"Attention has focused on oil insecurity, and rightly so, but it is not the same as food insecurity. An empty gas tank is one thing, an empty stomach another. And while there are substitutes for oil, there are none for food." –Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.
Chapter 6. Plan A: Business as Usual: Spreading Hunger, Growing Unrest
Hunger is concentrated in two regions of the world: the Indian subcontinent and Africa south of the Sahara. Up to a fourth of India's grain harvest may be based on the overpumping of aquifers. This overpumping, which has been instrumental in helping India develop a food bubble economy, virtually assures a future decline in food production.19
For the 700 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, the situation is also difficult. The production of grain, which supplies half of the calories humans consume directly and a substantial share of the remainder consumed indirectly as meat, milk, eggs, and farmed fish, is a useful indicator of diet adequacy. Annual grain production per person, which averaged 147 kilograms between 1961 and 1980, fell to 120 kilograms between 2000 and 2002, a drop of 18 percent. Africa's ribs are beginning to show. This unfolding food emergency does not exist in a vacuum. Desperate Africans are turning to bushmeat in an effort to survive, threatening various forms of wildlife—from herbivores to gorillas. Efforts to protect wildlife by setting up parks are breaking down as hungry Africans try to survive.20
Africa is not well endowed agriculturally. Its soils are typically thin, depleted of nutrients, low in organic matter, and highly erodible. Except for the Congo basin, nearly all the continent is arid or semiarid. Africa has not had a Green Revolution for the same reason that Australia has not had one: it does not have enough water to use much fertilizer. Now it is also facing the heavy loss to AIDS of able-bodied adults who work in the fields.
With business as usual, the prospect of eradicating world hunger is slim to nonexistent. Too many trends are currently headed in the wrong direction. Grain production per person for the world, which climbed from 250 kilograms in 1950 to the historical high of 344 kilograms in 1984, has been declining since then. In 2002 it fell to 290 kilograms, the lowest in 26 years.21
The recent loss of momentum in expanding the grain harvest has been cushioned by drawing down grain reserves. But as of 2003, reserves are at their lowest level in a generation, and they cannot be drawn down much further.22
With the prospect of water shortages driving more countries into the world grain market for imports, we may well wake up one morning and discover that there is no longer enough grain to go around—and not enough water to produce enough grain. Such a situation will lead to rapid, potentially dramatic, rises in world grain prices, making it difficult for many low-income, grain-importing countries to procure enough grain to feed their people. Avoiding such a prospect depends on a worldwide reordering of investment and research priorities.
19. Overpumping in India from Seckler, Molden, and Barker, op. cit. note 2.
20. USDA, Production, Supply, and Distribution, op. cit. note 3; Richard W. Carroll, "Bushmeat Consumption," statement for the Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans Committee on House Resources, 11 July 2002.
21. USDA, Production, Supply, and Distribution, op. cit. note 3.
Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute