Price spikes and volatility will characterise markets as the world’s population tops 7bn
Recently we held a reunion of the UCD/TCD agriculture and horticulture graduates from 1970. It was good to meet former companions. Apart from the ever youthful trio of Eamonn Tully (Cavan), Jack Lynn (Mayo) and Pat McGuinness (Down), most had gone almost as blonde as myself.
Class colleague Professor Maurice Boland from UCD contrasted the world of 1970 with 2010. Among the many changes over the 40 intervening years, one of Maurice's facts really got me thinking – the great leap in the world's human population. At 2.8bn in 1970, the population has grown to an estimated 6.86bn today.
The interesting part of the deal is that we continue to go forth and multiply at a rate of knots. It is reckoned the world population is growing at the rate of about 9,000 an hour. That's another 6.69m extra mouths to feed since our reunion on October 15.
The other side of this coin is that available land supply is shrinking. The shrinkage from erosion, building and desertification is reckoned to be taking place at a rate of 1ha every 7.7 seconds.
In the past, I have been sceptical of claims that, globally, we are running near the tipping point in terms of the world food supply and demand balance.
With more than 8.5bn productive hectares – which includes forests – there is still huge global potential to expand food output. But with so much waste, inefficiency and poor political leadership around, maybe we are closer to the tipping point than many believe. Irish farmers, and food producers worldwide, could be on the cusp of a most interesting period.
Certainly, with almost 7bn people on the planet, we are in new territory. Also, it's hardly a coincidence that we are seeing spikes in world prices for so many basic food commodities coming at the same time.
For most of the past 40 years, the big bogeyman for Irish and EU farmers was the threat of having to work at prices. The threat waved over us has been, ‘what would happen if import tariffs and export refunds were reduced? Irish and EU farmers are a cosseted lot’.