Wednesday, December 19, 2012
In this spot, we often talk about happenings at Earth Policy other than our research. But at this time of the year, we wanted to give you a sense of what our research team has produced in 2012.
Two major activities have kept the research team hopping this year. The first centered on research for Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, the book by Lester Brown that was released at a press teleconference on September 28, just two months after delivery to W.W. Norton & Company. Belying the book’s short page length (123 pages) is a mountain of data and resources supporting each fact, all of which have been posted on our website. The second major activity has been researching new Data Highlights, Plan B Updates, and Eco-Economy Indicators, along with Book Bytes, and two PowerPoint presentations summarizing Full Planet, Empty Plates.
The major theme of the book is that we are entering an era of food scarcity that is leading to intense competition for control of land and water resources—a new geopolitics of food. This new era is visible in dangerously low levels of grain stocks and the deepening of hunger, with some families resorting to scheduling foodless days each week. While some 3 billion increasingly affluent people are moving up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock and poultry products, climate change, water shortages, crop-shrinking heat waves, and the diversion of grain to fuel cars are making it more difficult for farmers to keep pace with demand.
The tightening grain situation has led many grain-importing countries to buy or lease large tracts of land in other countries to grow food for themselves, often in countries whose populations receive assistance from the U.N. World Food Programme. This onslaught of land acquisitions has now become a land rush as governments, agribusiness firms, and private investors seek control of land wherever they can find it. Many of the land deals are made in secret, and much of the time the land involved is already being farmed by villagers, who are summarily displaced. The potential for conflict is high.
Meanwhile, a second book has been taking shape: Lester’s autobiography, Breaking New Ground: A Personal History. Staff have been engaged in compiling Lester’s speaking engagements for the past 50 years, going through old files from his USDA, Overseas Development Council, and Worldwatch Institute days, and compiling a chronicle of his life through photographs. (We are looking at a late October/early November 2013 release, so stay tuned!)
Books notwithstanding, the research team has been mindful of global environmental trends. For instance, with the drought and heat toasting much of the country, the team closely monitored the corn crop. On July 19, EPI held a press teleconference where Lester stated that the USDA’s estimate of a corn harvest shortfall of 12 percent was likely to be closer to 25 percent. The Institute’s findings meshed with reports from farmers who were expecting exceptionally poor harvests. On Monday, June 23, the Guardian asked Lester to write an op-ed on the harvest, prices, and weather—and wanted it that evening for a Tuesday release on its environment page, which we provided.
The op-ed caught the attention of news organizations including NPR’s Talk of the Nation, the Leonard Lopate Show, Alternet, and Bloomberg television. Meanwhile, the Institute released the Guardian piece as a Plan B Update to its public and media lists. Food related issues were the major news draw to the Institute this year. In addition, an interview with Lester published in IFC’s magazine Handshake resulted in additional articles quoting Lester.
Janet Larsen’s Update “Meat Consumption in China Now Double That in the United States” also garnered global attention. Janet found that a quarter of all meat produced worldwide is now eaten in China. Since 1978, China’s meat consumption has risen from 8 million tons to 71 million tons. The piece was reposted on major blogs including Sustainablog, the Economist, and the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia. Robert Samuelson cited it in his May 13 Washington Post Op-Ed piece "The Boom on the Farm."
Janet also wrote “The Dust Bowl Revisited,” an Update to coincide with the November release of Ken Burn’s PBS dust bowl series. Shortly after Thom Hartmann had her on his television program, “The Big Picture,” to discuss it and the World Bank's warning of a 7 degree temperature rise by 2100.
The tsunami that wiped out a number of cities in Japan and created a meltdown in the Fukushima nuclear plant that resulted in all of the country’s nuclear reactors being shut down for a time, led Matt Roney to write an Update entitled “Fukushima Meltdown Hastens Decline of Nuclear Power.” Fukushima led some European countries to phase out their nuclear programs entirely, while other countries were proceeding cautiously with their nuclear program. As Matt noted, the world’s fleet of reactors is aging and new plants are suffering construction delays and cost increases, likely presaging a long-term decline in reliance on nuclear power.
During the sprint to complete Full Planet, Empty Plates, Mother Earth News, which often reprints EPI’s releases, asked for a piece on wind power, which was then sent to them within a day and a half. A few months later, the piece was transformed into a long article entitled “Exciting News About Renewable Energy” and published in the October/November issue. Retitling the piece “The Great Transition,” EPI released it as two Updates, which were reposted to major environmental blogs and websites and retweeted over 50 times, most notably by Eco Watch and Earth Business Network.
Subjects covered by Data Highlights included meat consumption peaking in the United States, the rise in Arab grain imports, the growth in hydropower, the free fall in Arctic sea ice, the shortfall in contraceptive coverage, and how governments spend $1.4 billion per day in subsidies that destabilize the climate. And five Eco-Economy Indicators were released on grain, temperature, wind, forestry, and the economy.
In addition to posting the immense database supporting the analysis in Full Planet, Empty Plates, the research team developed two PowerPoint presentations relating to the book. The first was a comprehensive look at the book, while the second was a shorter version. Another presentation was developed to draw attention to some of the 150-plus datasets that accompany the book. Collectively the presentations have been viewed online more than 20,000 times. EPI’s PowerPoint presentations and data are some of the most downloaded items from the Institute’s website.
Reah Janise Kauffman
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
On November 12, 2012, Lester Brown gave the inaugural talk of a new environmental lecture series at the University of Maryland, the institution where he earned a Master’s degree in agricultural economics in 1959. He was introduced by Herman Daly, professor emeritus and former senior economist at the World Bank, widely known as the founding father of ecological economics.
Dr. Daly noted in his heartfelt introduction that he thought of Lester Brown as an older brother, someone to be followed (“not like on Twitter”) in the field of economics. In the late 1950s and early 1960s when academic economics were entrenched in a “sterile formalism,”he said that Lester stuck with “substance,” focusing on the importance of things that were real, like soil, water, and food.
Throughout his productive career Daly had the opportunity to visit ministries of the environment around the world, where, he recounted, he would almost always see some Worldwatch and Lester Brown books on the shelves, generally looking well-used. In true form for an economist, Daly couldn’t resist measuring Lester's efficiency, which he calculated as a ratio of valuable output over costly input. With the output evident in citations “all over the place,” 50 books, 25 honorary degrees, and a number of apprentices mentored, divided by monetary input (looking at Lester’s institutional budgets, it’s “almost like dividing by zero!”) He then compared Lester’s near infinite efficiency to that of the World Bank: a ratio of minor accomplishments to a massive budget, not a promising figure.
Daly concluded his remarks with a fantasy vision of a statue of Lester on the University of Maryland campus. To bookend the existing statue of alumnus Jim Henson conversing with Kermit the Frog, he envisioned the inscription reading “It’s not easy being green, especially for an economist.”
Thank you Dr. Daly, for such a thoughtful and kind introduction, and—most of all—for your tireless work in greening economics, institutions, and the world.
More than 200 people attended the standing-room only lecture. In his remarks, Lester spoke about his most recent book, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. He warned of the tightening margin between food production and fast-growing demand, noting that the major threats to security in the world today are not armed aggression or advanced military technologies, but climate change, population growth, food shortages, rising food prices, and spreading instability. He concluded by asking people to pick an issue that they felt strongly about—from the movement to close coal-fired power plants, to banning bottled water on college campuses—and get to work. “Saving civilization is not a spectator sport!”
Here’s hoping that more people take that message to heart.
Herman Daly’s article, “From a Failed Growth Economy to a Steady State Economy,” can be read in Solutions Journal.
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
One of the many things we love about Lester Brown’s Full Planet, Empty Plates is its readability. The book is only 160 pages with graphs and tables to provide visuals of the discussion. In his review, Jeff McIntire-Strasburg of Sustainablog wrote, “As with all of Brown’s books, Full Planet, Empty Plates is very well-documented: over 150 data sets accompany the book. Brown fully explains the extent of food challenges in various regions of the globe, and the potential impacts based on environmental and socioeconomic factors in these regions.”
As we said last week, we at Earth Policy Institute like to offer an array of options for our research to reach as wide an audience as possible. Here are a few quick facts to get you thinking about the global food crisis:
- There will be 219,000 people at the dinner table tonight who were not there last night—many of them with empty plates.
- As a result of chronic hunger, 48 percent of all children in India are undersized, underweight, and likely to have IQs that are on average 10-15 points lower than those of well-nourished children.
- Food prices are rising dramatically. The U.N. Food Price Index in June 2012 was twice the base level of 2002-04.
- More than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling as aquifers are being depleted.
- A startling 80 percent of oceanic fisheries are being fished at or beyond their sustainable yield.
- Between 2005 and 2011, the amount of grain used to produce fuel for cars in the United States climbed from 41 million to 127 million tons—nearly a third of the U.S. grain harvest.
- In 2011, China consumed 70 million tons of soybeans, 56 million of which had to be imported. Almost all went into livestock feed.
- Today, with incomes rising fast in emerging economies, there are at least 3 billion people moving up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock and poultry products.
- Data for India indicate that 175 million people are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. For China, there are 130 million in the same boat.
- In Ethiopia, a prime target for foreign land acquisitions yet also a major food aid recipient, an acre of land can be leased for less than $1 per year.
- The 464 land acquisitions identified by the World Bank in 2010 totaled some 140 million acres—more than is planted in corn and wheat combined in the United States.
- It’s not all bad news: 44 countries have reached population stability as a result of gradual fertility decline over the last several generations.
Even quicker is the video of Brown himself discussing the main issues raised in the book.
Monday, November 05, 2012
The written word is a wonderful way to communicate ideas, but to reach out as widely as possible, we at Earth Policy Institute like to offer an array of options for our research.
Take a look at this five-minute video where Lester Brown speaks on some of the major topics covered in Full Planet, Empty Plates.
We have also uploaded two Power Point presentations providing graphic and textual highlights from the book.
And we are working on short video clips on some of the specific issues raised in the book.
Reah Janise Kauffman
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Ken Burn’s new film The Dust Bowl, a two-part, four-hour documentary airs on PBS November 18 and 19, 8:00-10:00 p.m. ET (check local listings). The film chronicles this 1930s environmental catastrophe that destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains. It is based on Timothy Egan’s 2006 National Book Award winning The Worst Hard Times, a history of the Dust Bowl, and includes interviews with twenty-six survivors and seldom seen movie footage.
On an ironically hot 106-degree July afternoon, the staff at Earth Policy Institute attended a special preview screening of the film sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The screening was followed by a panel discussion featuring Lester Brown, Tim Egan, and Clay Pope, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts and a sixth generation Oklahoma farmer. The panel was moderated by Ann Yonkers, FRESHFARM Markets Co-Executive Director.
Since news of the extent and degree of the Midwestern American drought was just reaching mass media, the discussion was both lively and at times a bit frightening. The audience had many questions for the panelists.
Lester spoke of the food unrest that lay ahead, of overpumping aquifers, and of moving down the food chain, topics that are discussed in his new book Full Planet, Empty Plates. Tim spoke about the people he met while writing his book, the factors that led to the Dust Bowl, and how we are making similar mistakes with soil erosion and overplowing. Clay gave a firsthand account of the effects of the drought in his home state and discussed other challenges farmers are now facing in the wake of climate change.
Those of us fortunate to be at the screening are now looking forward to seeing the documentary in its entirety. Burns believes the film should be taken as a cautionary tale for more contemporary environmental issues. A preview is available at pbs.org/dustbowl.
For information on dust bowls forming in other countries, see Chapter 3 of World on the Edge: Eroding Soils and Expanding Deserts, and the Plan B Updates: Dust Bowl Threatening China’s Future and Deserts Advancing, Civilization Retreating.
Tuesday, October 09, 2012
After the arrival of Full Planet, Empty Plates on bookstore shelves last week, Earth Policy Institute hosted a party to celebrate its official release. We invited friends, family, reporters, and other environmental gurus to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the heart of Dupont Circle. Along with good food and drink, Lester gave a brief talk on the main points of the book and answered questions from the attendees. It was a wonderful gathering to commend Lester and the EPI team on another great accomplishment.
The party came after months of researching, fact checking, and editing and weeks of promotion that included a mail promo and teleconference. The researchers also developed two summary presentations to go along with the book, which have been viewed over 10,000 times thus far and are available for free downloading.
Friday was also the end of a busy week for Lester. First he was in New York City where he was interviewed on the Leonard Lopate show and later with Matt Miller on Rewind Bloomberg TV. Then he was off to Columbus, Ohio where he joined other environmental leaders for EcoSummit. He was the plenary speaker on Wednesday and a panelist for the Food Security and Climate Change Forum on Thursday. The week rounded out with the release of his interview on Yahoo Finance.
We are thrilled that people are so excited about the new book and are loving all the action on Twitter.
The Globalist tweeted: What we're reading: Lester Brown's "Full Planet, Empty Plates." Cogent and fact-based as ever. @earthpolicy
Journalist Dennis Dimick tweeted: "Full Planet, Empty Plates" by @EarthPolicy: I gave one to my @JMU college student @claudiaeleni http://www.earth-policy.org/books/fpep/fpep_presentation #foodsecurity #educate
Sean Ono Lennon tweeted: Land and Food will be 'Oil' of tomorrow. Read up! Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity By Lester Brown.
News of Lester’s latest book has also reached other important outlets like the Daily Beast and Mother Earth News. Permaculture Australia and EcoWatch have shared the summary presentations on their websites.
We think the release of the book couldn’t have come at a better time. With the extent of the Great Drought of 2012 still being reported on daily and the effects of climate change being felt more than ever before, Full Planet, Empty Plates is a quick, yet important read for the times.
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