"Oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, but for the first time since the Industrial Revolution began we are investing in energy sources that can last forever." –Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.
Chapter 9. Feeding Eight Billion People Well: Introduction
As we prepare to feed a world population of 8 billion within the next two decades, we are entering a new food era. Early signs of this are the record-high grain prices of the last few years, the restriction on grain exports by exporting countries, and the acquisition of vast tracts of land abroad by grain-importing countries. And because some of the countries where land is being acquired do not have enough land to adequately feed their own people, the stage is being set for future conflicts between the so-called land grabbers and hungry local people.
The leaders in this land acquisition movement—Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and China—are all facing growing food insecurity. Saudi Arabia’s wheat harvest is shrinking as it loses irrigation water to aquifer depletion. South Korea, heavily dependent on corn imports to sustain its livestock and poultry production, sees its principal supplier—the United States—diverting more corn to fuel production for cars than to exports. China is losing irrigation water as its aquifers are depleted and its mountain glaciers disappear. 1
The growing competition for land across national boundaries is indirectly competition for water. In effect, land acquisitions are also water acquisitions. As Sudan sells or leases land to other countries, for example, the water to irrigate this land will likely come from the Nile, leaving less for Egypt.
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.
In the world food economy, as in the energy economy, achieving an acceptable balance between supply and demand now includes reducing demand as well as expanding supply. It means accelerating the shift to smaller families to reduce future population size. For those in affluent countries, it means moving down the food chain. And for oil-insecure countries, it means finding substitutes for oil other than fuel from food crops.
As noted early on, securing future food supplies now goes far beyond agriculture. In our crowded, warming world, policies dealing with energy, population, water, climate, and transport all directly affect food security. That said, there are many things that can be done in agriculture to raise land and water productivity.
1. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Production, Supply and Distribution (PS&D), electronic database, at www.fas.usda.gov/psdonline, updated 12 May 2009; USDA, Feedgrains Database, electronic database at www.ers.usda.gov/Data/feedgrains, updated 19 May 2009.
Copyright © 2009 Earth Policy Institute