Hardly a day goes by that we're not told about the unsustainable pressure we're putting on our natural resources. And while it prompts visions of oil, fresh water and coal, you'd be surprised at how many of our creature comfort commodities are dwindling just as quickly.
While the following may not be quite as crucial as, say, potable water, they're still an integral part of our day to day lives. Let's take a moment to appreciate some these seven mainstays of the modern world that you'd better enjoy while you still can.
This story originally posted on November 28, 2013. We brought it back because we were having fun talking about it in the office at lunch today
Chocolate is delicious, right? Unfortunate, then, that the majority of the world's cocoa supply comes from West Africa, where many countries have yet to outlaw things like child labour, trafficking, or slavery; in other words, the kind of labour that produces the chocolate you're putting in your mouth. Even with slave labour though, farming cocoa beans isn't financially lucrative for your average West African farmer.
As these kids can surely tell you, harvesting cocoa is damn hard work. It's time-consuming (each new crop takes five years to grow), has to be done by hand, and even worse, has to be done by hand in excruciating heat. And the final payoff? A whopping 80 cents a day -- for the farmer, that is. At this rate, in about 20 years, chocolate could become a luxury with a caviar-comparable price points. And that's with the continuation of child labour. With fair-trade laws slowly but surely inching their way into the industry and child labour laws being (rightfully) enforced, the price of labour is going to go up, putting farmers at an even greater loss. The fact of the matter is chocolate will just be too expensive to produce en masse.
Plus, it's not like other parts of the world can pick up the slack. Chocolate can only be grown in latitudes within 10 degrees of the equator -- an area that's home to some of the most unstable countries on the planet. In other words, best not skip out on trick-or-treating next year; 50 years down the line, that candy haul could payoff big time.
This one might not be as upsetting for some of you, but for lovers of the oily little sidefish, Armageddon is just around the corner. Just this past month, Western Canada's fleet of sardine-hunting ships came back with a return of... zilch. Not only is that $US32 million worth of potential sardines down the drain, but the loss is indicative of a much more disturbing future: We could be in store for decades worth of sardine-free waters.
Sardine populations have a tendency to fluctuate with water temperature, and these tiny fish have been reproducing less ever since Pacific waters cooled back in the 1990s. Heavy fishing, of course, kept trudging on regardless. What's more, any sardine eggs we're getting these days are coming from fish born a decade ago -- a sardine generation that's just about dead. Despite all this, Canada is still upping its sardine quotas and the US, though it does limit catches, still hasn't cut down enough to sustain the dwindling stock.
So what does this mean for people with a predilection for the canned swimmers? It could be decades before the water warms up enough to welcome back our salty friends of the sea.
Back in 2007, Mexico's blue agave yield (the plant tequila comes from) already wasn't doing so hot. 20 per cent of the crop was crippled by disease, a sign that, the Chicago Tribune noted, proved that farmers were turning their backs on their crops for the same reason cocoa farmers are fading fast: cost. Growing corn is far more lucrative than blue agave. So what does a farmer do when he wants to replace his blue agave with a cash crop? Burn it down. Yep, rather than harvest what they already had, farmers decided to burn down fields upon fields of the precious potential tequila.
But don't start drowning your sorrows just yet; major producers have been carefully storing away tequila for the upcoming shortage. Because when it finally does hit, that gold liquid will turn into liquid gold, which isn't great for the consumer, sure. But as independent farmers see blue agave start rising in value, they'll start replanting those same fields they previously set in flames.
Of course, once that does happen, it takes about 12 years for a blue agave plant to be able to actually produce the fructose necessary to make tequila. Better stock up while you still can. And if you do decide to drown your sorrows -- stick to vodka.
Ever sucked down some helium for a cheap laugh? Thanks for nothing, pal. Because these days, we need to conserve as much of it as we can. You may not realise, but helium is a highly necessary commodity in the modern world. Everything from MRI magnets to fibre optics and LCD screens needs the element (which has the lowest boiling point of any other material on Earth) to function, so without it, pretty much everything we've grown to depend on gets hit hard.
But that doesn't make any sense, you might say, how can helium stock be diminishing when I can still go pick up a bundle of helium-filled balloons for 10 bucks? Well, you'd be right, it doesn't make any sense -- but not for the reasons you might think. While we are indeed running out of the noble gas, that hasn't stopped the United States from continuing to sell the stuff by the barrel full, dirt cheap. And according to Cornell scientists Robert Richardson, we want it that way:
The US government established a national helium reserve in 1925, and today a billion cubic metres of the gas are stored in a facility near Amarillo, Texas. In 1996 Congress passed an act requiring that this strategic reserve, which represents half the Earth's helium stocks, be sold off by 2015. As a result, helium is far too cheap and is not treated as a precious resource.
And when we do eventually run out of our current store, our only other option is to recover helium from the air -- which will cost 10,000 times what it does today. So yeah, try not to dwell on all the
thousands of dollars balloons you've watched float away into nothingness.
As a species full of wine-guzzling lushes, humanity's unquenchable thirst has put us in a bit of a predicament -- a 300-million case predicament, to be exact. Sure, there may be one million wine producers worldwide putting out about 2.8 billion cases a year, but that's still not enough to fill the ever-increasing demand for more vino.
In fact, despite a one per cent rise in global wine consumption, production actually fell by over five per cent last year -- the lowest it's been since the 1960s. Even more unsettling, last year's wine production in Europe, which produces about half of the world's supply, dropped a staggering 10 per cent. Unfortunately, most of the industry growth that is happening is thanks to "boutique operators," which aren't going to drive any significant supply.
Back in 2010, the UK saw a major outbreak of Q fever disease. As a result, over 50,000 pregnant goats and sheep were culled (i.e. removed from breeding), and some farmers decided to halt breeding altogether. This would have been problem enough in and of itself, but it certainly doesn't help that as the source diminishes, demand continues to skyrocket.
While goat cheese is particularly popular in the time leading up to the holidays -- especially in Europe -- another, exceptionally large section of the globe seems to have acquired a taste for the particularly tangy treat: China. And they're willing to pay -- a lot. This is putting goat cheese suppliers in quite a predicament. As George Paul, director of cheesemaker Bradbury & Son, told The Telegraph:
Retailers would either need to pay more for goat products or risk being left short. One or the other will give shortly -- it'll either be price or availability.
So don't be surprised if you start seeing painfully high goat cheese price tags littering the shelves -- just be glad it's made its way over at all.
Perhaps the most beloved of salty, cured meats, bacon is on the fast path to breaking hearts. According to Britain's National Pig Association (NPA), which is a delightfully real thing, a world-wide shortage of bacon (and other pork products, for that matter) "is now unavoidable." But don't blame your impulsive, gluttonous self just yet; there are a variety of factors contributing to our little pig problem.
The NPA largely attributed the shortage to the rising cost of food, a cost which can in turn be attributed to the previous year's weak corn and soybean harvests. But it's not just Britain; these very same trends are being mirrored all around the world. The US Department of Agriculture released a report in August of 2012 that accurately predicted that hog farmers would cut production in order to minimise their losses, which had the potential to be great thanks to 2012's Midwest drought. Additionally Porcine Epidemic Diarrhoea Virus, or PED, is taking down piglets in 15 states. And as of now, there's no vaccine in the US just yet.
Of course, this doesn't mean that bacon will be disappearing entirely any time soon, but prices are certainly going to reflect the diminishing stock. So if you're looking to keep spending down, it might be time to start cutting the B out of your