“[Brown’s] ability to make a complicated subject accessible to the general reader is remarkable...” –Katherine Salant, Washington Post
Chapter 9. Feeding Eight Billion Well: Action on Many Fronts
At this writing in early October 2007, the food prospect does not look particularly promising. Grain prices in recent days have reached historic highs. Wheat has gone over $9 a bushel for the first time in history—more than double the figure a year earlier. International food aid flows are being slashed as rising grain prices collide with fixed budgets. 64
If we continue with business as usual, the number of hungry people will soar. More and more, those on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder are losing their tenuous grip and are beginning to fall off. Cheap food may now be history.
Historically, the responsibility for food security rested largely with the Ministry of Agriculture. During the last half of the last century, ensuring adequate supplies of grain in the world market at a time of surplus production capacity was a relatively simple matter. Whenever the world grain harvest fell short and prices started to rise, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would return to production the cropland that had been idled under commodity-supply management programs, thus boosting output and stabilizing prices. This era ended in 1996 when the United States discontinued its annual cropland set-aside program. 65
Now in our overpopulated, climate-changing, water-scarce world, food security is a matter for the entire society and for all government ministries. Since hunger is almost always the result of poverty, eradicating hunger depends on eradicating poverty. And where populations are outrunning their land and water resources, eradicating hunger also depends on stabilizing population. Our Plan B goal is to stabilize world population by 2040 at the 8-billion level. This will not be easy, but the alternative may be a halt in population growth because of rising mortality.
The new reality is that the Ministry of Energy may have a greater influence on future food security than the Ministry of Agriculture. The principal threat to food security today is climate change from the burning of fossil fuels. It is the Ministry of Energy’s responsibility to minimize crop-withering heat waves, to prevent the melting of the glaciers that feed Asia’s major rivers during the dry season, and to prevent the ice sheet melting that would inundate the river deltas and floodplains that produce much of the Asian rice harvest.
And where water is often a more serious constraint on expanding food production than land, it will be up to the Ministry of Water Resources to do everything possible to raise the efficiency of water use. With water, as with energy, the principal opportunities now are on the demand side in increasing water-use efficiency, not on expanding the supply.
In a world where cropland is scarce and becoming more so, decisions made in the Ministry of Transportation on whether to develop auto-centered systems or more-diversified transport systems that are less land-intensive, including light rail, buses, and bicycles, will directly affect world food security. Transportation policies that diversify transport systems and reduce fossil fuel use will also help stabilize climate.
Decisions made by governments on the production of crop-based automotive fuels are already affecting grain supplies and prices. Given the turmoil in world grain markets in late 2007, it is time for the U.S. government to place a moratorium on the licensing of any more grain-based ethanol distilleries.
And finally, we have a role to play as individuals. Whether we bike or drive to work will affect carbon emissions, climate change, and food security. The size of the car we drive to the supermarket may affect the size of the bill at the supermarket checkout counter. If we are living high on the food chain, we can move down, improving our health while helping to stabilize climate. Food security is something in which we all have a stake—and a responsibility.
64. Pearson and Rossingh, op. cit. note 3; Chicago Board of Trade, “Market Commentaries,” at www.cbot.com, various dates; IMF, International Financial Statistics (Washington, DC: 2007); Missy Ryan, “Commodity Boom Eats Into Aid for World’s Hungry,” Reuters, 5 September 2007.
65. USDA, ERS, Natural Resources and Environment Division, Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 1996–1997, Agricultural Handbook No. 712 (Washington, DC: 1997).
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