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
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