Friday, July 26, 2013

Brown: Full Planet & Empy Plates

writes Lester R. Brown in Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity (Earth Policy Institute).

The world food situation is deteriorating. Grain stocks have dropped to a dangerously low level. The World Food Price Index has doubled in a decade. The ranks of the hungry are expanding. Political unrest is spreading. On the demand side of the food equation we have a rapidly increasing population and people moving up the food chain, consuming grain-intensive livestock and poultry products. In addition, in some countries, notably the USA, huge quantities of grain is used for bio fuels. 

At the same time, water shortages, soil erosion and heat waves are making it more difficult for farmers to keep pace with demand. New technology can’t compensate for the increasing gap between supply and demand. In the worst case scenario, the whole civilization is threatened.

The book contains a lot of facts, some particularly noteworthy:
-In India and China more than 300 million people live on grain which is produced with unsustainable irrigation practices that pump water at a rate surpassing recharge
-A person in India consumes in average 170 kilograms grain while an American utilizes 640 kilogram. The difference is caused by the American using eighty percent of the grain for meat, milk and egg. 
-The grain used for ethanol in the USA 2011 equals the quantity that could support 400 million people on a global average consumption level.
-For sixty years, increase in grain yields has been impressive, but yield increases have slowed down. Between 1950 and 1990 yields per hectare increased in average 2.2 percent per year, while the last 20 years yields increased only 1.3 percent per year. In some countries with highly developed farming, e.g. in Western Europe, yields don’t increase at all.
Use of US corn crop.
Brown is clearly no supporter of bio fuel. He worries that cars will literally take food from the poor. The fusion of food and fuel trade and production means we there will be competition for grain between the owners of 1 billion vehicles and the poor. And as the average owner of an automobile earns 30,000 dollars per year and the poor just a few hundred dollars per year, it is not hard to know who will have the upper hand. While I share some of his concerns about the effects of increased bio fuels, I do think that Brown simplifies the discussion a bit too much. He claims that other sustainable technologies are available to feed our transport sector, e.g. electrical cars. But not even in the USA which is blessed with abundant natural resources there is any chance to run the transport sector in a sustainable. The question should not be “what shall fuel our cars?”  but rather, how can we redesign our whole transport sector.  

In the last chapter, Brown talks about the solutions. They are largely to stabilise population (a constant theme of Brown’s), eradicate poverty, reduce meat consumption and trash those policies that push bio fuel expansion, notably the mandatory requirements to blend petrol with ethanol in the USA and the EU.
While not being anti-GMO, Brown doesn’t see any great potential for genetic modification to further increase grain yields. This is largely because seed breeders have already tapped most of the potential for increased yields. Similarly he doesn’t see many other technological advances as we are approaching limits set by the climate and the photosynthesis itself. Therefore, on the side of production, we have to stabilize the climate, use water more efficiently and protect the top soil.

By and large, most of the discourse is convincing, but Brown does underestimate the positive and negative effects of the markets on food production. In most parts of the world there is still a huge potential to increase yields – if prices motivate farmers to intensify production. I miss a discussion about the negative effects of unfettered global competition on local food production in many parts of the world. Without those economic and social perspectives we can’t fully understand farmers’ behaviors and choices (or lack of choice) and therefore we are bound to fail in addressing the underlying problems. I also think he largely ignores the enormous dependency of fossil fuel that our food system has in all its chains, from inputs such as fertilizers to the global distribution chains.

The book does drive across that we are moving towards increased competition for basic resources such as land and water. Competition between poor that are hungry and rich that want to drive cars, between multinationals that buy up land and local populations of smallholders. But also, as shown by Brown, between farmers and cities. Many farmers in the US has chosen to let their land revert to desserts when they sell water rights to cities. In this way, expansion of cities creates new desserts.

The web site for the book does contain a wealth of information, including the full data sets used for the research for the book.

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