Have you noticed rising grocery bills? That is just one sign among many that the world’s intricate system of food production is in for some severe shocks.
Probably not. Most people in the affluent West can’t even begin to imagine it.
But of the nearly 7 billion people on Earth, an estimated 850 million are undernourished or chronically hungry. With global food production hurting and prices rising, this number is swiftly climbing.
In July, a famine was officially declared in the Horn of Africa, the first in 30 years. A reported 12,400,000 people don’t have enough food. Imagine it. There are 81,000 people in my town; this is every last person in this town and 152 more just like it, all going hungry.
Between May and July in that region, 29,000 children younger than 5 died of starvation.
The nightmare is expected to last into next year, and the number of afflicted to rise quickly to 15 million. These are the chilling effects of two years of drought—the worst in six decades—coupled with some absolutely shameful human behavior.
When your belly is plenty full, your tendency is to brush aside such facts. After all, what can you do?
But you need to give this some serious thought—because chances are extremely high that soon, you won’t just be reading about those hunger pains.
In Matthew 24, Jesus Christ told His disciples what would precede His Second Coming and the end of this present world. Among the signs Jesus told us to watch for, He warned: “and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places” (verse 7).
Famines—plural. And not just in far-off places. Poor harvests, breakdowns in food production and distribution, dwindling supplies, economic collapse that shuts down commerce and the free flow of necessary commodities—all these conditions, and the woes that follow, are prophesied to besiege our world!
Do you believe Christ?
Where Does Your Food Come From?
Stop a moment and think about just how much you take plentiful food for granted. In the First World, we have enjoyed several decades of practically unprecedented abundance—limitless food variety, available year-round, at some of the cheapest prices enjoyed on a mass scale in human history. Thanks to increased food production, the share of underfed people on our planet has been dropping for centuries; in recent decades, percentages of malnourished and starving people have been more than halved.
No wonder we take it all for granted. This auspicious historical anomaly is the new reality. The party can last forever, right?
Well, there is a catch. This period of plenty has largely been sponsored by a complete revolution in the way we produce and distribute what we eat. The good news is that we have become extremely efficient in producing cheap food in massive quantities. The bad news is that it has come with monumental unintended additional costs.
Perhaps the most urgent consequence is that this revolution has made us dangerously vulnerable to massive disruptions in our food supply.
As our modern world has shifted from an agricultural society to an industrial- and now a service- and information-based culture, farmers have vanished en masse. A mere century ago, one in four Americans lived on a farm, and the average farmer grew enough food to feed 12 other Americans. Today, while the population has more than tripled to over 300 million, only 2 million farmers remain. On average, each one grows food to feed 140 people.
Today in the First World, less than 2 percent of the population is feeding the other 98 percent. The vast majority of us get our food from hundreds or thousands of miles away, and have only about a week’s worth of groceries in the pantry. We are wholly sustained by a complex system about which we are almost completely ignorant. Making food has become a profession for experts.
Every link in this intricate process is burdened with troubling issues that would cause most of us to raise our eyebrows with concern—or even retch in disgust. More pressingly, every link is susceptible to major potential breakdowns.
And early signs of breakdowns in the system are appearing—more all the time. Soaring grocery bills. Headlines about food-borne sickness from harmful bacteria. Epidemic chronic health problems like obesity and diabetes. Food scarcity. And yes, even famine.
What would you eat if the grocery stores and restaurants were empty?
Grocery Bills Are Rising
Surely you’ve noticed the rising cost of groceries. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (fao) Food Price Index climbed 25 percent last year. This February, it hit a record high. In June, the fao said the cost of a typical food basket worldwide was 48 percent higher than a year before.
These high prices are not a short-term problem. Recent troubles have only aggravated a crisis that has been incubating for years—and it isn’t going away anytime soon.
Between 2001 and 2008, the world consumed progressively more grain than it produced. The world’s grain stockpile shrank from more than 100 days’ supply to less than 50 days. And food prices rose dramatically. Between 2005 and 2008, they jumped 80 percent.
The situation led to rationing and, in poorer countries, famine. Food riots erupted in several countries. The “tortilla crisis” in Mexico, where thousands of people protested in the streets because of hikes in the price of maize, preceded public unrest over food prices in several other countries. Riots erupted in Haiti, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Cameroon, Morocco, Mauritania, Somalia, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Kenya, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico and Zimbabwe. As 2008 began, the fao said 37 countries faced food crises, putting 1.5 billion people at risk of starvation.
These problems were only made worse by the financial crash at the end of 2008. By mid-2009, food shortages had hit dozens of countries, and a billion people were eating less each day.
Today, a number of factors continue to hammer food supplies and prices: the rise of biofuels; skyrocketing oil prices; shrinking government food stockpiles; and environmental disasters, including record droughts and devastating floods. The world’s grain reserves are now at a historic low. This past summer, G-20 agriculture ministers met for the first time ever in order to focus on mounting evidence that these high prices are only going to get worse—along with food shortages. “Almost in every country, including in Europe, the issue of higher food prices has already become tangible,” said senior fao economist Abdolreza Abbassian. The fao’s director general elect said that high and volatile food prices would exist “for a long time.”
The fao says unfavorable weather will put still more pressure on food prices in the coming months. What was referred to as a “500-year flood” in the area of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers this summer caused millions of dollars’ worth of farmland damage, spiking grain prices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was already estimating big increases in grain costs for the 2011-2012 year over the previous year—and that was before the flooding. “All we can do is sit back and watch food prices soar, both across the United States and the globe,” wrote Ian Cooper, editor of the Wealth Daily investment-advice column.
The adverse effects of these trends are far-reaching and potentially quite serious. The ceo of Smithfield Foods, a global food company, said, “We are just one bad weather event away from potentially $10 corn, which once again is another 50 percent increase in the input cost to our live production.” But this is more than just a mere inconvenience. It means that food companies could well go bankrupt, he said.
The U.S. is the world’s biggest exporter of both wheat and corn. Failing crops in America will impact more than just the budgets of U.S. citizens—and exponentially so in many countries. Americans spend less than 10 percent of their income on food. But for the world’s poorest 2 billion people, that figure is 50 to 70 percent. As Foreign Policy wrote, for them, “these soaring [food] prices may mean going from two meals a day to one” (emphasis added throughout).
“We’re descending into a food crisis that’ll ravage the world as we know it,” Cooper says. “Food prices will not come down. We should prepare ourselves now to see food shortages.” It’s one thing to have to pay more for food, assuming you have the money. But what if the food isn’t even there?
One can hope that these trends are mere anomalies—that they will improve, or that somehow, we’ll figure out a way around the growing obstacles.
In reality, though, these trends are exposing cracks and structural weaknesses in the very foundation of our food system.
Pressures on Food Supply
Every year, the human race produces 100 million more mouths to feed. Today we have nearly 7 billion eaters; 50 years ago there were only 3 billion. But it’s not just more mouths—it is what is going into those mouths. The average person worldwide eats 20 percent more calories per day than 50 years ago.
And in many cases, those calories require considerably more energy to produce. For example, the emerging middle class in China and India has a growing appetite for meat, poultry, dairy and fish—far more labor- and energy-intensive menu items than rice and vegetables. As Julian Cribb brings out in his book The Coming Famine, China’s meat consumption tripled in less than 15 years, “requiring a tenfold increase in the grain needed to feed the animals and fish.” Within 15 years, China’s grain consumption rose 1,000 percent!
The combination of global population and food demand is rising about 2 percent a year. Meanwhile, food production is rising at only about half that rate.
You can add to this fundamental reality a myriad of other pressures on the food supply: more adverse weather events—droughts, floods, and other disasters—that reduce crop yields or wipe out harvests; vanishing marine life, including ocean fish catches—the top source of protein for Asians—because of over-fishing, pollution and other causes; government enactments like farm subsidies, food price controls, taxes, regulations, restrictions and so on.
Paul Roberts lists still more factors in his 2008 book The End of Food. “Arable land is growing scarcer. Inputs like pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are increasingly expensive. Soil degradation and erosion from hyperintensive farming are costing millions of acres of farmland a year. Water supplies are being rapidly depleted in parts of the world, even as the rising price of petroleum—the lifeblood of industrial agriculture—is calling into question the entire agribusiness model.”
For some few realistic observers—and perhaps the 180,000 more people every day who, because of rising food costs, drop below the poverty line and can no longer afford a place at the table—these problems may, indeed, be calling into question the entire agribusiness model. But the reality is, our modern society has become impossibly dependent on it. Calling that model into question is tantamount to recognizing the inherently, irreversibly flawed nature of civilization as we have engineered it.
Hitting the Wall
Many people hope to solve this dilemma through still more technological wizardry. It’s true that technology has delivered stunning growth in the volume of food produced—annual increase after annual increase in crop yields of 5 or even 10 percent in wheat, maize and rice, for example.
However, the last massive surge in global food production occurred in the 1970s and ’80s. In more recent years those increases have been closer to 1 or even zero percent. Today, there is little investment in innovation. But more alarmingly, writes Cribb, “In advanced countries, some scientists whispered, we might actually be approaching the physical limits of the ability of plants to turn sunlight into edible food.”
Think about that. You can only take so much from the land. You can only increase crop yields using artificial methods by so much. At some point you hit a wall of biological reality.
“[T]he challenge is far deeper, longer-term, and more intractable than most people, and certainly most governments, understand,” Cribb writes. “It stems from the magnifying and interacting constraints on food production generated as civilization presses harder against the finite bounds of the planet’s natural resources, combined with human appetites that seem to know no bounds.”
What we are seeing is the agricultural and nutritional equivalent of America’s national debt. To maintain short-term gains, we have been living on borrowed or artificial stimulants to food production that, in some cases, have devastating long-term effects. Eventually, there is going to be a “default.”
Consider the cold reality as Cribb spells it out: “The problem is very complex,” he writes. “To sum it all up, the challenge facing the world’s 1.8 billion women and men who grow our food is to double their output of food—using far less water, less land, less energy, and less fertilizer. They must accomplish this on low and uncertain returns, with less new technology available, amid more red tape, economic disincentives, and corrupted markets, and in the teeth of spreading drought. Achieving this will require something not far short of a miracle.”
My recommendation: Don’t count on that miracle.
Instead, look at present conditions—and then look into your Bible and judge for yourself whether, in fact, the dots we see today connect directly to the prophecies it contains.
The Black Horse
The four horsemen of the apocalypse are infamous harbingers of end-time calamity. The third of them is described in Revelation 6:5-6: “And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.”
The meaning of this vision has been debated, twisted and misunderstood for centuries. But it is plainly revealed in Herbert W. Armstrong’s booklet The Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last! As Mr. Armstrong explained, its meaning is unlocked by Jesus Christ’s prophecy in Matthew 24.
The third horseman links with verse 7 of that chapter: “For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.” The warfare described here is pictured by the red horse of Revelation 6:3-4. And the next prophetic reality Christ discussed links with the third horseman, riding the black horse: “there shall be famines.”
Again—do you believe Jesus Christ? Do you believe God, who inspired the prophecy of Revelation?
We are about to experience far worse problems than just rising grocery bills. But as we do, remember what they point to. This was one of the signs Christ gave that He was about to return to this weary Earth!
Though this grim horseman has stalked humanity throughout its history, his appearance in the book of Revelation portends a final terrifying ride far deadlier than any before. “[A] great famine, like none before it or ever again, will strike this Earth with frightening force and fury,” our booklet The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse says. “This time, instead of only affecting war-torn regions or the Third World, it will affect the First World nations—the blessed birthright peoples of the lost 10 tribes of Israel.” (This booklet is free upon request.)
These statements aren’t based on one statement from Jesus and a single verse in Revelation. They are backed by prophecy after prophecy of the most affluent, blessed nations on Earth today suffering a dramatic, precipitous fall into horrific conditions too hard for our minds to even imagine! Today’s conditions link directly with these prophetic warnings, which God recorded to prove His omniscience and omnipotence—and to induce us to repent and turn to Him.
Where are today’s dwindling food stocks and rising prices leading? Bible prophecy gives us a sure and sobering answer.
Consider this chilling prophecy from Isaiah: “For behold, the Lord, the Lord of hosts, takes away from Jerusalem [a type of all the end-time nations of Israel] and from Judah [the Jewish state in the Middle East] the stock and the store, the whole supply of bread and the whole supply of water” (Isaiah 3:1; New King James Version). God says that because of our sins, He is going to take away our food and water! (Prove the modern identity of Israel in biblical prophecy by ordering a free copy of The United States and Britain in Prophecy.)
In Hosea, another end-time book, God indicts the nations of Israel with this charge: “For she did not know that I gave her corn, and wine, and oil, and multiplied her silver and gold, which they prepared for Baal” (Hosea 2:8). We have forgotten that we owe thanks for our abundance to God! He has given us the greatest blessings any nation in human history has ever received—and we have turned our backs on Him. He continues, “Therefore will I return, and take away my corn in the time thereof, and my wine in the season thereof …” (verse 9).
Could it be true? The shocks to food supplies we are beginning to witness are more than just our failure to plan, or mere “bad luck.” God Himself is actually taking away the blessings He had once richly supplied!
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