EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures

Chapter 10. Redefining Security: Stabilizing the Resource Base

Future food security depends on stabilizing four key agricultural resources: cropland, water, rangeland, and the earth’s climate system. Stabilizing the farmland base means protecting it from both soil erosion and the conversion to nonfarm uses. In China, for example, where the grain harvested area fell from 90 million hectares in 1999 to 77 million hectares in 2004, arresting the shrinkage depends on halting the expansion of deserts and controlling the conversion of grainland to nonfarm uses. 22

Protecting water resources means stabilizing water tables. The overdrafting that lowers water tables also raises the energy used for pumping. For example, in some states in India half of all electricity is used for water pumping. Higher pumping costs ultimately mean higher food production costs. 23

Protecting rangeland is an integral part of the food security formula not only because damage to rangeland from overgrazing reduces the livestock carrying capacity, but also because the dust storms that follow devegetation of the land can disrupt economic activity hundreds of miles away. The drifting sand that follows the conversion of rangeland to desert can also invade farming areas, rendering cultivation impossible.

Most important, we need to stabilize the climate system. Agriculture as we know it has evolved over 11,000 years of rather remarkable climate stability. The negative effect of higher temperatures on grain yields underlines the importance of stabilizing climate as quickly as possible. 24

Stabilizing any one of these resources is demanding, but our generation faces the need to do all four at the same time. This is a demanding undertaking in terms of leadership time and energy and also in financial terms. As noted earlier, desert remediation in China alone will require estimated expenditures of some $28 billion. 25

It may seem obvious that if water tables start to fall and wells begin to go dry, alarm bells would ring and governments would launch an immediate effort to reduce pumping and bring demand into balance with supply by adopting water conservation measures. But not one of the scores of countries where water levels are falling has succeeded in stabilizing its water tables.

Protecting the world’s grainland is equally difficult. Advancing deserts are a formidable threat in countries such as Mexico, Nigeria, Algeria, Iran, Kazakhstan, India, and China. If governments continue to treat the symptoms of desertification and fail to address the root causes, such as continuing population growth and excessive livestock numbers, the deserts will continue to advance. 26

Shielding cropland from nonfarm demands can also be politically complex. The cropland-consuming trends that are an integral part of the modernization process, such as building roads, housing, and factories, are difficult to arrest, much less reverse. And yet the world as a whole cannot continue indefinitely to lose cropland without eventually facing serious trouble on the food front.

Just understanding the complex of issues we are facing on the food security front is difficult. Fashioning an effective response and then implementing it is even more so. This is, in a sense, an enormous educational challenge because it requires national political leaders to master these difficult issues. If they do not, there is little chance that we will arrest the accelerating deterioration in agriculture’s natural support systems and prevent the economic decline that eventually will follow.

 Previous Table of Contents Next

22. USDA, op. cit. note 1.

23. Yacov Tsur et al., Pricing Irrigation Water: Principles and Cases from Developing Countries, (Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 2004), p. 219.

24. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 102–03.

25. Qu Geping cited in “China Adopts Law to Control Desertification,” report from U.S. Embassy in Beijing, November 2001, at www.usembassy-china.org.cn/sandt/desertification_law.htm, viewed 23 September 2004;U.N. Environment Programme, cited in GEF-IFAD Partnership, Tackling Land Degradation and Desertification (Washington, DC: July 2002).

26. For more information on the consequences of desertification, see Chapter 5.


Copyright © 2004 Earth Policy Institute