Wednesday, December 19, 2012
In this spot, we often talk about happenings at Earth Policy other than our research. But at this time of the year, we wanted to give you a sense of what our research team has produced in 2012.
Two major activities have kept the research team hopping this year. The first centered on research for Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, the book by Lester Brown that was released at a press teleconference on September 28, just two months after delivery to W.W. Norton & Company. Belying the book’s short page length (123 pages) is a mountain of data and resources supporting each fact, all of which have been posted on our website. The second major activity has been researching new Data Highlights, Plan B Updates, and Eco-Economy Indicators, along with Book Bytes, and two PowerPoint presentations summarizing Full Planet, Empty Plates.
The major theme of the book is that we are entering an era of food scarcity that is leading to intense competition for control of land and water resources—a new geopolitics of food. This new era is visible in dangerously low levels of grain stocks and the deepening of hunger, with some families resorting to scheduling foodless days each week. While some 3 billion increasingly affluent people are moving up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock and poultry products, climate change, water shortages, crop-shrinking heat waves, and the diversion of grain to fuel cars are making it more difficult for farmers to keep pace with demand.
The tightening grain situation has led many grain-importing countries to buy or lease large tracts of land in other countries to grow food for themselves, often in countries whose populations receive assistance from the U.N. World Food Programme. This onslaught of land acquisitions has now become a land rush as governments, agribusiness firms, and private investors seek control of land wherever they can find it. Many of the land deals are made in secret, and much of the time the land involved is already being farmed by villagers, who are summarily displaced. The potential for conflict is high.
Meanwhile, a second book has been taking shape: Lester’s autobiography, Breaking New Ground: A Personal History. Staff have been engaged in compiling Lester’s speaking engagements for the past 50 years, going through old files from his USDA, Overseas Development Council, and Worldwatch Institute days, and compiling a chronicle of his life through photographs. (We are looking at a late October/early November 2013 release, so stay tuned!)
Books notwithstanding, the research team has been mindful of global environmental trends. For instance, with the drought and heat toasting much of the country, the team closely monitored the corn crop. On July 19, EPI held a press teleconference where Lester stated that the USDA’s estimate of a corn harvest shortfall of 12 percent was likely to be closer to 25 percent. The Institute’s findings meshed with reports from farmers who were expecting exceptionally poor harvests. On Monday, June 23, the Guardian asked Lester to write an op-ed on the harvest, prices, and weather—and wanted it that evening for a Tuesday release on its environment page, which we provided.
The op-ed caught the attention of news organizations including NPR’s Talk of the Nation, the Leonard Lopate Show, Alternet, and Bloomberg television. Meanwhile, the Institute released the Guardian piece as a Plan B Update to its public and media lists. Food related issues were the major news draw to the Institute this year. In addition, an interview with Lester published in IFC’s magazine Handshake resulted in additional articles quoting Lester.
Janet Larsen’s Update “Meat Consumption in China Now Double That in the United States” also garnered global attention. Janet found that a quarter of all meat produced worldwide is now eaten in China. Since 1978, China’s meat consumption has risen from 8 million tons to 71 million tons. The piece was reposted on major blogs including Sustainablog, the Economist, and the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia. Robert Samuelson cited it in his May 13 Washington Post Op-Ed piece "The Boom on the Farm."
Janet also wrote “The Dust Bowl Revisited,” an Update to coincide with the November release of Ken Burn’s PBS dust bowl series. Shortly after Thom Hartmann had her on his television program, “The Big Picture,” to discuss it and the World Bank's warning of a 7 degree temperature rise by 2100.
The tsunami that wiped out a number of cities in Japan and created a meltdown in the Fukushima nuclear plant that resulted in all of the country’s nuclear reactors being shut down for a time, led Matt Roney to write an Update entitled “Fukushima Meltdown Hastens Decline of Nuclear Power.” Fukushima led some European countries to phase out their nuclear programs entirely, while other countries were proceeding cautiously with their nuclear program. As Matt noted, the world’s fleet of reactors is aging and new plants are suffering construction delays and cost increases, likely presaging a long-term decline in reliance on nuclear power.
During the sprint to complete Full Planet, Empty Plates, Mother Earth News, which often reprints EPI’s releases, asked for a piece on wind power, which was then sent to them within a day and a half. A few months later, the piece was transformed into a long article entitled “Exciting News About Renewable Energy” and published in the October/November issue. Retitling the piece “The Great Transition,” EPI released it as two Updates, which were reposted to major environmental blogs and websites and retweeted over 50 times, most notably by Eco Watch and Earth Business Network.
Subjects covered by Data Highlights included meat consumption peaking in the United States, the rise in Arab grain imports, the growth in hydropower, the free fall in Arctic sea ice, the shortfall in contraceptive coverage, and how governments spend $1.4 billion per day in subsidies that destabilize the climate. And five Eco-Economy Indicators were released on grain, temperature, wind, forestry, and the economy.
In addition to posting the immense database supporting the analysis in Full Planet, Empty Plates, the research team developed two PowerPoint presentations relating to the book. The first was a comprehensive look at the book, while the second was a shorter version. Another presentation was developed to draw attention to some of the 150-plus datasets that accompany the book. Collectively the presentations have been viewed online more than 20,000 times. EPI’s PowerPoint presentations and data are some of the most downloaded items from the Institute’s website.
Reah Janise Kauffman
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