Thomas asked on his blog today "Are we really at risk for a sudden and widespread food catastrophe" or is it just paranoia. He pointed out the paranoia of things like the cold war that didn't come to pass. I grew up with two kinds of paranoia, the cold war (I'm 48 to give you a timetable). The other was my dad.
My dad was quite the pessimist when I was growing up. He always thought our government or economy could collapse and we would have to take care of ourselves for a couple of years before things normalized again. I still remember his target date was 1982. I grew up in a household where food for a year was the norm -buckets of wheat, powdered milk, honey and salt (which he no longer has, but I'm talking aout my youth). We all learned how to use guns. My dad hunted. My job was to learn all the edible plants that grew around us in our backwoods house. Oh so much paranoia in my youth. So I understand the paranoia and have seen it not come to pass.
However just a couple of years ago we did have a world wide food catastrophe. Weather wipe out a chunk of the worlds rice crops driving up prices. Some farmers held onto their crops because they believed the prices would go even higher causing an even greater shortage. Oil prices hit a record high (required for how we make food today). Ethanol programs made the price of corn skyrocket. Stem rust in wheat was spreading. We had record high population (as we do every year) and a 60 year low in grain stockpiles. All of this came together at once. The world saw food riots. Remember this was all just a couple of years ago. I know we were largely insulated in the US. Even our poor were fairly insulated compared to places like Africa, but we have had a food crisis recently.
Will it get bad enough for the rich countries to be affected? Thomas talked about the potato famine and Monsanto's GMO crops. It is possible for GMOs to bring in genes that are susceptible to some disease and cause a crop failure of catastrophic proportions? Yes it is possible, but the likely scenario is that if something like that happens it will be a more minor crop failure like the corn gene issue of the 1970s. Most of the corn that was being grown had one little gene in it that caused it to be susceptible to smut (a corn disease not porn ;>). Over a couple of years smut started spreading. The seed companies figured this out and started growing out seed that wasn't susceptible. The whole world's crop probably won't be affected at once. The disease will spread. Monsanto isn't stupid (heavy headed and cruel to farmers at times yes, stupid no). They will notice and switch genes as fast as they can. This doesn't mean that whoever is growing the crop won't have issues. This doesn't mean it won't last a couple of years as they scramble to grow out another seed in large enough quantities. It could cause regional issues, but probably won't affect us.
If we have a food crisis for the richer countries, it will grow slowly over time. Population will increase. Petroleum will slowly run out and its price will rise. We will see more confluence of events like a couple of years ago causing temporary shortages. It will grow over time. Eventually we won't need a confluence of events. One bad weather year will create a shortage. This will happen unless we get the population under control. There is no stopping it. The time scale of this I have no clue, but as long as our worldwide population keeps growing it is inevitable. But look on the bright side. It is self regulating. When food becomes too much of an issue then massive war will break out worldwide and our population will go down. If it gets bad enough we might even bomb ourselves back into the dark ages or worse out of existence. How's that for paranoia?