Shortage is driving up food prices globally, and global warming remains one of the biggest threats to food security. "After a certain point, rising temperatures reduce crop yields. For each degree celsius rise in temperature above the norm during the growing season, farmers can expect a 10% decline in wheat, rice, and corn yields.
As the earth's temperature continues to rise, mountain glaciers are melting throughout the world. Nowhere is this of more concern than in Asia. It is the ice melt from glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau that sustain the major rivers of India and China, and the irrigation systems that depend on them, during the dry season.
"Indeed, the projected melting of the glaciers on which these two countries depend presents the most massive threat to food security humanity has ever faced," says Lester R Brown, environmentalist and president of the Earth Policy Institute, a non-profit research organisation based out of Washington DC.
Brown has co-authored over 50 books on global environmental issues. Most recently he has authored Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, a book which he keeps updating regularly and which is freely downloadable at www.earthpolicy.org. He speaks to DNA on what's in store for the world.
Why are you so worried?
From time to time I go back and read about earlier civilisations that declined and collapsed, trying to understand the reasons for their demise. More often than not shrinking food supplies were responsible. The question I ask myself is does our civilisation face a similar fate? Until recently it did not seem possible. I resisted the idea that food shortages could also bring down our early twenty-first century global civilisation. But our continuing failure to reverse the environmental trends that are undermining the world food economy forces me to conclude that if we continue with business as usual such a collapse is not only possible but likely. Food is looking like the weak link in our civilisation, much as it was for the earlier ones whose archaeological sites we now study.
Can you elaborate on it a little?
The historic grain price climb in the last few years underlines the gravity of the situation. From mid-2006 to mid-2008, world prices of wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans roughly tripled, reaching historic highs. It was not until the global economic crisis beginning in 2008 that grain prices receded somewhat. But even then they were still above the historical level. Working our way out of this tightening food situation depends on reversing the trends that are causing it, such as soil erosion, falling water tables, and rising carbon emissions.
What if we continue with business as usual?
As a result of persistently high food prices, hunger is spreading. One of the United Nations Millennium Development goals is to reduce hunger and malnutrition. In the mid-1990s, the number of people in this category had fallen to 825 million. But instead of continuing to decline, the number of hungry started to edge upward, reaching 915 million at the end of 2008. It then jumped to over 1 billion in 2009. With business as usual, I see a combination of the projected growth in population, the planned diversion of grain to produce fuel for cars, spreading shortages of irrigation water, and other trends combining to push the number of hungry people to 1.2 billion or more by 2015.
What are your biggest concerns on food security?
The first trend of concern is population growth. Each year there are 79 million more people at the dinner table. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of these individuals are being added in countries where soils are eroding, water tables are falling, and irrigation wells are going dry. If we cannot press the brake on population growth, we may not be able to eradicate hunger. Even as our numbers are multiplying, some 3 billion people are trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products.
What else threatens food security?
Climate change also threatens food security. After a certain point, rising temperatures reduce crop yields. For each degree celsius rise in temperature above the norm during the growing season, farmers can expect a 10% decline in wheat, rice, and corn yields. Since 1970, the earth's average surface temperature has increased by 0.6 degrees celsius, or roughly 1 degree fahrenheit. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that the temperature will rise by up to 6 degrees celsius during this century.
As the earth's temperature continues to rise, mountain glaciers are melting throughout the world. Nowhere is this of more concern than in Asia. It is the ice melt from glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau that sustain the major rivers of India and China, and the irrigation systems that depend on them, during the dry season. In Asia, both wheat and rice fields depend on this water. China is the world's leading wheat producer. India is No 2 (The US is third.) These two countries also dominate the world rice harvest. Whatever happens to the wheat and rice harvests in these two population giants will affect food prices everywhere. Indeed, the projected melting of the glaciers on which these two countries depend presents the most massive threat to food security humanity has ever faced.
You have talked about cars and people competing for grains...
There is a massive new demand emerging for cropland to produce fuel for cars—one that threatens world food security. The United States has quickly come to dominate the crop-based production of fuel for cars. In 2005, it eclipsed Brazil, formerly the world's leading ethanol producer. So the price of grain is now tied to the price of oil. Historically the food and energy economies were separate, but now with the massive US capacity to convert grain into ethanol, that is changing. In this new situation, when the price of oil climbs, the world price of grain moves up toward its oil-equivalent value. If the fuel value of grain exceeds its food value, the market will simply move the commodity into the energy economy. If the price of oil jumps to $100 a barrel, the price of grain will follow it upward. If oil goes to $200, grain will follow. From an agricultural vantage point, the world's appetite for crop-based fuels is insatiable. The grain required to fill an SUV's 25-gallon tank with ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year. If the entire US grain harvest were to be converted to ethanol, it would satisfy at most 18% of US auto fuel needs.
You have said that our mismanaged world economy has many of the characteristics of a Ponzi scheme…
The functioning of the global economy and a Ponzi scheme investment are not entirely analogous, bit there are some disturbing parallels. As recently as 1950 or so, the world economy was living more or less within its means, consuming only the sustainable yield, the interest of the natural systems that support it. But then as the economy doubled, and doubled again, and yet again, multiplying eightfold, it began to outrun sustainable yields and to consume the asset base itself.
A 2002 study led by Mathis Wackernagel concluded that humanity's collective demands first surpassed the earth's regenerative capacity around 1980. As of 2009 global demands on natural systems exceeded their sustainable yield capacity by nearly 30%. This means we are meeting current demands in part by consuming the earth's natural assets, setting the stage for an eventual Ponzi-type collapse when these assets are depleted.
This situation prevails across various natural assets. Take the case of aquifers, which are essentially geological formations which contain water. As of mid-2009 nearly all the world's major aquifers were being overpumped. We have more irrigation water than before the overpumping began, in true Ponzi fashion. We get the feel that we're doing well in agriculture - but the reality is that an estimated 400 million people are today being fed by overpumping, a process that is by definition short term. A World Bank study shows that 175 million people in India are being fed by overpumping aquifers. In China, this problem affects 130 million people.
After being self-sufficient in wheat for over 20 years, in early 2008 the Saudis announced that, with their aquifer largely depleted, they would reduce their wheat planting by one eighth each year until 2016, when production will end. We cannot escape the water intensity of food production.
Worldwide, we drink on average close to 4 litres of water per day, either directly or in coffee, juice, soda, wine, and other beverages. But it takes 2,000 litres of water to produce the food we consume each day—500 times as much as we drink. In effect, we "eat" 2,000 liters of water each day. With the aquifers being depleted, this water-based food bubble is about to burst.
Several countries whose food requirements are dependent on imports are farming land in other countries. How do you see that working out?
This massive acquisition of land to grow food in other countries is one of the largest geopolitical experiments ever conducted. The land-buying countries are mostly those whose populations have outrun their own land and water resources. Among them are Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, Kuwait, Libya, India, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. In contrast, countries selling or leasing their land are often low-income countries and, more often than not, those where chronic hunger and malnutrition are commonplace. Some depend on the World Food Programme for part of their food supply.
What about China?
For sheer size of investment, China stands out. The Chinese firm ZTE International has secured rights to 2.8 million hectares (6.9 million acres) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on which to produce palm oil, which can be used either for cooking or to produce biodiesel fuel—indicating that the competition between food and fuel is also showing up in land acquisitions. This compares with the 1.9 million hectares used by the Congo's 66 million people to produce corn, their food staple. Congo depends on a WFP lifeline. China is also negotiating for 2 million hectares in Zambia on which to produce jatropha, an oilseed-bearing perennial. Among the other countries in which China has acquired land or has plans to do so are Australia, Russia, Brazil, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, and Mozambique.
What are the problems with this trend?
These bilateral land acquisitions raise many questions. To begin with, these negotiations and the agreements they lead to lack transparency. Typically only a few high-ranking officials are involved and the terms are confidential. Not only are many stakeholders such as farmers not at the table when the agreements are negotiated, they do not even learn about the deals until after they have been signed. And since there is rarely idle productive land in the countries where the land is being purchased or leased, the agreements suggest that many local farmers will simply be displaced. Their land may be confiscated or it may be bought from them at a price over which they have little say. This helps explain the public hostility that often arises within host countries.
China, for example, signed an agreement with Philippines to lease over a million hectares of land on which to produce crops that would be shipped home. Once word leaked out, the public outcry forced the government to suspend the agreement. China is also running into on-the-ground opposition over its quest for 2 million hectares in Zambia. This new approach to achieving food security also raises questions about the effects on employment. At least two countries, China and South Korea, are planning in some cases to bring in their own farm workers.
The government of Pakistan, which is trying to sell or lease 400,000 hectares, is offering to provide a security force of 100,000 men to protect the land and assets of investors. Who will these security forces be protecting the invested assets from? Another disturbing dimension of many land investments is that they are taking place in countries like Indonesia, Brazil, and Congo where expanding cropland typically means clearing tropical rainforests that sequester large quantities of carbon. This could measurably raise global carbon emissions, increasing the climate threat to world food security.
You have talked about the 'Japan syndrome' driving up prices of food worldwide. Could you explain...
If countries are already densely populated when they begin to industrialise rapidly, three things happen in quick succession to make them heavily dependent on grain imports: grain consumption climbs as incomes rise, grainland area shrinks, and grain production falls. As grain production falls, the country has to resort to importing grain. I first observed this phenomenon in Japan, which now imports 70% of its grain, and hence termed it the Japan syndrome.
And now the Japan syndrome is spreading beyond Japan?
China is now gradually falling victim to the Japan syndrome, and that is clearly worrying. Perhaps the most alarming recent world agricultural event is the precipitous fall in China's grain production since 1998. After an impressive climb from 90 million tonnes in 1950 to a peak of 392 million tonnes in 1998, China's grain harvest fell in four of the last five years, dropping to 322 million tonnes in 2003. For perspective, this decline of 70 million tonnes exceeds the entire grain harvest of Canada.
China is losing grainland to expanding deserts and it is faced with spreading water shortages that are shrinking the grain harvest. China's population of 1.3 billion is impressive, but even more impressive is the fact that 1.193 billion of them live in 46% of the country. The five sprawling provinces of Tibet, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia, have only 81 million people - just 6% of the national total. Thus industrial and residential construction and the land paved for roads, highways, and parking lots will be concentrated in less than half the country, where 94% of the people live. People are crowded in this region simply because this is where arable land and water are.
If China had Japan's automobile ownership rate of one car for every two people, it would have a fleet of 640 million, a forty-fold increase from the 16 million today. Such a fleet would require paving almost 13 million hectares of land — again, most of it likely cropland. This figure is equal to two thirds of China's 21 million hectares of riceland — land that produces 120 million tonnes of rice — the country's principal staple food.
Yes it is. The obvious question now is which other countries will enter a period of declining grain production because of the same combination of forces? Among those that come to mind are India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, and Mexico.
You have projected Plan B as a way out of this mess....
Plan B is the alternative to business as usual. Its goal is to move the world from the current decline and collapse path onto a new path where food security can be restored and civilisation can be sustained. It has four components: cutting net carbon dioxide emissions 80% by 2020, stabilising population at 8 billion or lower, eradicating poverty, and restoring the earth's natural systems, including its soils, aquifers, forests, grasslands, and fisheries. Plan B essentially outlines a transition from an economy powered mainly by oil, coal, and natural gas to one powered largely by wind, solar, and geothermal energy.
The Plan B goal of stabilising population is set at 8 billion or lower simply because I do not think world population will ever reach the 9.2 billion projected by UN demographers for 2050. To begin with, the vast majority of the 2.4 billion people projected to be added by 2050 will be born in developing countries—countries where the land and water resource base is deteriorating and hunger is spreading. Simply put, many support systems in these countries are already in decline, and some are collapsing.
The question is not whether population growth will come to a halt before reaching 9.2 billion but whether it will do so because the world shifts quickly to smaller families or because it fails to do so—and population growth is checked by rising mortality. Plan B embraces the reduced fertility option. Eradicating poverty is a priority goal for three reasons. One, in combination with giving women everywhere access to reproductive health care and family planning services, it is the key to accelerating the global shift to smaller families.
It also helps bring impoverished nations into the international community, giving them a stake in such matters as stabilising climate. When people are not sure where their next meal is coming from, it is difficult for them to get excited about trying to stabilise the earth's climate. And third, eradicating poverty is the humane thing to do. One of the hallmarks of a civilised society is the capacity to care about others
The fourth component of Plan B involves repairing and protecting the natural systems that support humankind. This includes conserving soil, banning deforestation, promoting reforestation, restoring fisheries, and making a worldwide effort to protect aquifers by raising water productivity. Unless we can reverse the deterioration of these systems we are unlikely to reverse the rise in hunger.
So what's the key challenge?
The question we face is not what we need to do, because that seems rather clear to those who are analysing the global situation. The challenge is how to do it in the time available. Unfortunately we don't know how much time remains. Nature is the timekeeper but cannot see the clock. In conclusion let me paraphrase a comment made by environmentalist Paul Hawken. In recognising the enormity of the challenge facing us, he said: First we need to decide what needs to be done. Then we do it. And then we ask if it is possible.