Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Lester Brown's book, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity examines the underlying causes of what is likely the first link in our modern civilization to show that we have pushed beyond the boundaries of the natural systems that support us. As a result, food supplies are tightening and this is moving us, as Lester says, into a new food era, one in which it is every country for itself. Welcome to the new geopolitics of food scarcity.
This is evidenced most clearly in some of the more affluent grain-importing countries—led by Saudi Arabia, China, India, and South Korea—buying or leasing land long term in other countries on which to grow food for themselves. Most of these land acquisitions are in African countries where millions of people are being sustained with food aid from the U.N. World Food Programme.
As of mid-2012, hundreds of land acquisition deals had been negotiated or were under negotiation, some of them exceeding a million acres. A World Bank analysis of these “land grabs” reported that at least 140 million acres were involved—an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States. This onslaught of land acquisitions has become a land rush as governments, agribusiness firms, and private investors seek control of land wherever they can find it.
There was a time when if we got into trouble on the food front, ministries of agriculture would offer farmers more financial incentives, like higher price supports, and things would soon return to normal. But responding to the tightening of food supplies today is a far more complex undertaking. It involves the ministries of energy, water resources, and health and family planning, among others. Because of the looming specter of climate change that is threatening to disrupt agriculture, we may find that energy policies will have an even greater effect on future food security than agricultural policies do. In short, avoiding a breakdown in the food system requires the mobilization of our entire society.
Is History Repeating Itself?
Food shortages undermined earlier civilizations. The Sumerians and Mayans are just two of the many early civilizations that declined apparently because they moved onto an agricultural path that was environmentally unsustainable. For the Sumerians, rising salt levels in the soil as a result of a defect in their otherwise well-engineered irrigation system eventually brought down their food system and thus their civilization. For the Mayans, soil erosion was one of the keys to their downfall. We, too, are on such a path. While the Sumerians suffered from rising salt levels in the soil, our modern-day agriculture is suffering from rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. And like the Mayans, our twenty-first century civilization is mismanaging land and generating record losses of soil from erosion.
While the decline of early civilizations can be traced to one or possibly two environmental trends such as deforestation and soil erosion that undermined their food supply, we are now dealing with several.
Can We Prevent a Food Breakdown?The short answer is “Yes.” We have the resources to address these seemingly insurmountable issues.
On the demand side of the food equation, there are four pressing needs—to stabilize world population, eradicate poverty, reduce excessive meat consumption, and reverse biofuels policies that encourage the use of grain to produce fuel for cars. We need to press forward on all four fronts at the same time.
On the supply side of the food equation, we face several challenges, including stabilizing climate, raising water productivity, and conserving soil. Stabilizing climate is not easy. It will take a huge cut in carbon emissions, some 80 percent within a decade, to give us a chance of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. This means a wholesale restructuring of the world energy economy.
The world is in serious trouble on the food front. But there is little evidence that political leaders have yet grasped the magnitude of what is happening. The gains in reducing hunger in recent decades have been reversed. Feeding the world’s hungry now depends on new population, energy, and water policies. Unless we move quickly to adopt new policies, the goal of eradicating hunger will remain just that.
Get your copy of Full Planet, Empty Plates today. You can order through our secure online shopping cart. Or call us between normal business hours at (202) 496-9290 x 13. We are offering the book at a discount, with even bigger discounts with orders of 2 or more.
And if you want to see more, check out Chapter 1, Food: The Weak Link, which is available for free on our website.
Reah Janise Kauffman
Thursday, September 13, 2012
A new book is on its way to bookstores in your area. And we’ve already unloaded and unpacked our shipment! And we’re mailing out advance copies.
Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester Brown is scheduled for release on October 1. And you can order copies today at Earth Policy Institute—and even get your copy before it is in bookstores!
Already being translated into ten other languages, Full Planet addresses the major issues of today centered around the new geopolitics of food scarcity.
For decades now, climate scientists have been telling us that global warming would affect all of us. They warned of more extreme weather events. Droughts would spread. There would be more intense heat waves, more wildfires. And the combination of drought and heat could shrink harvests. Well, we are experiencing all of these right now.
World agriculture is now facing challenges unlike any before. Producing enough grain to make it to the next harvest has tested farmers ever since agriculture began, but the challenge is deepening as new trends—falling water tables, plateauing grain yields, and rising temperatures—make it difficult to expand production fast enough.
Along with this is the growing demand for grain as 80 million more people are added each year, as people in emerging economies move up the food chain, and as grain is funneled away to produce fuel for cars.
World food prices have more than doubled over the last decade. Those who live in the United States, where only 9 percent of income goes for food, are largely insulated from these price shifts. But how do those who live on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder cope? They were already spending 50–70 percent of their income on food. Many were down to one meal a day before the price rises. Now millions of families in countries like India, Nigeria, and Peru routinely schedule one or more days each week when they will not eat at all.
What happens with the next price surge? As food prices rise, we are likely to see more food unrest, such as when high food prices helped fuel the Arab Spring in 2011. This will lead to political instability and possibly a breakdown of political systems. Some governments may fall.
The world is now living from one year to the next, hoping always to produce enough to cover the growth in demand. Farmers everywhere are making an all-out effort to keep pace with the accelerated growth in demand, but they are having difficulty doing so.
Tonight there will be 219,000 people at the dinner table who were not there last night, many of them with empty plates. --Lester R. Brown
Order your copy today through the Institute’s secure online shopping cart. Or you can call us during business hours at (202) 496-9290 x 13.
We’re offering the book at a reduced rate of $15 and even greater reductions if you order more than one copy.
Interested but not sure? ... Check out Chapter 1, "Food: The Weak Link," which is available for free on our website.
Reah Janise Kauffman
Thursday, September 06, 2012
September is a month of mixtures. There is the heady energy of going back to school, which I always enjoyed. It is also the dot on the end of summer and vacations as so many of us head back to work.
It is also the month when Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published. Silent Spring (1962) was a pivotal book that awakened the world to the dangers of unregulated chemical pesticides, how they contaminated the environment and threatened not just the survival of wildlife but also of humankind. Carson would not have classified herself as an activist or pioneer, yet her book launched the environmental movement.
In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring is a new biography of Rachel Carson--On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson by William Souder. We’ve just received a copy here at the Institute and I can’t wait to dig into it.
During this time, we should reflect on the momentous and hard-won gains we have enjoyed because Rachel Carson stood by her data, despite withering attacks by the chemical companies—and what we stand to lose should environmental regulations be rolled back.
In gratitude to a true heroine,
Reah Janise Kauffman
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Every August, scientists gather in Stockholm to participate in World Water Week and discuss the various issues related to water.
Water is as necessary to life as breath. This year in the United States, the lack of rain has resulted in drought conditions throughout the Corn Belt that, combined with excessive heat, will drastically reduce the U.S. corn harvest. According to Lester Brown, the drop could be roughly 100 million tons or 30 percent of the expected harvest.
In some parts of the Midwest, homeowners are turning on their taps and getting nothing but air as the water tables have so precipitously dropped. More intense droughts and heat waves are likely as the Earth’s temperature rises.
With regard to agricultural water use, Lester Brown has long been talking about the need for a major push to raise the level of water productivity. Two decades ago, he said that a shortage of water was the most underreported threat to civilization.
Here is some of what he writes on the subject (from Chapter 2 of World on the Edge)
The global water deficit is a product of the tripling of water demand over the last half-century coupled with the worldwide spread of powerful diesel and electrically driven pumps. Only since the advent of these pumps have farmers had the pumping capacity to pull water out of aquifers faster than it is replaced by precipitation.
As the world demand for food has soared, millions of farmers have drilled irrigation wells to expand their harvests. In the absence of government controls, far too many wells have been drilled. As a result, water tables are falling and wells are going dry in some 20 countries, including China, India, and the United States—the three countries that together produce half the world’s grain.
The overpumping of aquifers for irrigation temporarily inflates food production, creating a food production bubble, one that bursts when the aquifer is depleted. Since 40 percent of the world grain harvest comes from irrigated land, the potential shrinkage of the supply of irrigation water is of great concern. Among the big three grain producers, roughly a fifth of the U.S. grain harvest comes from irrigated land. For India, the figure is three fifths and for China, roughly four fifths. …
There are two rather scary dimensions of the emerging worldwide shortage of irrigation water. One is that water tables are falling in many countries at the same time. The other is that once rising water demand climbs above the recharge rate of an aquifer, the excess of demand over sustainable yield widens with each passing year. This means that the drop in the water table as a result of overpumping is also greater each year. Since growth in the demand for water is typically exponential, largely a function of population growth, the decline of the aquifer is also exponential. What starts as a barely noticeable annual drop in the water table can become a rapid fall.
Lester believes we may have already reached “peak water,” a concept similar to peak oil. To punctuate his words, earlier this month, a report was released showing that the world’s groundwater is being depleted faster than it can be replenished. See also.
You can find more information about what the Institute has to say on this subject in Lester’s forthcoming book, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, which you can pre-order today.
Other articles of interest.
- When the Nile Runs Dry
- Melting Mountain Glaciers Will Shrink Grain Harvests in China and India
- Disappearing Lakes, Shrinking Seas
- World Creating Food Bubble Economy on the Unsustainable Use of Water
- Water Deficits Growing in Many Countries: Water Shortages May Cause Food Shortages
Reah Janise Kauffman
Thursday, July 26, 2012
We’ve had our own Olympic training happening here at the Institute over the past seven months. We’ve been doing the program vault, the training stretch, the program toss, the program install, the question put, the data marathon, etc.
This past week has been the relay run as we’ve carried the torch from one programmer to another until the EPI team carried it across the finish line.
And the winners are EPI’s new mobile website and a sparkling new shopping cart! ... Take them out for a spin!
Medals go to the teams at Provoc, Sentrien, and our own intrepid crew of Millicent Johnson, Julianne Simpson, and Kristina Taylor (who passed the torch to Julianne early this year).
This victory comes at an especially exciting time as we are now accepting pre-orders for Lester Brown’s new book, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity—a huge EPI team effort.
Now on to the next challenge!
Reah Janise Kauffman
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
FISH TANK: A Fable For Our Times (125 pages) by Scott Bischke is a creative and entertaining story for all ages. It is an innovative take on a very real and serious problem, climate change. The book takes place in Professor Brown’s aquarium where an assorted group of sea creatures are left for a year while he is on sabbatical and the person responsible for caring for them shirks his duty. Faced with finite resources and looming scarcity, the creatures must make tough decisions for their survival.
Fish Tank neatly symbolizes current human attitudes on climate change and global degradation, including greed vs. altruism. There are the scientists who try to educate the others on what will happen if they continue with business as usual, the selfish taking more than their share, and the skeptical who confuse the truth. The story illustrates the importance of getting involved, becoming a part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem. Whether you are interested in environment awareness or not, Fish Tank is a quick and original read that everyone can enjoy.
THE END OF GROWTH: Adapting to our New Economic Reality is by Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute. Economists insist that recovery is at hand, yet unemployment remains high, real estate values continue to sink, and governments stagger under record deficits. In The End of Growth, Heinberg says that humanity has reached a fundamental turning point in its economic history: the expansionary trajectory of industrial civilization is colliding with non-negotiable natural limits.
Heinberg goes to the heart of the ongoing financial crisis, explaining how and why it occurred, and what we must do to avert the worst potential outcomes. Written in an engaging, highly readable style, The End of Growth describes what policy makers, communities, and families can do to build a new economy that operates within Earth's budget of energy and resources. We can thrive during the transition if we set goals that promote human and environmental well-being, rather than continuing to pursue the now-unattainable prize of ever-expanding GDP.
Since its publication in August 2011, economic conditions around the world have reinforced the ideas presented in The End of Growth. The e-version of Heinberg’s best-selling novel was updated in June with more than twenty additional pages that take a look at what is happening right now in Europe, China, the United States, and elsewhere.
Tuesday, July 03, 2012
We are always thrilled to hear how our work at Earth Policy Institute is making a difference in communities around the world.
A few weeks ago we were pleased to receive an email form Gary Curtis, President of the Guemes Island Environmental Trust (GIET) in Anacortes Washington. He told us that after watching the documentary Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization on PBS a group of people there brainstormed about how to get younger folks in their community to watch it too.
They came up with the idea of an essay contest for high school students. The topic was, “What is the biggest threat to humans from climate change and how will you engage your friends to turn it around?” Contestants were required to respond to the documentary. First prize was $1,500, second prize $1,000 and third prize $500. Local schools and other organizations were contacted to generate interest.
Below are excerpts from the top two essays, including something about each author.
“I know from my studies that the effects of climate change, while not entirely certain, are dire. More importantly, I know that it’s up to humans now to band together and do everything we can to protect the environment from further changes. While it won’t be easy, I believe that humans are capable of things beyond that which is expected.”
-- Kyle Mitchell is a senior at Mount Vernon High School and an active member in the school's choirs and cross country team. He hopes to continue a life full of learning, and is planning to major in Environmental Science with a possible minor in music at Pacific Lutheran University.
“Lester Brown, the environmental advocate great on the film, is doing all that he can to advocate to high-up officials the need to change. But he can't reach everyone. It is up to everyday people, everyday leaders in counties, cities, and homes to truly make the difference needed. The responsibility to change doesn't lie in the government. It lies with each and every person on this planet Earth.”
--Michael Giles lives in Mount Vernon with his parents, younger brother, and the family dogs. A freshman at Mount Vernon High School, he is involved in the orchestra and choir.
Awards were presented at the Anacortes Library on May 25, 2012, and the winning essays were sent to local newspapers and appropriate state and federal government officials.
As Lester says, “Saving civilization is not a spectator sport.” Our thanks to the Anacortes community, which has become a part of the solution.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
A group of 22 scientists recently published their findings in Nature (486 June 07) revealing that we are approaching a “state shift” in Earth’s biosphere. That’s a gentle way of saying that we’re headed for trouble. We are pressing against, likely have even pressed past, the limits of what our planet can sustain. (Watch a video clip in this article by David Robert of Grist in which the lead author Anthony Barnosky of the University of California at Berkeley summarizes the study´s results.)
This month from June 20-22, the United Nations is holding the Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It has been dubbed Rio+20 because it is taking place 20 years after the first Earth Summit was held there in 1992. I remember that Summit 20 years ago and all of the optimism we had for what would come out of it—and the disappointment afterwards.
We and the planet need Rio+20 to result in positive, unified goals for heading us onto a sustainable path. But if this does not happen, we can still work for positive, concrete actions in order to avoid the environmental tipping point that Barnosky and his colleagues, and so many others, have warned us about.
A global online mobilization took place on Twitter yesterday to grab the attention of the world leaders gathered in Rio who still remain divided over proposals to phase out the provision of public funds to carbon dioxide polluters. The campaign, supported by Stephen Fry, Robert Redford, actor Mark Ruffalo, politicians and environmentalists, took the hash tag #endfossilfuelsubsidies up to number one in the ranking of trending topics in the United States and number two globally. Of this event, Bill McKibben of 350.org wrote today: "But most importantly, the message was spread by all of you -- and now it's too big to ignore. The simple call to #EndFossilFuelSubsidies is cutting through the noise at the Rio Earth Summit in Brazil. Already, we're getting reports that the issue now sits squarely at the center of the world's agenda. We don't yet know how it's all going to turn out, but it's safe to say that the TwitterStorm made a positive outcome in Rio a bit more likely."
At Earth Policy Institute, we have developed Plan B as a way to shift the world onto a more sustainable footing. It requires stabilizing population, reducing carbon emissions, stabilizing population, and restoring the economy’s soils, aquifers, forests, and other natural support systems. These are ambitious goals, but they can be done using the technologies currently available.
For instance, despite a lack of unity, some countries have taken positive steps toward this goal. Scotland has committed to getting 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Germany, which gets much less sunlight than the United States, recently covered nearly half of its midday energy needs by producing 22 gigawatts of electricity from solar power, a world record in solar power generation. In addition, four states in Germany routinely get 40 to 60 percent of their electricity from wind. For Denmark, it is 25 percent. Two U.S. states, Iowa and South Dakota, now get 20 percent of their electricity from wind farms.
In the United States, a powerful climate movement has emerged opposing the construction of new coal-fired power plants.
And there are many other steps being taken. But it does require getting involved. As we say here at the Institute, pick an issue and get to work on it. Perhaps it is getting a world-class recycling center operating in your community. Or it might be writing and talking to political leaders about the need for a carbon tax. Our People in Action page gives some examples of what people have done.
Yours for positive action,
Reah Janise Kauffman
Wednesday, June 06, 2012
Saturday, Lester and I attended the funeral for Blondeen and John Gravely. It was an especially sad time for Lester as he and Blondeen had begun working together when he was at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the 1960s. Fresh from graduating valedictorian of her high school, Blondeen moved to Washington and began doing clerical work for the USDA.When Lester was brought into Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman’s staff, he needed administrative support and Blondeen was transferred to him. They hit it off from the start. Her quick mind and cheerful, upbeat nature, along with her secretarial skills made her a perfect assistant for Lester. She had a flair for clothing, sewing all of her clothes, which often evoked admiration from others.
When Lester moved to head the International Development Agency, he brought Blondeen along to support the Deputy Administrator, Lyle Schertz. Lester and Blondeen were the youngest people in the Agency!
A year after helping James Grant found the Overseas Development Council (ODC) in 1969, Lester convinced Blondeen to join them.
Blondeen’s typing skills (non-correcting typewriters!!) were legendary. She typed so fast and accurately that people would gather around her desk just to watch her! And with the books Lester produced while at the ODC, her fingers were kept very busy. The two were a terrific team.
So it was natural for him to bring Blondeen along when he founded Worldwatch Institute in 1974. Along with Lester and Erik Eckholm, Blondeen was one of the Institute’s three incorporators. While Lester was finishing up his commitments at the Overseas Development Council, Blondeen did all of the administrative work to get the new Institute up and running. She was a central figure in both the creation and evolution of the Institute, initially as administrative officer and assistant treasurer and, later, as vice president for administration and treasurer. That she simultaneously held two key offices in the Institute was itself a tribute to her capacities and to her contribution.
Blondeen loved to travel and in the early years of Worldwatch accompanied Lester on a few of his trips, especially to Ethiopia, where they took time to sightsee and hike in the mountains.
Although she took early retirement due to a disability in 1996, we kept in touch, regularly inviting her and her husband John to special events and celebrations. At our last lunch together, Blondeen and Lester talked about the two books he was working on, one of which is his autobiography. They laughed over many shared memories.
So it was a very sad day when we learned that John and Blondeen were in a horrific car accident. John died instantly and Blondeen followed shortly thereafter.
As Lester noted in his testimony for Blondeen on Saturday, she was an important part of his life for 32 years and will remain so.
Reah Janise Kauffman
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Our hearty congratulations to Research Associate J. Matthew Roney who just received his Master of Science degree from Johns Hopkins University in the field of environmental sciences and policy with a focus on Chesapeake Bay conservation and management.
Matt kept up a steady stream of evening (and sometimes Saturday) classes over the last few years while maintaining his more than full time work at Earth Policy writing Plan B Updates, Eco-Economy Indicators, and Data Highlights on topics such as Japan’s energy future, renewable energy, and nuclear power. He also answered questions by reporters, gave interviews, spoke with groups about EPI’s research, and gathered data for and gave feedback on Lester’s books, articles.
Be on the lookout; Matt is just getting started!
Reah Janise Kauffman