On hearing his political opponent described as a modest chap, Winston Churchill reputedly responded that “he has much to be modest about.” Having just completed a book dealing with the increasingly complex issue of world food security, I too feel that I have a lot to be modest about.
Assessing the world food prospect was once rather straightforward, largely a matter of extrapolating, with minor adjustments, historically recent
agricultural supply and demand trends. Now suddenly that is all changing. It is no longer just a matter of trends slowing or accelerating; in some cases they are reversing direction. Grain harvests that were once rising everywhere are now falling in some countries. Fish catches that were once rising are now falling.
Irrigated area, once expanding almost everywhere, is now shrinking in some key food-producing regions.
Short term measures
Beyond this, some of the measures that are used to expand food production today, such as overpumping aquifers, almost guarantee a decline in food production tomorrow when the aquifers are depleted and the wells go dry. The same can be said for overplowing and overgrazing. We have entered an era of discontinuity on the food front, an era where making reliable projections is ever more difficult.
New research shows that a 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature leads to a decline in wheat, rice, and corn yields of 10 percent. In a century where temperatures could rise by several degrees Celsius, harvests could be devastated.
Although climate change is widely discussed, we are slow to grasp its full meaning. Everyone knows the earth’s temperature is rising, but commodity analysts often condition their projections on weather returning to “normal,”
failing to realize that with climate now in flux, there is no normal to return to.
Falling water tables are also undermining food security. Water tables are now falling in countries that contain more than half the world’s people.
While there is a broad realization that we are facing a future of water shortages, not everyone has connected the dots to see that a future of water shortages will be a future of food shortages.
Who will feed China?
Perhaps the biggest agricultural reversal in recent times has been the precipitous decline in China’s grain production since 1998. Ten years ago, in Who Will Feed China?, I projected that China’s grain production would soon peak and begin to decline. But I did not anticipate that it would
drop by 50 million tons between 1998 and 2004. Since 1998 China has covered this decline by drawing down its once massive stocks of grain. Now stocks are largely depleted and China is turning to the world market. Its purchase of 8 million tons of wheat to import in 2004 could signal the beginning of a shift from a world food economy dominated by surpluses to one dominated by scarcity.
Overnight, China has become the world’s largest wheat importer. Yet it will almost certainly import even more wheat in the future, not to mention vast quantities of rice and corn. It is this potential need to import 30, 40, or 50 million tons of grain a year within the next year or two and the associated emergence of a politics of food scarcity that is likely to put food security on the front page of newspapers.
At the other end of the spectrum is Brazil, the only country with the potential to expand world cropland area measurably. But what will the
environmental consequences be of continuing to clear and plow Brazil’s vast interior? Will the soils sustain cultivation over the longer term?
Will the deforestation in the Amazon disrupt the recycling of rainfall from the Atlantic Ocean to the country’s interior? And how many plant and animal species will Brazil sacrifice to expand its exports of soybeans?
Food security, which was once the near-exclusive province of ministries of agriculture, now directly involves several departments of government. In the past, ministries of transportation did not need to think about food security when formulating transport policies. But in densely populated developing countries today, the idea of having a car in every garage one day means paving over a large share of their cropland.
Many countries simply do not have enough cropland to pave for cars and to grow food for their people.
Or consider energy. Energy ministers do not attend international conferences on food security. But they should. The decisions they make in deciding which energy sources to develop will directly affect atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and future changes in temperature. In fact, the
decisions made in ministries of energy may have a greater effect on long-term food security than those made in ministries of agriculture.
Future food security now depends on the combined efforts of the ministries of agriculture, energy, transportation, health and family planning, and
water resources. It also depends on strong leadership—leadership that is far better informed on the complex set of interacting forces affecting
food security than most political leaders are today.
From Lester Brown's new book Outgrowing the Earth
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