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


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Redefining Security: The Tightening Food Supply

The world food supply is tightening because world grain demand is continuing to expand at a robust pace while production growth is slowing as the backlog of unused agricultural technology shrinks, cropland is converted to nonfarm uses, rising temperatures shrink harvests, aquifers are depleted, and irrigation water is diverted
to cities.

The world’s population is projected to increase by nearly 3 billion by 2050. Two thirds of this growth will occur in the Indian subcontinent and in Africa, the world’s hungriest regions. Most of the other 1 billion people will be born in the Middle East, which faces a doubling of its population, and in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the United States. This projected population increase requires more land not only to produce food but also for living space—homes, factories, offices, schools, and roads. 3

Some countries are still expanding their cropland, including, for example, Indonesia and Malaysia, both of which are converting rainforest into oil palm plantations. Yet in these two countries, the area of land being cleared is quite small compared with what could happen in Brazil. As noted in Chapter 9, the remaining potential for expanding the world’s cultivated area is concentrated in this large South American country. But when this expansion potential is set against heavy cropland losses elsewhere to residential and industrial construction, to the paving of land for automobiles, and to the spread of deserts, the potential net growth in world cropland is likely to be modest at best. 4

In many countries the irrigation water supply is shrinking as aquifers are depleted. But even as wells are going dry, irrigation water is being diverted to fast-growing cities. Farmers are getting a smaller share of a diminishing supply. Perhaps even more important, recent research indicates that higher temperatures reduce grain harvests, and at a time when we face the prospect of continually rising temperatures. 5

In contrast to the last half-century, when the world fish catch quintupled to reach 93 million tons, we cannot expect any growth in the fish catch at all during the next half-century. The growing world demand for seafood must now be satisfied entirely from aquaculture, where fish are fed mostly grain and soymeal. This puts additional pressure on the earth’s land and water resources. 6

Beyond these various environmental and resource trends that are affecting the food prospect, the world’s farmers are now also wrestling with a shrinking backlog of agricultural technology. For the world’s more progressive farmers, there are few, if any, unused technologies that will substantially raise land productivity. Even more serious, dramatic new yield-raising technologies are likely to be few and far between. 7

We can also look at the world food prospect through the lens of the Japan syndrome, the sequence of events that occurs in countries that are densely populated before they industrialize. The changes that led to the peaking of grain production and its subsequent decline in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan seem certain to affect many other countries. China is the first major one to experience a precipitous decline in its grain harvest. In 1995, when I projected in Who Will Feed China? that China’s grain harvest would drop, I sensed that this was imminent. But when the downturn came after 1998, it fell faster than I had expected. 8

As we look at other large, densely populated countries, like India, we know that the same forces are at work, but we do not know exactly when the grain harvest will peak and begin to decline. It could be several years away. But that the preconditions for a decline exist there can be little doubt. Already India has a population density nine times that of the United States. The living space required for the 18 million people added each year to India’s population of 1.1 billion means less and less land is available to produce food. Other countries, such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, and Mexico, may also soon experience the Japan syndrome as modernization takes land from agriculture. 9


*Data and additional resources have been omitted from this mobile version of our website to ensure the most optimal experience. To view this page with its entire information, please visit the full website.