EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 9. Feeding Eight Billion People Well: Action on Many Fronts

In this new food era, ensuring future food security depends on elevating responsibility for it from the minister of agriculture’s office to that of the head of state. The minister of agriculture, no matter how competent, can no longer be expected to secure food supplies. Policies in the ministry of energy may affect food security more than those in the ministry of agriculture do. Efforts by the minister of health and family planning to accelerate the shift to smaller families may have a greater effect on food security than efforts in the ministry of agriculture to raise crop yields.

If ministries of energy cannot quickly cut carbon emissions, as outlined earlier, the world will face crop-shrinking heat waves that can massively and unpredictably reduce harvests. A hotter world will mean melting ice sheets, rising sea level, and the inundation of the highly productive rice-growing river deltas of Asia. Saving the mountain glaciers whose ice melt irrigates much of the world’s cropland is the responsibility of the ministry of energy, not the ministry of agriculture.

If the world’s ministers of energy cannot collectively formulate policies to cut carbon emissions quickly, the loss of glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau will shrink wheat and rice harvests in both India and China. If ministries of water resources cannot quickly raise water productivity and arrest the depletion of aquifers, grain harvests will shrink not only in smaller countries like Saudi Arabia and Yemen but also in larger countries, such as India and China. If we continue with business as usual, these two countries, the world’s most populous, will face water shortages driven by both aquifer depletion and melting glaciers.

If the ministries of forestry and agriculture cannot work together to restore tree cover and reduce floods and soil erosion, then we face a situation where grain harvests will shrink not only in smaller countries like Haiti and Mongolia, but also in larger countries, such as Russia and Argentina—both wheat exporters.

And where water is a more serious constraint on expanding food output than land, it will be up to ministries of water resources to do everything possible to raise the efficiency of water use. With water, as with energy, the principal opportunities now are in increasing efficiency on the demand side, not in expanding the supply side.

In a world where cropland is scarce and becoming more so, decisions made in ministries of transportation on whether to develop land-consuming, auto-centered transport systems or more-diversified systems, including light rail, buses, and bicycles that are much less land-intensive, will directly affect world food security.

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, this depends on stabilizing population.

And finally, if ministries of finance cannot reallocate resources in a way that recognizes the new threats to security posed by agriculture’s deteriorating natural support systems, continuing population growth, human-driven climate change, and spreading water shortages, then food shortages could indeed bring down civilization.

Given that a handful of the more affluent grain-importing countries are reportedly investing some $20–30 billion in land acquisition, there is no shortage of capital to invest in agricultural development. Why not invest it across the board in helping low-income countries develop their unrealized potential for expanding food production, enabling them to export more grain? 81

One way to quickly reverse this deteriorating political situation is for the United States to restrict the use of grain to produce fuel for cars. Given the turmoil in world grain markets over the last three years, it is time for the U.S. government to abolish the subsidies and mandates that are driving the conversion of grain into fuel. That would help stabilize grain prices and set the stage for relaxing the political tensions that have emerged within importing countries.

And finally, we have a role to play as individuals. Whether we bike, bus, or drive to work will affect carbon emissions, climate change, and food security. The size of the car we drive to the supermarket and its effect on climate may indirectly 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.

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81. Money going to land acquisitions from Joachim von Braun, IFPRI, cited in Joe DeCapua, “Food Crisis Triggers Land Grab in Developing Countries,” Voice of America News, 29 April 2009.

Copyright © 2009 Earth Policy Institute