The Global Food Crisis

Jared Wade


August 1, 2011

Lester Brown is a legend to those within the environmental movement. He founded both the World Watch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute and has written more than 50 books published in 40 languages. He has worked as a farmer in both New Jersey and India and served as an international agricultural analyst for the Department of Agriculture.

For the past decade, his focus has been on developing a strategy for greater global cooperation to slow climate change, and his resulting "Plan B" has received praise from many high-level thinkers. President Bill Clinton said that "Lester Brown tells us how to build a more just world and save the a practical, straightforward way. We should all heed his advice." We recently spoke with Brown about the specific challenges facing the world food supply.

RM: How serious do you think the threat of the food crisis is?

Lester Brown: If you look to history, there are many civilizations that have collapsed in large part due to a food crisis. I had long rejected the idea that food could be the weak link for us. But in the last several years, I've begun to think not only that it could be the weak link, but that it probably is the weak link.

RM: Why is food security so much more strained now than in the past?

Brown: There are a number of factors coming together. One is on the demand side. We've always had population growth, but we now have 80 million more people per year that the world's farmers have to try to feed. That's 219,000 people at the dinner table tonight who weren't there last night.

The second thing is that there are close to three billion people today who want to move up the food chain, consuming more grain in terms of livestock products.

The third thing on the demand side is the enormous diversion of grain to ethanol distilleries in the U.S. We harvested 400 million tons of grain last year; 126 million tons went to ethanol distilleries.

These three sources of demand are putting a lot of pressure on supplies. In fact, over the last decade, the annual growth in the world demand has increased from 20 million tons per year to 40 million tons per year. That's with a world grain harvest of about two billion tons.

RM: Can farmers continue to meet this growing demand?

Brown: On the supply side, we have climate change. Agriculture as it exists today evolved over an 11,000-year period of rather remarkable climate stability. There were a few glitches here and there along the way but, basically, it's been quite stable. Now that system is changing.

The rule of thumb is that for each rise in temperature by 1 degree Celsius during the growing season, we can expect a decline of 10% in grain, rice and corn yields. But the basic problem we have is that the climate system is now changing, and we don't know exactly how fast or to what...And each year, agriculture is more and more out of sync with that system.

Then we have the water issue. Half the world's people now live in countries where the underground water is being pumped faster than it recharges. That is, water tables are falling and aquifers are being depleted. Among those are the three big grain producers: China, India and the United States.

It's far more important in China and India than in the U.S. because nearly four-fifths of China's grain harvest comes from irrigated land and nearly three-fifths for India's. For us, it's one-fifth, so if we lose part of that irrigated land it's not a big deal. It'll be important but not a big deal. So that's the water issue: farmers are now trying to produce more grain each year but with less water than they had the year before.

Another thing that makes it more difficult for farmers is that, in the more agriculturally advanced countries, like Japan, yields [are no longer increasing]. Rice yields in Japan, which were increasing for more than a century, have plateaued now and have been flat for 16 years. They simply have not increased. It's not that Japanese farmers don't want to increase yields; they would dearly like to increase yields because the support price for rice in Japan is three times the world market level. In effect, the farmers have caught up with the scientists in Japan.

The same is true with wheat in France, Germany and the U.K. In all three countries, wheat yields have plateaued within the last decade. These are just four countries -- there will be others coming. Because farmers have caught up with scientists, they can no longer find any new technologies to raise the productivity of their land. And the more countries in that category, the more difficult it becomes for the world as a whole to raise production.

RM: Is the outlook likely to improve?

Brown: There are three indicators that I think will tell us more about our future than any other. One is an economic trend and that's grain prices. I think cheap grain is history -- the only question is how costly will it be.

The second indicator is the number of hungry people in the world. During the closing decades of the last century, the number of hungry people in the world was declining. At the turn of the century it was down around 825 million. It is now up around a billion and climbing -- with nothing in sight to arrest that climb. That's the social indicator to watch.

And the third is a political indicator and that's the number of failing states in the world. As hunger spreads, as food prices rise, as political unrest spreads in response to governments' inability to provide food security, I think we're going to see an increase in the number of failing states in the world. I mean, that number has been increasing slowly for some years now. And it raises a disturbing question: How many failing states before our global economy begins to unravel?

Jared Wade is a freelance writer and a former editor of Risk Management.