As I was flying over Ol Doinyo Lengai I contemplated that it is the largest fertilizer factory on the planet. It is the prime cause of the massive herds of herbivores trekking across the inner parts of Africa.
The ash from the volcano super-charges the grass with nutrients and makes it the best animal-feed on the planet. It also makes for happy local farmers getting annual bumper crops.
After that I got into thinking about something quite sad that I think about a lot, and here is where the story turns quite personal and decidedly un-volcanic.
In a sense of it I have 3 daytime jobs when I am not writing about volcanoes. One is in geothermal energy, the second is in remote sensing equipment, and finally I work in Big Food. It is from the vantage point of the first two that I write about volcanoes. But I have never written in here, or anywhere else for that matter, about my food-life.
In the beginning
My paternal grandmother was born when the telegraph and the railroad was the hot new thing. She lived a long life and saw all the technological advances that we as a species have made. Electrification, telephones, the moon-landing, computers, internet, the works.
She had also lived through food-shortages, failed crops, and starvation.
From her viewpoint it was only a question of time before we would starve again, and she was pleasantly surprised that it did not happen in her later years.
When I was a kid, she took a lot of time at teaching me how to survive off the land, and she was a true Master of it by virtue of having survived in the highlands of northern Sweden during times of starvation. So, at age 10 I learned how to make bark-bread.
Our greatest success
If you ask people what the greatest success of humanity is, you will get a wide range of answers. Rarely will you get the answer “big-food” (also known as the agro-industrial complex), free-trade and the relevance of infrastructure on transporting said food.
From 1946 up to 2017 average price for a bag of food became constantly cheaper, and more food was available every single year. For all points and purposes starvation was being turned into something that should not happen, and when it ever more rarely happened it was mainly caused by lack of transportation-infrastructure and poverty. And the infrastructure part is more important than the poverty part.
During those years new crops and strains had increased harvests enormously. Cheap mass transportation made certain that a large portion of humanity could get food even if crops failed locally. And free-trade agreements always centred around food first, and spiffing electronics second.
If humanity had been just a tad more caring nobody would have starved as we flipped into the new millennium.
Now, you would think that big-food executives would have been happily patting their backs for this enormous success. As we sat in boardrooms, at conventions, drinking beers during food fairs, we had a much gloomier view on things. From our vantage point of knowledge, we saw the oncoming storm.
As I inserted myself into Big Food it was from my knowledge about 3 things. The first is that climate change will have a detrimental impact on food production. Yes, farmers are good at adapting, and over time they will do so. But this means other crops, lower yields, and in part abandoned fields.
The second threat I saw was pollution. A famous example is plastic killing off our fish, but also the troubles with bees is a highly troublesome warning bell that things are not as they should bee.
The third thing is over usage of our resources. Be that over-fishing, or over-production on arable land causing soil-losses. Currently the global loss of arable first-rate farmland is 3 percent per annum, this includes new farmland being cultivated. You do the math.
Pair this with an ever-expanding humanity, and the figures does not meet up. But, up until 2017 science and Big Food was still able to amply keep ahead of the curve, and food production increased more than the global population. In 2017 we had more fat and happy people eating more good food than ever before in the history of humanity.
Even though we knew about the coming troubles and problems, we believed that we could stay well ahead of the curve for decades to come. What we had forgotten was the sheer stupidity of humanity.
In 2017 I could lazily send an email and a few days later containers of Chilean walnuts and Indian cashew would happily start to bob across the oceans to our warehouses.
In 2018 came what we in the industry believed to be the first climate change kick in the pants. On average the crops in 2018 was ten percent below what we got in 2017. Droughts, floods, and other things caused crop failures on a global scale, something never seen unless a large eruption had occurred on the planet. But no volcano was involved, only raising temperatures.
We debated if this was a decadal problem year, or a once in a century thing. But we recognized that it would be something that would happen more and more as things grow worse.
To get the happy bobbing containers I all of a sudden had to make ten phone calls, or even fly there to negotiate. Lazy days was over for fat middle aged white Big Food executives that normally has too much time on their hands. So much so that they instead can spend a lot of time writing about volcanoes instead of actually working.
In 2018 most of the free-trade agreements was still operating, and global mass-transportation was readily available, so no starvation occurred. But prices went up as demand equalled availability.
Enter human stupidity, during 2018 humanity decided that breaking off old free-trade agreements in favour of trade wars was a smart thing to do. Humanity also decided that state licensed piracy was something to bring back from the gloom of our dark past.
The free-trade agreements were put into place to make certain that food could always be traded cheaply and rapidly across the globe as and when a local shortage occurred. Even during the cold war, the US happily sold corn and wheat to the Soviet Union when their crops failed. Back then humanity remembered how horrendous mass-starvation is. Now that safety net is almost gone.
So far, the state piracy mainly involves oil, but rest assured that as things grow worse it will become common practice from any state with a navy. England and Iran have really opened up the road to hell on this one.
Anyways, the next big hit was not going to come around for at least a decade, so even though humanity is stupid we should be safe and have time to wait for more stable minded politicians reinstating free trade.
In June of 2019 the pre-harvest statistics started to come for our basic commodities, and they where even more horrendous than in 2018. What we thought was a decadal thing at worst, all of a sudden looked like the new normal. Global harvests are projected to be 3 percent lower than in 2018.
There is still amply enough food to feed every single human being in style. Do not worry about starving now, no need to go and forage or hoard food.
But prices are set to move up another ten percent. And getting those famously happy bobbing nut containers that I work with? There are non to be had. Chile has sold the entire harvest of in-shell walnuts to China after being pressured by them. India does not have enough cashew for its own market.
In 2019 I find myself working 12 hours a day on food alone, instead of the few hours per week I used to work with everything (yes, I used to be a lazy arsed bastard). Instead of trading in a wild variety of dry commodities I know mainly work with coconut-products and cashew, those are the only two commodities I can be certain of getting in the future. All of a sudden, we have gone from traders into becoming owners of massive factories across the globe and running our own farms to get the necessary control so that we can assure deliveries.
At the same time the now sad and worried containers bob across new trade-routes at ever higher freight costs, customs tariffs and soaring insurance costs.
What has happened is that global warming came faster than anyone believed, and that humanity is even more stupid than we could imagine.
A few months ago, the CEO of Bayer Foods decided that enough was enough and started to speak out about it, and now many food execs do the same. And since I have a public outlet, I decided for once to also talk openly.
I used to believe that the next large starvation would be something that would hit our children and grandchildren, and not something I would see in my lifetime.
Now I am dead certain that I will have to make bark-bread before I die, and not as a fun thing to learn with my beloved grandmother. I am also quite worried that our children and grandchildren will find that starvation will be a normal thing.
Unless of course we pull our collective heads out of our arses and do what we already know that we must do. Here is a comprehensive list of things that are necessary if we wish to remain more than a remnant splinter of our species.
Reinstate and improve on free trade agreements on food. The rest is however you wrangle it, luxury trade. You might think you need your latest gaming console, but what you really need is food. Global bans and enforcements against piracy, state run or from privateers should be a given.
Comprehensive bans on pollution and clean-up campaigns against a wide range of toxic stuff and plastics. This is probably the single most important issue, and it must be a global venture.
Either we have a huge herd of starving children, or a smaller herd of well-fed children. In the long run we can’t feed an ever-expanding population. Either we voluntarily limit ourselves, or nature will limit us in a decidedly nasty way.
And last, but not least. We need to immediately curtail at all cost global warming. Either we do it now while there is time, or we wait and do it after we have had global mass-starvation. I bet there will not be a single climate denialist in existence after a massive dose of bark-bread.
I have painted a bleak picture of reality, because it is reality. The good news is that we still have time to grow up and come together on a global scale to combat our bleak future.
I have great hopes that we will rise up into the same type of giants that we were during the second world war when we combated the naked evil of Nazism. We will probably though need a great kick into our gonads before we become giants again, and nature is winding back the leg to dish out that kick as I write.
The deep future
Regardless of what we puny humans do to irritate nature, nature will in the end either kick back, or solve things in a glorious fashion.
Sooner or later a larger eruption will happen, and that will aid in restoring depleted fields and farms once more increasing our harvests. Large enough and it will happen on an almost global scale. If we limit ourselves smaller repeated eruptions will also fill the same function.
Volcanoes are after all the best fertilizer factories in existence, and long after we have either grown brains or gone extinct, there will be large herds of herbivores eating turbo-charged grasses near volcanoes. I take great comfort in this.