Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Lester Brown's book, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity examines the underlying causes of what is likely the first link in our modern civilization to show that we have pushed beyond the boundaries of the natural systems that support us. As a result, food supplies are tightening and this is moving us, as Lester says, into a new food era, one in which it is every country for itself. Welcome to the new geopolitics of food scarcity.
This is evidenced most clearly in some of the more affluent grain-importing countries—led by Saudi Arabia, China, India, and South Korea—buying or leasing land long term in other countries on which to grow food for themselves. Most of these land acquisitions are in African countries where millions of people are being sustained with food aid from the U.N. World Food Programme.
As of mid-2012, hundreds of land acquisition deals had been negotiated or were under negotiation, some of them exceeding a million acres. A World Bank analysis of these “land grabs” reported that at least 140 million acres were involved—an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States. This onslaught of land acquisitions has become a land rush as governments, agribusiness firms, and private investors seek control of land wherever they can find it.
There was a time when if we got into trouble on the food front, ministries of agriculture would offer farmers more financial incentives, like higher price supports, and things would soon return to normal. But responding to the tightening of food supplies today is a far more complex undertaking. It involves the ministries of energy, water resources, and health and family planning, among others. Because of the looming specter of climate change that is threatening to disrupt agriculture, we may find that energy policies will have an even greater effect on future food security than agricultural policies do. In short, avoiding a breakdown in the food system requires the mobilization of our entire society.
Is History Repeating Itself?
Food shortages undermined earlier civilizations. The Sumerians and Mayans are just two of the many early civilizations that declined apparently because they moved onto an agricultural path that was environmentally unsustainable. For the Sumerians, rising salt levels in the soil as a result of a defect in their otherwise well-engineered irrigation system eventually brought down their food system and thus their civilization. For the Mayans, soil erosion was one of the keys to their downfall. We, too, are on such a path. While the Sumerians suffered from rising salt levels in the soil, our modern-day agriculture is suffering from rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. And like the Mayans, our twenty-first century civilization is mismanaging land and generating record losses of soil from erosion.
While the decline of early civilizations can be traced to one or possibly two environmental trends such as deforestation and soil erosion that undermined their food supply, we are now dealing with several.
Can We Prevent a Food Breakdown?The short answer is “Yes.” We have the resources to address these seemingly insurmountable issues.
On the demand side of the food equation, there are four pressing needs—to stabilize world population, eradicate poverty, reduce excessive meat consumption, and reverse biofuels policies that encourage the use of grain to produce fuel for cars. We need to press forward on all four fronts at the same time.
On the supply side of the food equation, we face several challenges, including stabilizing climate, raising water productivity, and conserving soil. Stabilizing climate is not easy. It will take a huge cut in carbon emissions, some 80 percent within a decade, to give us a chance of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. This means a wholesale restructuring of the world energy economy.
The world is in serious trouble on the food front. But there is little evidence that political leaders have yet grasped the magnitude of what is happening. The gains in reducing hunger in recent decades have been reversed. Feeding the world’s hungry now depends on new population, energy, and water policies. Unless we move quickly to adopt new policies, the goal of eradicating hunger will remain just that.
Get your copy of Full Planet, Empty Plates today. You can order through our secure online shopping cart. Or call us between normal business hours at (202) 496-9290 x 13. We are offering the book at a discount, with even bigger discounts with orders of 2 or more.
And if you want to see more, check out Chapter 1, Food: The Weak Link, which is available for free on our website.
Reah Janise Kauffman
Thursday, September 13, 2012
A new book is on its way to bookstores in your area. And we’ve already unloaded and unpacked our shipment! And we’re mailing out advance copies.
Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester Brown is scheduled for release on October 1. And you can order copies today at Earth Policy Institute—and even get your copy before it is in bookstores!
Already being translated into ten other languages, Full Planet addresses the major issues of today centered around the new geopolitics of food scarcity.
For decades now, climate scientists have been telling us that global warming would affect all of us. They warned of more extreme weather events. Droughts would spread. There would be more intense heat waves, more wildfires. And the combination of drought and heat could shrink harvests. Well, we are experiencing all of these right now.
World agriculture is now facing challenges unlike any before. Producing enough grain to make it to the next harvest has tested farmers ever since agriculture began, but the challenge is deepening as new trends—falling water tables, plateauing grain yields, and rising temperatures—make it difficult to expand production fast enough.
Along with this is the growing demand for grain as 80 million more people are added each year, as people in emerging economies move up the food chain, and as grain is funneled away to produce fuel for cars.
World food prices have more than doubled over the last decade. Those who live in the United States, where only 9 percent of income goes for food, are largely insulated from these price shifts. But how do those who live on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder cope? They were already spending 50–70 percent of their income on food. Many were down to one meal a day before the price rises. Now millions of families in countries like India, Nigeria, and Peru routinely schedule one or more days each week when they will not eat at all.
What happens with the next price surge? As food prices rise, we are likely to see more food unrest, such as when high food prices helped fuel the Arab Spring in 2011. This will lead to political instability and possibly a breakdown of political systems. Some governments may fall.
The world is now living from one year to the next, hoping always to produce enough to cover the growth in demand. Farmers everywhere are making an all-out effort to keep pace with the accelerated growth in demand, but they are having difficulty doing so.
Tonight there will be 219,000 people at the dinner table who were not there last night, many of them with empty plates. --Lester R. Brown
Order your copy today through the Institute’s secure online shopping cart. Or you can call us during business hours at (202) 496-9290 x 13.
We’re offering the book at a reduced rate of $15 and even greater reductions if you order more than one copy.
Interested but not sure? ... Check out Chapter 1, "Food: The Weak Link," which is available for free on our website.
Reah Janise Kauffman
Thursday, September 06, 2012
September is a month of mixtures. There is the heady energy of going back to school, which I always enjoyed. It is also the dot on the end of summer and vacations as so many of us head back to work.
It is also the month when Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published. Silent Spring (1962) was a pivotal book that awakened the world to the dangers of unregulated chemical pesticides, how they contaminated the environment and threatened not just the survival of wildlife but also of humankind. Carson would not have classified herself as an activist or pioneer, yet her book launched the environmental movement.
In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring is a new biography of Rachel Carson--On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson by William Souder. We’ve just received a copy here at the Institute and I can’t wait to dig into it.
During this time, we should reflect on the momentous and hard-won gains we have enjoyed because Rachel Carson stood by her data, despite withering attacks by the chemical companies—and what we stand to lose should environmental regulations be rolled back.
In gratitude to a true heroine,
Reah Janise Kauffman
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