency feed:meat Cow 10:1 Pig 3:1 Chicken 3:1 Fish 1:1
That means that, roughly, to get a 1 lb beef steak, you need to feed 10 lbs of oats to your cow. THEN you need to allow for that 75% water… In the end, it’s really about 30 : 1 in terms of food value. Similarly, that pork chop is about 10 : 1 as is the chicken. Fish is interesting as the 1 : 1 looks almost magical. Remember that fish are cold blooded, so not using food to keep warm. They are also ‘wet vs dry’, so that 1 : 1 is more like 4 grains per 1 unit of fish calories (on a good day).
Still, you get the idea. In a food crisis, just shifting to ‘grass fed beef’ and fish means we suddenly have a lot of grains that were going through 30 : 1 loss of gross calories or a 10 : 1 for pork or chicken are now available for people. We can support 10 to 30 people on the animal grains if we feed it to people instead of the animals.
Do realize, this is not an argument for going meatless now. In fact, it’s better to eat more meat now. That keeps the farmers employed growing all the grain, the grain dryers built and working, the whole infrastructure in place. If we all went vegetarian now, in a food crisis, we would only be growing ‘just enough for now’ and could not swap to eating the excess grains that it takes to keep animals growing.
That may sound strange, but it is a strategy that has been used for thousands of years during times of flood, drought, famine, whatever. Eat all but the minimal breeding stock of farm animals and the grazers; then eat the animal grains. Anything less is sub-optimal.
OK, that’s the basic “bad times” strategy. Downshift the grain fed animals, eat their grains, and keep the range and forage animals for future breeding stock and normal food purposes.
But about those grains…
Some general comments on ‘options’
People eat a lot of things. Fruits. Vegetables. Nuts. Berries. Salads. That, it turns out, doesn’t really take much land. California is the “Salad bowl of the nation” for the USA. This State alone supplies most of the salad fixings and things like Avocados and Broccoli. Peaches and almonds and citrus are big here too. So the first thing to realize is that most folks in the suburbs can grow enough in a garden to cover all of those needs if they so desired. We just collectively would rather watch TV and pay someone to mow a lawn. Folks actively avoid fruit trees in their yard so as to avoid the ‘work and mess’ – otherwise known as food supply.
I grew up in a farm town where most folks had a fruit tree or two. They were not so lazy then. Let me tell you, one tree gives more than you can eat. You learn to can foods and make jams quickly. So in a real ‘hard time’ as long as we had some ‘lead time’ we could all put in a garden and plant a couple of trees. I’ve done that as a ‘toy farm’. So I have a Dancy Tangelo tree that makes way more fruit that we can ever eat. Most goes to feed the local squirrels and opossums through the winter. I also put in two small apple trees. My family doesn’t touch them either. (The critter thank me in the fall…) But in an ‘emergency’ both the squirrels and the fruit would keep US fed for a couple of months (though we might get tired of ‘apple stuffed roast squirrel’).
The point here is pretty simple: We are up to our eyeballs in land that could produce food. So much so we use it for entertainment. I watch a fairly large number of squirrels and enjoy them a lot. Also a variety of birds and such.
In W.W.II, there was a Victory Garden program. It basically taught folks to garden in their yards so the farm produced food could be used for the war. Many folks made a lot of food. Remembering that program, I have a nice stash of seeds just in case.
It does take about 6 years to get a fruit or nut tree to start bearing, so it’s best to start them long before you want one. I’ve thought of putting in a nut tree, but our squirrels are fat enough already ;-) Some trees, like beech, make an edible nut but are usually thought of as landscape trees. So it’s not like you need to commit to looking like a farm. And don’t worry about cleaning up the nut drop if there are any squirrels in your area. They will keep it cleared “until that day” ;-)
If anyone is worried about a crop failure, or about hard times in the future, I would suggest simply planting a couple of cold tolerant fruit or nut trees now. They will be cute and decorative for about a decade before they get big enough to be a concern in terms of fruit or nut drop. Then you can decide you are glad to have them, or say “never mind” and feed them to the fireplace. (Though I think once someone tastes their own apricots they will not give them up easily!) Similarly, a ‘grape arbor’ in the back yard can be both decorative, and give fruit and leaves (also edible). There are whole books written on how to plant decorative landscape plants that are edible.
So the first thing to realize is that anyone living in a semi-rural or sub-urban environment is already being extravagant about food and can make quite a lot if they just wanted to. Heck even folks in an apartment can get portable herb gardens (even hydroponic ones) and grow a variety of thing indoors. (Marijuana growers get many tons per year out of ‘grow houses’ that are entirely inside a suburban house. Now that’s a bit extreme, as the whole house is converted to a small farm, but it shows what can be done with dirt and grow lights.)
But say you don’t want to do that kind of thing and are happy to buy fruits and vegetables and all from the store, but are just a bit worried about total global food supply of the grains sort…
Overview of Grains
First off, look at your dinner plate or lunch bucket. The “grains” in it are usually modest. A couple of slices of bread. Some cookies. Maybe a side of rice or a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. In reality, we don’t eat nearly as much grain as we grow in the “Modern World”. In places like Africa, the grains are a food staple and central to the meal. In poorer parts of Asia as well. But for most of the ‘advanced western world’, we get our grains in the form of beef steaks, pork chops, chicken and eggs, etc.
That’s why that “feed efficiency” point matters. In any sort of ‘food emergency’ it is the 3rd world that “has issues”, not us. We can just do a “Meatless Monday” and be fine. (But don’t start that now! You want that extra grain being grown now…) And remember that on Tuesday you can have range or forage fed beef anyway ;-)
But on a global level, what about the grains?
Large swathes of North America, Australia, Argentina, Russia, China, etc are planted to grains. And Soybeans (that are largely fed to animals too). We mostly think in terms of corn (maize) in the USA. Wheat in Europe and Australia. Rice in Asia. In reality, most grains are grown on most continents. But there are favored areas for particular grains. Barley, for instance, grows where it is very cold. You find a lot of barley in Canada and northern Europe. (All the better to make beer and whiskey with ;-) Which brings up the point that in a real food emergency, all that grain fermented to make beer and hard liquor could instead be eaten by people. (One hopes we never become that desperate!)
In Africa, sorghum and millet are more common (though maize is making inroads). They are more tolerant of low and fluctuating rain levels. While millet is also found in Asia and sorghum in the USA, we don’t typically think about them. Yet we ought to. The same “drought tolerance” that makes sorghum and millet so good in Africa near the Sahara also makes them suited to the USA in times of drought. We can fairly easily shift from maize to millet if desired. (Cows are happy to eat both, by the way…) It is mostly a mater of what grain yields best in which place, so you find sorghum grown in parts of Texas that are just a touch too dry and hot for great corn yields. That practice can easily spread ‘at the margin’ if things become drier and hotter. Similarly, barley can spread more southward if things become more cold.
So that’s our first lesson: Modest changes in rainfall or temperature are easily accommodated by known and modest changes in what we choose to grow.
Agronomy departments at schools all over the planet are also busy making new varieties, finding new plants to domesticate and hybridize, and improving yields and environmental tolerance of all sorts of food plants. Every year, they make the world a better and more secure place. We’ll see a stellar example of that under “Rice” below.
In fact, they are so good at their job that I can’t even come close to listing all the kinds of grains and related food plants, never mind talk about them. Teff. Celosia. Amaranth. There is a very long list of things we could use as foods if we needed their special abilities.
I’m just going to list one of the “pseudo grains” below. Buckwheat. Due to the very fast growth and great cold tolerance, it was commonly used as a ‘catch crop’ in older times (before mechanized commercial industrial mono-cropping). It can have growth periods that are very short, so if your main crop fails, you can seed it and harvest in whatever time remains. There are several wild type buckwheats in California adapted to dry lands and there are efforts to develop dry land buckwheat based on some of them.
I have made a nice ‘corn bread like bread’ with teff mixed with other flours and I have “Hopi Red Amaranth” growing in my garden. It self seeds nicely and the leaves, when young, are edible too.
We have hardly begun to find the limits to all these various food plants. Some are fairly salt tolerant and grow in brackish water, so there are efforts to develop salt water tolerant varieties of food plants too. There is already a tomato that can be grown in semi-saltwater irrigation. So the food future is bright.
But what about now?
The major grains that I’m going to mention are: Barley, oats, Rye, Wheat, Triticale, Rice, Corn / Maize, Sorghum, Millet.
Those are roughly in order from cold and wet to hot and dry. Rice is in the middle as hot and wet ;-) though there are varieties grown on mountain sides not flooded (flooding isn’t needed. Rice just tolerates it so it can be used to drown weeds). I’ll cover rice last below, as it is the most important and interesting so I have the most to say about it.
There are also a lot of non-grains grown such as field peas, soybeans, peas, beans, fava beans. Someday I’ll put them in their own page. Just realize that they, too, come in a range. From Fava beans that I can grow in California in the winter to Tepary Beans from the Sonoran desert where my biggest problem here in desert California (and we are a marginal desert) is soils that are too wet and cold. “We have choices”…
But first, the pseudo grain, buckwheat.
There is a good write up here:
Buckwheat is an unusually fast-growing crop with a variety of uses. Its flexibility and wide adaptation led it to be grown on more than a million acres in the U.S. in the late 1800s, even though it is not native to our country.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were two of the first American farmers to grow buckwheat and recognize the benefit to their crop rotations. With increased focus on specializing in the major commodities during the 1900s, buckwheat become much less common. In recent years, some farmers in north Missouri grew buckwheat under contract with a major buckwheat processor. Overall acreage in the U.S. has climbed to more than 70,000 acres, with millions of acres grown worldwide. Russia, where buckwheat is native, has the largest acreage of buckwheat.
Notice first that the commercial buckwheat is native to Russia. Very cold adapted. That is why it has such a short growing season and can be used as a ‘catch crop’. We used to grow a lot of it, then other things became more interesting. Nothing prevents us from growing it again.
Lately some growth is picking up again. Folks have started to realize they can ‘double crop’ in places they had not done before (or perhaps the demand has just finally developed to support that much production. It’s hard to know.)
U.S. buckwheat production has been concentrated in the northern Plains in the last couple of decades, where it is planted in early summer. The long growing season available to Missouri producers provides an opportunity to grow buckwheat as a double crop after wheat harvest. Buckwheat can be planted much later than soybeans, as late as August 1st in many parts of the state. The crop matures in a little over two months, allowing it to be used for double cropping farther north than other crops such as soybeans. Buckwheat can also be grown as a double crop after spring crops such as oats, flax or spring canola.
Notice that? Double crop AFTER wheat? Two months? 60 days? So if in a marginal 100 day corn area and the growing season shortens, you can grow buckwheat instead and have 40 days left over. (Radishes can be picked in 25, so one could do a radish crop as well…)
There are thousands of such decisions that professional farmers make all over the world every single day. We have no shortage of ability to ‘double crop’ more areas if the demand is there. We grow single crops of corn and soybeans in places because that is what is profitable. Raise the prices a little, we can grow much more on the same land. In some cases by changing which crops, in other cases by double cropping. In yet more by just putting on more fertilizers.
Some buckwheats are used for range restoration too. So even the range cows and goats can benefit from buckwheat. IF we need it or want to use it.
Native American groups had several medicinal uses for this plant. It was used as a remedy for colds and cuts. The roots of this plant and Eriogonum heracleoides were brewed into a tea which was taken to treat diarrhea. This plant grows on grassy plains, sagebrush deserts, and ponderosa pine forests mainly east of the Cascade Range. It is a pioneer species, taking hold in thin, dry soils where other plants have not yet established. Other plants in the habitat may include Artemisia tridentata, Purshia tridentata, Juniperus occidentalis, Pseudoroegneria spicata, Sporobolus airoides, Elymus wawawaiensis, Poa secunda, Achnatherum hymenoides, and Nassella comata.
This plant can be cultivated. It can be planted in areas that have little soil, such as mine spoils. It can be used in xeriscaping. The cultivar ‘Umatilla’ is used for rangeland restoration and soil stabilization.
In the wild this plant provides food for mule deer and bighorn sheep.
At present there isn’t a lot of call for farming “mine spoils” and “areas that have little soil”. But if we ever wanted to reclaim them and run some sheep or goats on that land, this is your plant…
Then, as animal ‘poo’ and windborn dust build up a nicer soil, you can transition to more productive plants. (My ‘parkway strip’ had about 6 inches of soil trucked away when I first moved in as I wanted a flat parkway to mow and it was enough above the sidewalk to make problems for the mower. Now, 25 or so years later, it is back up to that height. I’ve not added any fertilizer, just mowed it with a mulching mower. Soils just build up over time if you let them. For buckwheat, it doesn’t like a rich soil, so as the soil improves, eventually you will swap to a plant that needs that added nitrogen.
Ask yourself: When was the last time someone was going on and on about soil degradation or mine wastes or depleting the soils or shortening growing seasons. Did they ever once say the word “buckwheat”? Why not? Perhaps because they are not a farmer or not very aware of choices in agronomy…
When was the last time you thought of Alaska as a grain growing region? Most folks think of it more as a frozen ice cap with polar bears grading into sporadic pine trees and grizzly bears eating salmon. It rarely gets much above normal room temperature, and then only really in mid summer mid day. Winters tend to “below” where it doesn’t matter if you call it -40 F or C as they are the same.
Crop Profile for Cereal Grains in Alaska
Spring-planted cereal grains (Barley, Oats and Wheat) are best adapted for production in northern latitude areas. Barley (6-row feed grade) is the most common cereal grain produced in Alaska because of its low heat unit requirement for maturity. Multipurpose oats (grain or forage) are the second most popular cereal grains grown. Winter wheat crops have not proven successful due to their long growing season requirements. This makes winter wheat prone to winterkill and snow mold losses. Profitable yields of quality cereal grains require considerable cropping experience, biological knowledge and exceptional managerial skills. Growing conditions in the sub-arctic of Alaska present unique challenges. Long-day photoperiods (20+ hours of daylight in June) and a frost-free growing season of 100-118 days in length characterize the growing season.
The average yield of barley for the 1993-2000 period was 34.3 bu/ac with a range of 19-51 bu/ac. Oat yields for the same period ranged from 28-60 bu/ac with an average yield of 41.6 bu/ac. The Alaska barley crop has averaged 199,213 bushels per year from an average of 5,775 acres for the period of 1993 – 2000. Oat production from the same 8-year period has averaged 46,888 bushels from 1,100 acres. Alaskan barley and oat crops have an 8-year average production value of $669,625 and $118,375 respectively (Benz and Roos, 2001). In 2000 barley sold for $3.36 per bushel in Alaska while the price averaged $2.13 in the rest of the country. Alaskan produced oats sold for $2.52 per bushel in 2000 compared to $1.43 in other states. Few cereal grains are ever exported from Alaska.
No, not a lot of volume. Then again, not a lot of people in Alaska either. Most of the State is still wild lands and forests.
The key point here, though, is just that even in a place as cold and with as short a growing season as Alaska, you can grow barley. Up to 50 bushels per acre. (If that bothers the “fraction challenged”, I’m sure you can find a decimal system converter for the units. A bushel is 8 gallons, so 32 quarts. Convenient units for dividing up a pot of grain for each worker to get their share without resorting to a calculator. There are 2.47 acres in a hectare). So I can get up to 1600 quarts of barley off ONE acre in Alaska. That will feed a person for about 2400 days (or a family of 4 for about a year and a half on good rations) if all you eat is cooked grains. In Alaska.
What this says is that, in a world getting colder, you really only need to worry about WHICH grain to produce. Only once other States get as cold as Alaska, do you need to worrying about SOME grain to produce. (Even then, you can swap to non-grain crops).
Barley can be grown in much warmer areas. In fact, I have a wild barley that grows in my yard as a weed. We call it “foxtail” locally, but it is a barley. Try as I might, I can’t kill it. Barley can be a perennial for some types / species. Not to put too fine a point on it, but in the following link you will find Arizona Barley harvest and production data listed. So it’s not like this plant is restricted to “high cold places” only… Yes, the yields do go up. Then again, it is likely irrigated and fertilized more. It may even be two crops per year. Arizona is like that. Hotter is better.
Barley Area Harvested, Yield, and Production - States and United States: 2009 and Forecasted August 1, 2010 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- : Area harvested : Yield : Production :--------------------------------------------------------------------- State : : : : 2010 : : : 2009 : 2010 : 2009 :-------------------: 2009 : 2010 : : : : July 1 :August 1 : : -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- : 1,000 acres -------- bushels -------- 1,000 bushels : Arizona ........: 45 53 115.0 125.0 125.0 5,175 6,625 California .....: 55 70 54.0 50.0 50.0 2,970 3,500 Colorado .......: 77 67 135.0 140.0 136.0 10,395 9,112 Idaho ..........: 510 480 95.0 95.0 95.0 48,450 45,600 Maryland .......: 48 35 70.0 70.0 72.0 3,360 2,520 Minnesota ......: 80 70 61.0 57.0 62.0 4,880 4,340 Montana ........: 720 550 57.0 58.0 57.0 41,040 31,350 North Dakota ...: 1,130 790 70.0 63.0 65.0 79,100 51,350 Oregon .........: 32 40 60.0 45.0 55.0 1,920 2,200 Pennsylvania ...: 45 50 75.0 77.0 75.0 3,375 3,750 : Utah ...........: 30 25 85.0 87.0 90.0 2,550 2,250 Virginia .......: 43 60 74.0 75.0 71.0 3,182 4,260 Washington .....: 97 77 64.0 65.0 72.0 6,208 5,544 Wyoming ........: 64 60 105.0 90.0 86.0 6,720 5,160 : Other States 1/ : 137 119 58.4 52.5 54.4 7,998 6,471 : United States ..: 3,113 2,546 73.0 71.6 72.3 227,323 184,032
There’s a reason oats and Scots / Irish are historically found together. Oats do well in the cold and wet. So well, in fact, that they grow here in California as wild oats in the winter. In the quote below, note the tendency to pause in hot weather, so best planted when cooler. If it gets cooler in the lower States, we can just plant more oats. Notice, too, that the use for hay / straw and bedding is a significant use. We grow a lot of hay for animals that could be grown as grains if we needed it, but we don’t.
When reading this, remember we’re talking about a county in Wisconsin. It’s pretty cold in Wisconsin…
Crops and Soils Agent
UW Extension – Fond du Lac County
The recent warm weather has many farmers feeling the itch to get out on the land. Typically, one of the first crops to be planted is that of oats. Although oats harvested as grain is not the prominent crop that it once was, there are still many producers who grow the crop for a supplemental feed source and straw for bedding.
Because oats do not comprise a large agricultural retail market share, nearly all of the plant breeding and research efforts are carried-out by public universities rather than private industry. Badger state farmers are fortunate in that they benefit from a strong small grain research program at the University of Wisconsin.
The ideal planting date for oats in Fond du Lac County is April 15-30. Practically speaking, oats should be seeded in the spring just as soon as the soil is dry enough to till. Oat seed can germinate when soil temperatures are above 34 degrees F. With early planting dates, flowering and seed development can occur before the high temperature period of late June to early July.
In most years, we see a yield penalty for late planting of oats. A recent research effort by UW-Extension Agronomist, Ed Oplinger, revisits the planting date issue with some of our improved Wisconsin varieties.
The study was conducted at the Arlington research station beginning in 1992. Oat yields declined 0.5 bushels per acre per day when planting was delayed from April 18 to May 14. After May 14, yields decreased by 6 to 7 bushels per acre for each week planting was delayed. The early maturity variety, ‘Dane’, had less yield penalty for late planting than the medium maturity variety, ‘Prairie’, or the late maturing variety, ‘Bay’. Maximum oat yields of 73 to 79 bushels per acre were produced by Prairie planted between April 18 and May 14.
Often times we see that oat plants are able to adjust to somewhat later planting dates by shortening the time it takes to head and mature. However, as planting date gets later, the risk for lodging also increases.
Oat forage yields were also measured in the Arlington trial. Yield of forage, harvested when plants were in the boot stage of growth, ranged 0.8 to 2.6 tons per acre of dry matter depending upon variety and planting date. In most situations, forage yields of small grains will not be as influenced by planting date as grain yields.
Where producers are forced to plant oats for grain later than desired, it’s recommended to plant early maturing varieties and increase seeding rates by 25 to 30 percent to offset reduced plant tillering.
So oats are interesting. They just don’t like it all that hot. The “tillering” is the tendency to send out additional stalks from a single plant (and so more yield in longer growing conditions). So if you have to plant it too late and warm, more seeding can be done to make up for that. If things are cooler, you can seed less.
So this is another plant that is good for animal forage, or for us to eat the grains, that likes to grow in the cooler times and will germinate at just above freezing. If it ever gets too cold for corn (about 50 F germination) we can swap to barley and oats. (Oatmeal stout and barley Scotch instead of Bourbon. I think I’ll live! ;-)
Another cold hardy grain, this one is a close relative of wheat. So close, in fact, that they can be crossed to make a hybrid called triticale (covered after wheat).
A Production Perspective on Rye
As the European Commission Expands the Common Agricultural Policy Eastwards, Europe Faces Hard Choices
Rye production in the European Union is well in excess of demand, with unused product piling up in ever increasing stocks (see figure 1). Germany is currently the largest producer. The Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) has helped maintain Germany’s level of rye production over time while consumption has decreased (figure 2). Germany produces some 2 million metric tons of surplus rye annually that is either stored in government (intervention) facilities or exported to countries such as South Korea, Japan, and China.
That’s enough rye just as excess and just from Germany to feed 4,000,000,000 people for a day. 12 Billion meals. Just the excess from Germany, as a subsistence ration of 1 dry pound per person per day (and 2000 pounds / metric ton – shading it 200 for losses and trivial math ;-) So 2000 lbs (or people days) times 2,000,000 tons. 4 Billion. Now that’s only 11 Million people for the whole year. Still, that’s the ‘leftovers’. Rye can be fed to cows, pigs, chickens, whatever…
Rye once was a primary food and feed source in Germany, however, utilization has been decreasing since the early 1960’s. Non-feed consumption (which includes use in food, seed, industrial and waste) decreased 60 percent over the last thirty years. Feed use dropped 24 percent.
Although rye is inferior in many ways to the predominant cereal crops such as wheat, rice, and maize, rye remains the third most important crop in Germany. Planting rye has significant advantages over other crops. It is considerably more winter hardy than wheat and produces economical yields on poor sandy soils where no other useful crop can grow. It is grown in many areas that have no alternative and is a good rotational crop because of its ability to compete effectively with weeds. Rye used as livestock feed has a low feed value compared to other feed grains and is mixed only in small proportions in feed. On occasion, the international market price of rye, generally below milling wheat prices, makes it an attractive feed grain despite its low feed value.
Germany produces an average 4.5 million tons a year with an average yield of 5.5 tons per hectare. The area for rye has been on an increasing trend over the past ten years from a three-year average 0.66 million to a three-year average 0.81 million hectares, with a record area of 0.94 million hectares in 1998. Yield trend has been increasing in the past decade with a record yield in 2001 (6.13 tons per hectare). For 2002, Germany is forecast to produce 4.5 million tons of rye.
So another cold and crappy soil tolerant crop, being displaced by other crops that pay better or can be made to grow with enough added fertilizers. Yield is about 6 tons / acre, so about 12,000 person-days of grain per acre. 32 people can have subsistence rations for a year off of one acre. An “8 to the acre” small urban home lot would feed 4 people. Yet we plant those lots with ‘rye grass lawns’ and throw away the ‘forage’ we mow…
Wheat is interesting as it comes in a few types. I won’t spend a lot of time on it as this is already too long, but there is ‘winter wheat’ and ‘spring wheat’. Winter wheat is planted so that it is started before winter, then gets really going as soon as the snow melts. Spring wheat is planted later in places where you wait for the land to get warm and dry prior to planting. Some wheat is better for pasta and other wheat is better for bread. (Pasta wheat has more protein, bread about in the middle, cookies and cakes have more starch.)
So really this ought to be divided into two parts based on the two major families (and ignoring specialty wheats), but that will have to be for some other time and posting. Just realize that it is very adaptable. Recently some dork was bleating that Global Warming was going to threaten pasta due to the heat. I posted a link to an Arizona site that was bragging about their superior Pasta wheat. We need to worry about pasta wheat when the entire North American Continent is hotter than Arizona. I’m not worried.
Has some interesting production figures.
Country Wheat area, ha Wheat production, Mt Yield, Mt/ha WORLD 225,437,694 681,915,838 3.02 China 24,210,075 114,950,296 4.75 India 28,400,000 80,680,000 2.84 Russian Fed. 26,632,900 61,739,750 2.32 USA 20,181,081 60,314,290 2.99 Australia 13,507,000 21,656,000 1.60 France 5,146,600 38,324,700 7.45
First off, notice that the yields are all over the place. As low as 1.6 tons / ha. Now remember that rye? Now look at France, 7.45 tons / ha. There is clearly plenty of room to either add fertilizer or shift to a plant, like rye, that is more tolerant of poor soils. (Down below we will see grains more tolerant of low moisture too, so ‘we have choices’). To me this just shouts “minimal cost production of most expensive product”. Folks are choosing to grow the grain that gets the better price, not the one that produces the most gross calories. And why not? We use wheat directly for human bread and noodles. Most barley and rye and oats end up in animal feed or fermented. Prices for “crud to shovel to the pigs” is not as high as “select French bread wheat”.
But clearly we have a lot of ways to get more total food, if needed. For many places, like Australia, it is likely water limited. A colder wetter climate would potentially increase yields there. (If not, we do have those dry climate grain choices).
Now look at total production. That’s about 1.353 Trillion pounds of wheat. That feeds 3.7 Billion people if cooked as whole grains. Just the wheat. No other calorie source. Some is lost to milling as we would rather eat bread than cooked grains. Some is fed to yeast as we like fluffy bread. Some wheat goes to animal feeds. Some is thrown away. There isn’t any shortage of wheat. So where does it go? The wiki on wheat says:
In 2003, global per capita wheat consumption was 67 kg (150 lb), with the highest per capita consumption of 239 kg (530 lb) found in Kyrgyzstan. In 1997, global wheat consumption was 101 kg (220 lb) per capita, with the highest consumption 623 kg (1,370 lb) per capita in Denmark, but most of this (81%) was for animal feed.
You see, the problem isn’t too little food, it’s too much. So much that Denmark feeds wheat to cows and Germany doesn’t know what to do with their surplus Rye. A person can live on on dry pound of grains or legumes (or noodles or…) per day. So even in Kyrgyzstan that 530 lbs says some of that wheat is not going into human food. The ‘global average’ would require the entire population of the planet to be eating nothing but wheat about 40% of the time. Do you eat nothing but wheat 2 out of 5 days? So a lot of that wheat is going to various animals, wheat beer, and who knows what.
Wheat likes a climate that is a bit warmer than the other grains so far discussed. It grows well from Europe to the Levant and in many parts of the USA. Australia is a bit dry, but because wheat sells for a higher price, grows it instead of grains with less water demand and higher yields, but lower prices. Argentina also grows wheat for export. Still, wheat can be grown in warmer places. One summer I found it growing inland from San Francisco in California. There isn’t any problem with wheat until the world is colder than Patagonia or hotter than California Central Valley in the summer.
Mostly of interest as an example of an inter-species cross. Remember, it isn’t really a “species barrier”, only a “species strong suggestion” (and clearly not always strong enough! ;-)
The name also shows up in Star Trek The Original as part of the fictional grain QuadroTriticale. Named when triticale was a trendy new grain and seen as a ‘wonder grain’ to solve world hunger or some such.
It has properties in between wheat and rye and has many opportunities for continued improvement as it can draw on both sets of parental gene pools. Being a polyploid (double chromosomes) you can also chose to ‘mix and match’ between the duplicate chromosomes.
Triticale (trit-ih-KAY-lee) is a crop species resulting from a plant breeder’s cross between wheat (Triticum) and rye (Secale). The name triticale (Triticale hexaploide Lart.) combines the scientific names of the two genera involved. It is produced by doubling the chromosomes of the sterile hybrid that results when crossing wheat and rye. This doubling produces what is called a polyploid.
Hybrids between wheat and rye date back to 1875, but until recently there was little effort to develop high yielding triticales as a field crop. Plant breeders originally wanted to include the combination of grain quality, productivity, and disease resistance of wheat with the vigor and hardiness of rye. The University of Manitoba began the first intensive program in North America about 30 years ago working mostly with durum wheat-rye crosses. Both winter and spring types were developed, with emphasis on spring types. Since Canada’s program, other public and private programs have initiated both durum wheat-rye and common wheat-rye crosses. The major triticale development program in North America is now at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, with some private companies continuing triticale programs; however, the University of Manitoba has discontinued its program.
Even though triticale is a cross between wheat and rye, it is self-pollinating (similar to wheat) and not cross pollinating (like rye). Most triticales that are agronomically desirable and breed true have resulted from several cycles of improvement, but are primarily from the durum-rye crosses with some common wheat parentage occasionally involved.
In the 1960′s, approximately 250,000 acres were grown annually in the United States, however markets did not develop as expected, particularly as a food. Today, there are only a few thousand acres grown and much of it is sold as a feed grain. Most of the production is in the western states. The southern states grow winter types which are grazed in the fall. In the Midwest there is some interest in using triticale as a forage crop.
If you look way down the table at that link you will find that triticale has about 1.3 times the yield of wheat. But it’s a little less good at making bread and noodles, so we mostly grow wheat instead. Still, for a bowl of cooked groats, that doesn’t matter. I’ve had bread with modest amounts of triticale in it. It was fine. So even at ratios up to 1/2 we could use it in bread (and I’d bet most folks wouldn’t notice).
So, just sitting on the shelf is a grain that gives about 1/4 to 1/3 more yield and could be easily improved to give more. If anyone cared. But we don’t. Remember that 3.7 Billion people if we fed them on wheat? Make that 4.81 on triticale, or about a Billion people more we could feed. Just from using triticale instead. But we don’t need to, so we don’t.
Corn / Maize
More corn is grown that the other grains. Why? Do YOU eat more corn than bread or rice? Well, maybe indirectly. Mostly it gets fed to cows, chickens, pigs, etc. etc. About 40% of the US crop is fed to cars and trucks.
Country Maize area, ha Maize production, Mt Yield, Mt/ha WORLD 159,531,007 817,110,509 5.12 USA 32,209,277 333,010,910 10.34 China 30,478,998 163,118,097 5.35 Brazil 13,791,219 51,232,447 3.71 India 8,400,000 17,300,000 2.06 Mexico 7,200,000 20,202,600 2.81 Argentina 2,337,175 13,121,380 5.61
Once again, look at the yields. The USA runs at 10 tons / ha while most are at 1/2 that or below. Some nearer 1/4. The difference? They don’t spend a lot of money to do it intensively. Loads of fertilizers et al and high growth hybrid / GMO seeds.
Now look at that total tonnage. 817 Million. So about 1.6 Trillion lbs or 4.4 Billion people worth of food. Add that to wheat, and between the two of them we’re at 8.4 Billion people of food for fully grown adults. Just in wheat and corn alone we can feed the entire world. Clearly we have a lot more than that which is produced. We don’t have a limited supply of food, we just use it badly and don’t get it to the people who are hungry.
Also note that we could dramatically increase total corn production just by having a few more countries grow it as intensively has the USA does. Then again, we’re mostly feeding it to farm animals and cars so maybe we just don’t really need to do that.
Corn is a relatively hot season crop. It likes summers in the USA. Global Warming isn’t any kind of problem as the worst that happens is that the corn belt moves into the oats and rye belt and we move UP to 10 tons / ha instead of 2 to 6 tons / ha. If global cooling happens, we can stop feeding corn to cars and have more bread and pancakes. Decisions decisions… There is also one Indian corn (at least one that I know of) which has a ‘tap root’. Most corn has shallow radiating roots. The tap root corn was developed in the Pueblo desert southwest. IF we ever need a drought tolerant corn, it exists. There is work underway to move that gene into commercial hybrid corns, but we’ve not needed it yet.
Sorghum is the old grain that most folks in the “developed world” rarely think about. It is more of an African food grain. In the USA we mostly grow it for bird seed and cattle. It is a very drought tolerant grain. When rains are sparse, it slows down and waits. When rain returns, it takes off again. If times are really good, it puts out more ’tillers’ and makes more grains. In poor times, it just makes a few less and still produces. Millet does the same, but with even less water.
There are two major branches of sorghum. One is sort of like sugar cane and is used to make pancake syrup. The other makes a grain (that looks like large bird seed since a lot is used for bird seed…) I’ve eaten sorghum. It’s not bad.
So we mostly find Sorghum in places with marginal soils and less reliable rains. As corn has become trendy (and subsidized more) we’ve grown less sorghum and more corn. It’s a choice. Cars or chickens…
The big takeaway for sorghum is just that when we go to a more meridional jet stream (as now) it would be better to grow more sorghum. It does quite well with less rain and more sporadic rains. It doesn’t have a ‘crop failure’ like corn, but instead just adjusts to the available rain. Some kinds are even perennial so you don’t have bare dirt to dry and blow away in a drought.
Why are we still planting corn in a meridional flow pattern drought? Well, who has the better lobby in D.C.: The corn ethanol folks or the sorghum folks? … It’s a choice, perhaps a stupid one, but a choice all the same.
As there are several races, varieties and ‘species’, the genetics have a lot to work with for improvements. It will even grow in heavy clay soils that can be problematic for other crops.
The cropping system in the Sorghum Bowl is unique. Instead of growing the crop in the warm summer rainy season it is sown after the rains end in September/October, and harvested in January/February. Farmers plant the crop on heavy clay soils that retain large amounts of the season’s excess rainwater; the sorghum roots then extract that water to support plant growth. The new varieties have been especially taken up by the poorest farmers because they depend the most on rainfed cropping, being least able to afford irrigation water.
The sorghum varieties that are delivering these impressive gains were developed by Indian institutions by improving the traditional ‘Maldandi’ type of varieties cultivated in this area. These new varieties are well adapted to the cold temperatures and short daylength of the winter months, and are tolerant or resistant to drought and to the pests and diseases prevalent during this season such as aphids, shoot fly and charcoal rot. Varieties are currently being developed that will yield larger, brighter grains to attract higher market prices. They derive from crosses made at ICRISAT between the Maldandi types and ‘durra’ sorghum types from East Africa. Hybrid varieties also under development are expected to raise yield by another 20-30 percent. Dr. William Dar, Director General of ICRISAT, explained that “Our international role is to encourage South-South sharing of promising technologies such as the durra sorghums of Africa, and the hybrid sorghum technology of India. The benefits flow both ways.”
Has yields similar to corn (though not clear how they compare to the metric yields above)
Hancock (sand) Janesville (silt loam) Lancaster (silt loam) Bushels/acre Corn 53 111 118 Grain Sorghum 75 93 105
Clearly doing better in sandy soils and falling behind a bit in the better soils. This link has it in ha:
Seed yields may be as low as 200 kg/ha, or as high as 6,000 kg/ha, depending on cv and growing conditions; below 2,000 kg/ha considered not profitable. Average forage yields for silage; Sorgo, ‘Start’, 54.3 MT/ha; ‘Honey’, 48 MT/Iha; ‘Atlas’, 42 MT/ha; Sorgo hybrids, 43.4–71.4 MT/ha. (Reed, 1976) Sorghum is the fourth most important world cereal grain, following wheat, rice, and corn. Worldwide, grain sorghum is grown on more than 40 million hectares, especially in China, India, and Africa.
So about 6 tons / ha with good conditions and fertilizers. Comparable to most of the other grains, but a bit behind the most hyper turbo charged USA corn. Still, lots of production available and with lower risks in volatile rain environments. Plenty of room for genetic improvement too. Oh, and you get silage (forage that is stored / fermented like corn).
So clearly even if rains drop off and become more irregular, we can just swap from corn to sorghum. Sorghum is a bit less ‘digestible’ for cattle, so mixing the feed would require some blending / treatment. Or we can develop sorghum that is more digestible.
Though sorghum is used largely for forage in the US, it is very important in the world’s human diet, with over 300 million people dependent on it (Bukantis, 1980). Grown for grain, forage, syrup and sugar, and industrial uses of stems and fibers. Grain sorghum is a staple cereal in hot dry tropics, the threshed grain ground into a wholesome flour. Stalks used as animal feed. Important summer fodder where temperatures are high and rainfall insufficient for corn. Most important for silage or green soiling, or for hay when grown irrigated in very dry areas. Pearled grain cooked like rice or ground into flour. Sorghum, with large juicy stems containing as much as 10% sucrose, used in manufacture of syrup; sugar can be manufactured from sorghum. Broomcorn used for making brooms. The seed is used as food, in brewing “kiffir beer”, the kiffir corn malt and cornmeal is fermented to make Leting (a sour mash), the pith is eaten, and the sweet culm chewed (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk, 1962). Arubans make porridge and muffins from sorghum meal. Parched seed are used as coffee substitutes or adulterants (Morton, 1981).
When very young, some kinds have HCN in the leaves and stems, so one must be careful with letting animals graze it. That also, though, reduces some pest problems… As you can see above, it is a very flexible grain. I have sorghum in my ‘emergency seed package’. Both some sugar kinds and some seed kinds. Even a ‘broomcorn’ so I can make brooms.
Here’s a pretty good site that describes how to grow it and what pests and risks there are in Texas:
“tamu” is Texas A&M University. As in Ag and Mechanical. As in farmers.
I have one little patch where I have some sorghum growing that has been naturalizing for a couple of years now. We’ll see if it survives this winter. (It is growing shaded by tall kale / collards hybrids…) I’m about to ‘reward it’ with it’s own square and then work on yield. My first selection is usually for “can’t kill it”, then I work a plant back up on other characteristics.
This is the classical small yellow / white “bird seed” for most Americans. In much of the rest of the world it is a staple food. The most interesting thing about it is that it doesn’t need much water. In fact, it is the last grain you can grow before you end up in the sand of the Sahara Desert. If worried about drought and heat, this is your grain.
I use millet flower to make a corn bread analog (as I’ve developed a corn allergy. Nothing serious, I just never need to buy Exlax..) It has a slightly bitter flavor. Not much, but noticeable. That can help keep birds from eating it, so it has it’s place. The coating can be washed off, so it may just be that the commercial millet flower I bought had not fully washed the seeds.
It also makes a nice porridge and cooked grain. There are a few varieties and types, each with there own special features and needs. I’m only going to give a broad idea what it is like.
Pearl millet is one of the two major crops in the semiarid, impoverished, less fertile agriculture regions of Africa and southeast Asia. Millets are not only adapted to poor, droughty, and infertile soils, but they are also more reliable under these conditions than most other grain crops. This has, in part, made millet production popular, particularly in countries surrounding the Sahara Desert in western Africa.
The key point here is that on the very edge of nowhere, you can get a reasonably reliable crop out of millet. Like barley at the far cold north, millet is the other extreme, the hot dry edge of the desert. Tepary beans and millet vs barley and fava beans. In any condition in between too, you can grow a grain and a legume.
Millets, however, do respond to high fertility and moisture. On a per hectare basis, millet grain produced per hectare can be two to four times higher with use of proper irrigation and sustainable soil supplements. Improved breeds of millets improve their disease resistance and can significantly enhance farm yield productivity. There has been a virtuous cycle of cooperation between poor countries to improve millet yields. For example, ‘Okashana 1′, a variety developed in India from a natural-growing millet variety in Burkina Faso, doubled yields. This breed was selected for trials in Zimbabwe. From there it was taken to Namibia, where it was released in 1990 and enthusiastically adopted by farmers. Okashana 1 grew to become the most popular variety in Namibia, the only non-Sahelian country where pearl millet – locally known as mahangu – is the dominant food staple for consumers. ‘Okashana 1′ was then introduced to Chad. The breed has significantly enhanced yields in Mauritania and Benin.
India is the world’s largest producer of millets. In the 1970s, all of the millet crops harvested in India were used as food staple. By 2000s, the annual millets production had increased in India, yet per capita consumption of millets had dropped by between 50% to 75% in different regions of the country. As of 2005, the majority of millets produced in India is being used for alternative applications such as livestock fodder and alcohol production. Indian organizations are discussing ways to increase millet use as food to encourage more production; however, they have found that some consumers prefer the taste of other grains over millet.
In 2010, the average yield of millet crops worldwide was 0.83 tonnes per hectare. The most productive millet farms in the world were in France, with a nationwide average yield of 3.3 tonnes per hectare in 2010
So here we see the typical pattern. As the economy and productivity develop, folks start feeding grains to animals and eating higher valued foods themselves. The French yield of 3.3 tons / ha is low compared to peak corn and high yield sorghums, but comparable to many wheat and similar grains. So, worst case, if widespread drought starts, we shift to more millet and less grains that fail in drought. The average low yield of less than one ton reflects the difficult conditions under which most millet is grown, not the potential of the plant under good conditions.
Millets are some of the oldest of cultivated crops. The term millet is applied to various grass crops whose seeds are harvested for food or feed. The five millet species of commercial importance are proso, foxtail, barnyard, browntop and pearl. In China, records of culture for foxtail and proso millet extend back to 2000 to 1000 BC Foxtail millet (Setaria italica L.) probably originated in southern Asia and is the oldest of the cultivated millets. It is also known as Italian or German Millet. Its culture slowly spread westward towards Europe. Foxtail millet was rarely grown in the U.S. during colonial times, but its acreage increased dramatically in the Great Plains after 1850. However, with the introduction of Sudan grass, acreage planted to foxtail millet decreased.
Proso millet (Panicum miliaceum L.) was introduced into the U.S. from Europe during the 18th century. It was first grown along the eastern seaboard and was later introduced into the Dakotas where it later was grown on considerable acreage. In North Dakota acreage has ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 acres while in Minnesota only a few thousand acres have been grown.
Today, foxtail millet is grown primarily in eastern Asia. Proso millet is grown in the Soviet Union, mainland China, India and western Europe. In the United States, both millets are grown principally in the Dakotas, Colorado and Nebraska.
Barnyard or Japanese millet (Echinochloa frumentaceae L.), is a domesticated relative of the seed, barnyard grass. It is grown for grain in Australia, Japan and other Asian countries. In the United States, it is grown primarily as a forage.
Browntop millet (Panicum ramosum) is a native of India and was introduced into the United States in 1915. It is grown in southeastern United States for hay or pasture and bird and quail feed plantings on game preserves. It is sometimes sold to Minnesota sportsmen for this purpose. Seed and forage yields of browntop millet have been low in Minnesota tests and it did not compete well with weeds.
Pearl or cattail millet (Pennisetum glaucum) originated in the African savannah and grown since prehistoric time. It is grown extensively in Africa, Asia, India and Near East as a food grain. It was introduced into the United States at an early date but was seldom grown until 1875. It is primarily grown in southern United States as a temporary pasture. It is preferred over sudangrass as a forage crop in the south. Varieties planted at Rosemount, Minnesota produced very little seed, and their forage yield was low compared to foxtail varieties.
In particular, note the mixed use as both food an fodder. Some millets doing a poor job of setting seeds in cooler wetter places. This is not the grain for high cold places, but for hotter dryer ones. Yet there are many millets to choose from and some are better than others in different places. I find the “prehistoric times” reference interesting. So much for the dawn of agriculture with Egypt…
Consider, too, those places in Australia with water limited lower wheat yields. Here is a grain that would do rather well in hot dry places. If we ever really needed more gross production, it can be had. But we prefer fluffy wheat bread at lower production per acre to millet bread or porridge. Again, it is driven by choice, not need, and certainly not a limitation of land or water.
Which brings us to rice.
If, at this point, you’ve got the feeling we’ve fed the world a couple of times over, you would be right. It’s all those beef steaks and chicken eggs… We would still have some of them even if we were just using forage and fodder, since there is a lot of primary productivity in the stems and leaves of the grains too. But we have more grains that we can use, so feed it to more animals. And we still have rice to go.
Rice comes in a bunch of kinds. From short and fat to sweet and sticky. White, brown, black and red. Valley and mountain. It is grown in rice paddies flooded to kill weeds and on mountain hillsides in high terraces. It is one of the most widely grown grains in the world. It grows best in temperate, subtropical, and tropical climates with fair to high humidity. Unlike high cold deserts or dry desert edges, rice does best in hot wet to medium wet. It is so wet adapted you can get it to grow under flooded swampy conditions. This is used as a cheap easy way to kill weeds, but you can get higher grain yields by other means. Rice does not need a flooded rice paddy.
Has a lot of nice information along with some maps and charts. Yet of particular interest is the Rice Intensification Institute.
In particular, note these points from there ‘methods’ page:
SRI methodology is based on four main principles that interact with each other:
Early, quick and healthy plant establishment
Reduced plant density
Improved soil conditions through enrichment with organic matter
Reduced and controlled water application
Based on these principles, farmers can adapt recommended SRI practices to respond to their agroecological and socioeconomic conditions. Adaptations are often undertaken to accommodate changing weather patterns, soil conditions, labor availability, water control, access to organic inputs, and the decision whether to practice fully organic agriculture or not. The most common SRI practices for irrigated rice production are summarized in the following section.
In addition to irrigated rice, the SRI principles have been applied to rainfed rice and to other crops, such as wheat, sugarcane, teff, finger millet, pulses, showing increased productivity over current conventional planting practices. When SRI principles are applied to other crops, we refer to it as the System of Crop Intensification or SCI (see SCI section of the website for details).
So all of this is applicable to the other grains we’ve already seen.
What all does ‘intensification’ get you?
OK, the “typical” rice yields are about the same as other grains. 4 tons / ha. In Australia, up to 10 tons / ha (rather like USA corn). Under intensification?
World's most productive rice farms and farmers
The average world yield for rice was 4.3 tonnes per hectare, in 2010.
Australian rice farms were the most productive in 2010, with a nationwide average of 10.8 tonnes per hectare.
Yuan Longping of China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center, China, set a world record for rice yield in 2010 at 19 tonnes per hectare on a demonstration plot. In 2011, this record was surpassed by an Indian farmer, Sumant Kumar, with 22.4 tonnes per hectare in Bihar. Both these farmers claim to have employed newly developed rice breeds and System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a recent innovation in rice farming. SRI is claimed to have set new national records in rice yields, within the last 10 years, in many countries. The claimed Chinese and Indian yields have yet to be demonstrated on seven-hectare lots and to be reproducible over two consecutive years on the same farm.
So we're looking at about 4 times the typical and twice the best.
How much rice is grown? About the same as wheat.
Country Rice area, ha Rice production, Mt Yield, Mt/ha WORLD 161,420,743 678,688,289 4.20 India 44,100,000 131,274,000 2.98 China 29,932,292 197,257,175 6.59 Indonesia 12,883,576 64,398,890 5.00 Bangladesh 11,500,000 45,075,000 3.92 Thailand 10,963,126 31,462,886 2.87 Viet Nam 7,440,100 38,895,500 5.23
So just by using Rice Intensification we could feed the entire world. 3.7 Billion people before intensification. 14 Billion after. Ignoring ALL other food.
So this is a pretty happy note. We can feed the world a couple of times over as things stand today. With some modest effort, we can quadruple that. Anyone who is not fully fed is hungry due to the choices of people about what kinds of food they prefer and political decisions about power and greed. We can simply change our choices and feed everyone.
Furthermore, we have in hand plenty of methods to increase productivity for a couple of more doubles of population. All without “meatless days” or any kind of deprivation.
Beyond that, there are even more choices. Reclamation of marginal lands (remember that buckwheat?). Multiple cropping of more lands. Heck, we haven’t even begun to look at exotic techniques like hot houses, green houses with added CO2 and multiple layers of plants with artificial lighting, home gardens and rooftop gardens (green roofs) or aquaculture. Algae can give another 10 x primary productivity increase as well.
If the climate changes; hotter, colder, wetter, drier, or even just more variable, we have a plant for that.
In short, there’s plenty of head room and we don’t need to worry about a thing.
I’ve added an interesting calculation. There is a ‘rule of thumb’ for calculating survival rations. It works pretty well. That rule of thumb is one pound of dry goods per person per day. So a single pound of rice can give you three meals. In many ways this is generous. (Just try cooking a pound of rice and eating it. I put one cup of rice in the rice-cooker and it is more than two of us can eat in a meal.) Then again, we don’t really like to eat parched grains or steamed rice and nothing else.
But still, to figure out the “just surviving” level of food to store, it is a useful metric. It doesn’t really matter if you are looking at rice, corn, beans, lentils, millet, whatever. Yes, for a farmer figuring profit and loss on cattle feeding it is horribly insufficient. There you need to know within pennies what the yield / lb of each individual grain will be. Yes, for a nutritionist it is horribly insufficient, as you need to know that all the individual amino acids, starch and sugars, fatty acids, etc. have been provided by any one ration. Just eat polished rice, you get beri-beri from vitamin deficiency and likely scurvy too.
Yet it is sufficient to measure “how close to the edge are we”? on gross calories and foods.
So here’s my rough cut numbers. I used 10 tons / hectare as the yield. Since we can get that from both corn and rice (and likely others with some intensification). Part way through I’m going to transition form metric to American units. Why? Because I find each one useful for different things. By that point the Metric folks can do the rest on their own anyway, and I doubt most folks care that the yield is in metric tons / hectare at the start. So, unless I’ve had a “NASA Moment” with the numbers, it ought to look like this:
1 Lb / person day 365 Days / year 10 Tons / hectare 22000 Lbs / hectare 60.27 people years / hectare 2.47 Acres / hectare 24.40 people years / acre 10,000,000,000 people / earth 165,909,091 hectares to feed everyone 409,795,455 acres to feed everyone 640,305 sq miles 800 Miles / side
800 Miles on a side fits comfortably inside the USA without going past the Rocky Mountains. Texas is about 908 miles ‘edge to edge’ IIRC the mile markers as a waited desperately for them to count down to “out of Texas” on so many road trips. (Interstate 10 goes ‘the long way’ from El Paso to Houston and on out the east side. It can seem like a lifetime some times. It is 1/3 of the drive from California to Florida.)
So what this is saying is that the land area needed to give everyone a “survival ration” can be placed smack dab in the USA Corn Belt and not slop out of it on either side, nor into Canada nor Mexico.
Now think about that just a minute. That is the TOTAL land area needed to feed the entire world. No, not on steaks and fried chicken. On emergency “aw shit” rations.
Two necessary conclusions come from this.
1) The only reason anyone starves is not a productivity reason.
2) In any sort of global calamity, as long as one patch that big is still doing OK, folks can eat.
Or the corollary that we can take the equivalent yield loss around the planet and get enough from much reduced yields to live.
We don’t need to clear the Amazon to feed a starving planet. We don’t need to watch people in Ethiopia starve in a drought. We don’t need to choose “Meatless Mondays” to “save the planet” or starving folks in Asia. If we got the same level of productivity from other major farming areas around the planet, we end up with massive grain surpluses that can’t be soaked up even if we fed it to cattle and all ate steaks.
It is a choice for our own personal reasons to have anyone starve, to have or not have meat (and it will do nothing to ‘save a starving person’ nor the planet), or to feed grain to cars. It would be, IMHO, far better to fix whatever political and economic problems do leave some folks in poverty. It would be far better to reverse the trend from mechanized advanced farming to subsistence farms with low yields in places like Zimbabwe. But those are essentially political acts, not technological.
Technological answers say nobody need go hungry, even in horrible crop failures and that all of us can have meat, eggs, and balanced meals with grains every day in normal times. Everything else is a choice…
(I hope I’ve not messed up the numbers. I’m doing this having just woke up and pre-coffee ;-) The things that come to me while sleeping… Did I mention the brain doesn’t quite ‘shut off’ ;-)