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


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Redefining Security: A Complex Challenge

When grain harvests fell short, stocks declined, and prices rose during the last half of the twentieth century, there was a standard response. At the official level, the U.S. government would return to production part or all of the cropland idled under its commodity set-aside programs. At the same time, higher prices would encourage farmers worldwide to use more fertilizer, drill more irrigation wells, and invest in other yield-enhancing measures. Production would jump and shortages would disappear. 27

Now the possible responses to shortages are more demanding. First, the U.S. cropland set-aside program was dismantled in 1996, depriving the world of this long-standing backup reserve for world grain stocks. As of 2004, only the European Union is holding cropland out of use to limit production, but it is a small area, perhaps 3 million hectares. The United States does have some 14 million hectares (35 million acres) of cropland, much of it highly erodible, in the Conservation Reserve Program under 10-year contracts with farmers, nearly all planted in grass. In an emergency, part of it could be plowed and planted in grain, but it is mostly low-rainfall, low-yielding land in the Great Plains that would expand the U.S. harvest only marginally. 28

The world today faces a situation far different from that of half a century ago. Diminishing returns are setting in on several fronts, including the quality of new land that can be brought under the plow, the production response to additional fertilizer applications, the opportunity for drilling new irrigation wells, and the potential of research investments to produce technologies that will boost production dramatically.

In 1950, opportunities for expanding the cultivated area were already limited, but there were still some to be found here and there. Together they helped expand the world grainland area by roughly one fifth. Today, in contrast, the only country that has the potential to increase the world grainland area measurably is Brazil. And doing this would raise numerous environmental questions, ranging from soil erosion to decreased carbon sequestration in the plowed areas. 29

A half-century ago, every country in the world could anticipate using much more fertilizer. Today, using more fertilizer has little effect on production in many countries. And a half-century ago, the use of underground water for irrigation was almost nonexistent. Vast aquifers were waiting to be tapped, yielding a sustainable supply of irrigation water. Today, drilling more irrigation wells is likely only to hasten the depletion of aquifers and a resulting drop in food production.

Diminishing returns also affect agricultural research. Fifty years ago agricultural scientists were just beginning to adapt the high-yielding dwarf wheats and rices and the hybrid corn to widely varying growing conditions around the world. Today the plant breeding focus has shifted from raising yields to using biotechnology to develop varieties that are insect-resistant or herbicide-tolerant. Plant breeding advances may still raise yields 5 percent here or perhaps 15 percent there, but the potential for dramatic gains appears limited. 30

The world has changed in other ways. As world population and the global economy expanded dramatically over the last half-century, the world quietly moved into a new era, one in which the economy began pressing against the earth’s natural limits. In this new situation, activities in one economic sector can affect another. Historically, for example, what happened in the transport sector had little effect on agriculture. But in a world with 6.3 billion people, most of whom would like to own a car, auto-centered transport systems will consume a vast area of cropland. 31

In the societies that first turned to cars as the principal means of transportation, there was no need for the transportation minister to consult with the agriculture minister. During the earlier development of the United States, for example, there was more than enough land for crops and cars. Indeed, throughout much of this era farmers were paid to hold land out of production. Now that has changed. Food security is directly affected by transportation policy today.

If densely populated countries like China and India turn to cars as the primary means of transportation, they will pit affluent automobile owners against low-income food consumers in the competition for land. These nations simply do not have enough land to support hundreds of millions of cars and to feed their people.

The competition between cars and people for resources does not stop here. Some key food-producing countries, including the United States, are producing ethanol from grain for automotive fuel. In 2004, the United States used some 30 million tons of its 278-million-ton corn harvest to manufacture ethanol for cars. This tonnage, requiring nearly 4 million hectares (10 million acres) to produce, would be enough to feed 100 million people at average world consumption levels. Other countries building grain-fed ethanol plants include Canada and China. The competition between affluent motorists and low-income food consumers is thus not only for the land used to produce food, but also for the food itself. 32

The other side of this coin is that if grain prices rise sharply, ethanol plants are likely to close, as they did in 1996 when grain prices went up temporarily. This would free up grain for food or feed, thus providing an additional buffer when world grain supplies tighten. 33

The loss of momentum on the food front in recent years argues for reassessing the global population trajectory. Indeed, population policymakers may hold the key to achieving a humane balance between population and food. We can no longer take population projections as a given. The world cannot afford for any women to be without family planning advice and contraceptives. Today, however, an estimated 137 million women want to limit the size of their families but lack access to the family planning services needed to do so. Eradicating hunger depends on filling the family planning gap and creating the social conditions that will accelerate the shift to smaller families. 34

Food security is affected not only by the food-population equation, but also by the water-population equation and the efforts of water resource ministries to raise water productivity. Indeed, since 70 percent of world water use is for irrigation, eradicating hunger may now depend on a global full-court press to raise water productivity. Everyone knows it takes water to produce food, but we often do not realize how water-intensive food production is and how quickly water shortages can translate into food shortages. The ministry of health and family planning needs to cooperate not only with the ministry of agriculture but also with the ministry of water resources. Those living in land-hungry, water-short countries need to know how their childbearing decisions will affect the next generation’s access to water and to food. 35

It is perhaps indicative of the complexity of the times in which we live that decisions on energy development made in ministries of energy may have a greater effect on the earth’s temperature, and hence future food security, than decisions made in ministries of agriculture. Even so, ministers of energy are rarely involved in food security planning.

Ensuring future food security therefore can no longer be left to ministries of agriculture alone. Food security is now directly dependent on policy decisions in the ministries of health and family planning, water resources, transportation, and energy. This dependence of food security on an integrated effort by several departments of government is new. And because it has emerged so quickly, governments are lagging far behind in their efforts to coordinate these departments and their agendas.

One of the essentials for success in this new situation is strong national political leaders. In the absence of competent leaders who understand the complex interaction of these issues, the cooperation needed to ensure a country’s future food security may simply not be forthcoming. In the absence of such leadership, a deterioration in the food situation may be unavoidable.

The integration that is needed across the ministries of government is also called for at the international level. Unfortunately, there may be even less contact among the relevant U.N. agencies such as FAO, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), and the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) than there is within national ministries. There is no independent water resources agency, nor is there a U.N. agency responsible for transportation. The three U.N. agencies that particularly need to work closely together are FAO, UNFPA, and UNEP.

At another level, the world needs more sophisticated agricultural supply and demand projections. At present, whether they come from FAO, the World Bank, or the USDA, these are largely done by agricultural economists. In a situation where water supplies and temperature levels may have a greater effect on food production in some countries than advancing agricultural technology does, meaningful projections require inputs not only from economists but also from hydrologists, meteorologists, and agronomists.

There is a remarkable lack of data on the status of the world’s underground water resources. Few countries systematically gather and report data on changes in water table levels. Even fewer data are available on the thickness of aquifers. And there are almost no projections that tell us when aquifer depletion is likely to occur.

Aside from China, the other big question mark hanging over the world food prospect is Brazil—the most important question being how much of its potential for expanding food production it plans to exploit. Is Brazil prepared to plow the 75 million hectares of the cerrado that is believed to be cultivable? Or does it want to preserve part of this land to protect the region’s diversity of wildlife and perhaps its rainfall patterns as well? How much of the Amazon is Brazil prepared to clear for agriculture, either for cattle grazing or for crops? What Brazil decides to do in terms of converting the cerrado or the Amazon rainforest into cropland and rangeland is directly related to the formulation of population policies in scores of countries. How much should individual countries invest in small-scale water catchment storage, for example? How rigorously should they protect their cropland from conversion to nonfarm uses? 36

In a world that is increasingly integrated economically, food security is now a global issue. In an integrated world grain market, everyone is affected by the same price shifts. A doubling of grain prices, which is a distinct possibility if we cannot accelerate the growth in grain production, could impoverish more people and destabilize more governments than any event in history. Our future depends on working together to avoid a destabilizing jump in world food prices. Everyone has a stake in stabilizing the agricultural resource base. Everyone has a stake in securing future food supplies. We all have a responsibility to work for the policies—whether in agriculture, energy, population, water use, cropland protection, or soil conservation—that will help ensure future world food security.

The complexity of the challenges the world is facing is matched by the enormity of the effort required to reverse the trends that are undermining future food security. Halting the advancing deserts in China, arresting the fall in water tables in India, and reversing the rise in carbon emissions in the United States are each essential to future world food security. Each will require a strong, new initiative—one that demands a wartime sense of urgency and leadership.

We have inherited the mindset, policies, and fiscal priorities from an era of food security that no longer exists. The policies that once provided food security will no longer suffice in a world where we are pressing against the sustainable yields of oceanic fisheries and underground aquifers and the limits of nature to fix carbon dioxide. Unless we recognize the nature of the era we are entering and adopt new policies and priorities that recognize the earth’s natural limits, world food security could begin to deteriorate. If it does, food security could quickly eclipse terrorism as the overriding concern of governments.


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