[hepr-vn] Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?
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Fri Apr 24 23:14:45 EST 2009
Scientific American Magazine - April 22, 2009
Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?
The biggest threat to global stability is the potential for food crises in poor
countries to cause government collapse
By Lester R. Brown
One of the toughest things for people to do is to anticipate sudden change.
Typically we project the future by extrapolating from trends in the past. Much
of the time this approach works well. But sometimes it fails spectacularly, and
people are simply blindsided by events such as today’s economic crisis.
For most of us, the idea that civilization itself could disintegrate probably
seems preposterous. Who would not find it hard to think seriously about such a
complete departure from what we expect of ordinary life? What evidence could
make us heed a warning so dire—and how would we go about responding to it? We
are so inured to a long list of highly unlikely catastrophes that we are
virtually programmed to dismiss them all with a wave of the hand: Sure, our
civilization might devolve into chaos—and Earth might collide with an asteroid, too!
For many years I have studied global agricultural, population, environmental and
economic trends and their interactions. The combined effects of those trends and
the political tensions they generate point to the breakdown of governments and
societies. Yet I, too, have resisted the idea that food shortages could bring
down not only individual governments but also our global civilization.
I can no longer ignore that risk. Our continuing failure to deal with the
environmental declines that are undermining the world food economy—most
important, falling water tables, eroding soils and rising temperatures—forces me
to conclude that such a collapse is possible.
The Problem of Failed States
Even a cursory look at the vital signs of our current world order lends
unwelcome support to my conclusion. And those of us in the environmental field
are well into our third de cade of charting trends of environmental decline
without seeing any significant effort to reverse a single one.
In six of the past nine years world grain production has fallen short of
consumption, forcing a steady drawdown in stocks. When the 2008 harvest began,
world carryover stocks of grain (the amount in the bin when the new harvest
begins) were at 62 days of consumption, a near record low. In response, world
grain prices in the spring and summer of last year climbed to the highest level
As demand for food rises faster than supplies are growing, the resulting
food-price inflation puts severe stress on the governments of countries already
teetering on the edge of chaos. Unable to buy grain or grow their own, hungry
people take to the streets. Indeed, even before the steep climb in grain prices
in 2008, the number of failing states was expanding [Purchase the digital
edition to see related sidebar]. Many of their problems stem from a failure to
slow the growth of their populations. But if the food situation continues to
deteriorate, entire nations will break down at an ever increasing rate. We have
entered a new era in geopolitics. In the 20th century the main threat to
international security was superpower conflict; today it is failing states. It
is not the concentration of power but its absence that puts us at risk.
States fail when national governments can no longer provide personal security,
food security and basic social services such as education and health care. They
often lose control of part or all of their territory. When governments lose
their monopoly on power, law and order begin to disintegrate. After a point,
countries can become so dangerous that food relief workers are no longer safe
and their programs are halted; in Somalia and Afghanistan, deteriorating
conditions have already put such programs in jeopardy.
Failing states are of international concern because they are a source of
terrorists, drugs, weapons and refugees, threatening political stability
everywhere. Somalia, number one on the 2008 list of failing states, has become a
base for piracy. Iraq, number five, is a hotbed for terrorist training.
Afghanistan, number seven, is the world’s leading supplier of heroin. Following
the massive genocide of 1994 in Rwanda, refugees from that troubled state,
thousands of armed soldiers among them, helped to destabilize neighboring
Democratic Republic of the Congo (number six).
Our global civilization depends on a functioning network of politically healthy
nation-states to control the spread of infectious disease, to manage the
international monetary system, to control international terrorism and to reach
scores of other common goals. If the system for controlling infectious
diseases—such as polio, SARS or avian flu—breaks down, humanity will be in
trouble. Once states fail, no one assumes responsibility for their debt to
outside lenders. If enough states disintegrate, their fall will threaten the
stability of global civilization itself.
A New Kind of Food Shortage
The surge in world grain prices in 2007 and 2008—and the threat they pose to
food security—has a different, more troubling quality than the increases of the
past. During the second half of the 20th century, grain prices rose dramatically
several times. In 1972, for instance, the Soviets, recognizing their poor
harvest early, quietly cornered the world wheat market. As a result, wheat
prices elsewhere more than doubled, pulling rice and corn prices up with them.
But this and other price shocks were event-driven—drought in the Soviet Union, a
monsoon failure in India, crop-shrinking heat in the U.S. Corn Belt. And the
rises were short-lived: prices typically returned to normal with the next harvest.
In contrast, the recent surge in world grain prices is trend-driven, making it
unlikely to reverse without a reversal in the trends themselves. On the demand
side, those trends include the ongoing addition of more than 70 million people a
year; a growing number of people wanting to move up the food chain to consume
highly grain-intensive livestock products [see “The Greenhouse Hamburger,” by
Nathan Fiala; Scientific American, February 2009]; and the massive diversion of
U.S. grain to ethanol-fuel distilleries.
The extra demand for grain associated with rising affluence varies widely among
countries. People in low-income countries where grain supplies 60 percent of
calories, such as India, directly consume a bit more than a pound of grain a
day. In affluent countries such as the U.S. and Canada, grain consumption per
person is nearly four times that much, though perhaps 90 percent of it is
consumed indirectly as meat, milk and eggs from grain-fed animals.
The potential for further grain consumption as incomes rise among low-income
consumers is huge. But that potential pales beside the insatiable demand for
crop-based automotive fuels. A fourth of this year’s U.S. grain harvest—enough
to feed 125 million Americans or half a billion Indians at current consumption
levels—will go to fuel cars. Yet even if the entire U.S. grain harvest were
diverted into making ethanol, it would meet at most 18 percent of U.S.
automotive fuel needs. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank with
ethanol could feed one person for a year.
The recent merging of the food and energy economies implies that if the food
value of grain is less than its fuel value, the market will move the grain into
the energy economy. That double demand is leading to an epic competition between
cars and people for the grain supply and to a political and moral issue of
unprecedented dimensions. The U.S., in a misguided effort to reduce its
dependence on foreign oil by substituting grain-based fuels, is generating
global food insecurity on a scale not seen before.
Water Shortages Mean Food Shortages
What about supply? The three environmental trends I mentioned earlier—the
shortage of freshwater, the loss of topsoil and the rising temperatures (and
other effects) of global warming—are making it increasingly hard to expand the
world’s grain supply fast enough to keep up with demand. Of all those trends,
however, the spread of water shortages poses the most immediate threat. The
biggest challenge here is irrigation, which consumes 70 percent of the world’s
freshwater. Millions of irrigation wells in many countries are now pumping water
out of underground sources faster than rainfall can recharge them. The result is
falling water tables in countries populated by half the world’s people,
including the three big grain producers—China, India and the U.S.
Usually aquifers are replenishable, but some of the most important ones are not:
the “fossil” aquifers, so called because they store ancient water and are not
recharged by precipitation. For these—including the vast Ogallala Aquifer that
underlies the U.S. Great Plains, the Saudi aquifer and the deep aquifer under
the North China Plain—depletion would spell the end of pumping. In arid regions
such a loss could also bring an end to agriculture altogether.
In China the water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces more
than half of the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, is falling fast.
Overpumping has used up most of the water in a shallow aquifer there, forcing
well drillers to turn to the region’s deep aquifer, which is not replenishable.
A report by the World Bank foresees “catastrophic consequences for future
generations” unless water use and supply can quickly be brought back into balance.
As water tables have fallen and irrigation wells have gone dry, China’s wheat
crop, the world’s largest, has declined by 8 percent since it peaked at 123
million tons in 1997. In that same period China’s rice production dropped 4
percent. The world’s most populous nation may soon be importing massive
quantities of grain.
But water shortages are even more worrying in India. There the margin between
food consumption and survival is more precarious. Millions of irrigation wells
have dropped water tables in almost every state. As Fred Pearce reported in New
Half of India’s traditional hand-dug wells and millions of shallower tube wells
have already dried up, bringing a spate of suicides among those who rely on
them. Electricity blackouts are reaching epidemic proportions in states where
half of the electricity is used to pump water from depths of up to a kilometer
A World Bank study reports that 15 percent of India’s food supply is produced by
mining groundwater. Stated otherwise, 175 million
Indians consume grain produced with water from irrigation wells that will soon
be exhausted. The continued shrinking of water supplies could lead to
unmanageable food shortages and social conflict.
Less Soil, More Hunger
The scope of the second worrisome trend—the loss of topsoil—is also startling.
Topsoil is eroding faster than new soil forms on perhaps a third of the world’s
cropland. This thin layer of essential plant nutrients, the very foundation of
civilization, took long stretches of geologic time to build up, yet it is
typically only about six inches deep. Its loss from wind and water erosion
doomed earlier civilizations.
In 2002 a U.N. team assessed the food situation in Lesotho, the small,
landlocked home of two million people embedded within South Africa. The team’s
finding was straightforward: “Agriculture in Lesotho faces a catastrophic
future; crop production is declining and could cease altogether over large
tracts of the country if steps are not taken to reverse soil erosion,
degradation and the decline in soil fertility.”
In the Western Hemisphere, Haiti—one of the first states to be recognized as
failing—was largely self-sufficient in grain 40 years ago. In the years since,
though, it has lost nearly all its forests and much of its topsoil, forcing the
country to import more than half of its grain.
The third and perhaps most pervasive environmental threat to food
security—rising surface temperature—can affect crop yields everywhere. In many
countries crops are grown at or near their thermal optimum, so even a minor
temperature rise during the growing season can shrink the harvest. A study
published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has confirmed a rule of thumb
among crop ecologists: for every rise of one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees
Fahrenheit) above the norm, wheat, rice and corn yields fall by 10 percent.
In the past, most famously when the innovations in the use of fertilizer,
irrigation and high-yield varieties of wheat and rice created the “green
revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s, the response to the growing demand for food
was the successful application of scientific agriculture: the technological fix.
This time, regrettably, many of the most productive advances in agricultural
technology have already been put into practice, and so the long-term rise in
land productivity is slowing down. Between 1950 and 1990 the world’s farmers
increased the grain yield per acre by more than 2 percent a year, exceeding the
growth of population. But since then, the annual growth in yield has slowed to
slightly more than 1 percent. In some countries the yields appear to be near
their practical limits, including rice yields in Japan and China.
Some commentators point to genetically modified crop strains as a way out of our
predicament. Unfortunately, however, no genetically modified crops have led to
dramatically higher yields, comparable to the doubling or tripling of wheat and
rice yields that took place during the green revolution. Nor do they seem likely
to do so, simply because conventional plant-breeding techniques have already
tapped most of the potential for raising crop yields.
Jockeying for Food
As the world’s food security unravels, a dangerous politics of food scarcity is
coming into play: individual countries acting in their narrowly defined
self-interest are actually worsening the plight of the many. The trend began in
2007, when leading wheat-exporting countries such as Russia and Argentina
limited or banned their exports, in hopes of increasing locally available food
supplies and thereby bringing down food prices domestically. Vietnam, the
world’s second-biggest rice exporter after Thailand, banned its exports for
several months for the same reason. Such moves may reassure those living in the
exporting countries, but they are creating panic in importing countries that
must rely on what is then left of the world’s exportable grain.
In response to those restrictions, grain importers are trying to nail down
long-term bilateral trade agreements that would lock up future grain supplies.
The Philippines, no longer able to count on getting rice from the world market,
recently negotiated a three-year deal with Vietnam for a guaranteed 1.5 million
tons of rice each year. Food-import anxiety is even spawning entirely new
efforts by food-importing countries to buy or lease farmland in other countries
[Purchase the digital edition to see related sidebar].
In spite of such stopgap measures, soaring food prices and spreading hunger in
many other countries are beginning to break down the social order. In several
provinces of Thailand the predations of “rice rustlers” have forced villagers to
guard their rice fields at night with loaded shotguns. In Pakistan an armed
soldier escorts each grain truck. During the first half of 2008, 83 trucks
carrying grain in Sudan were hijacked before reaching the Darfur relief camps.
No country is immune to the effects of tightening food supplies, not even the
U.S., the world’s breadbasket. If China turns to the world market for massive
quantities of grain, as it has recently done for soybeans, it will have to buy
from the U.S. For U.S. consumers, that would mean competing for the U.S. grain
harvest with 1.3 billion Chinese consumers with fast-rising incomes—a nightmare
scenario. In such circumstances, it would be tempting for the U.S. to restrict
exports, as it did, for instance, with grain and soybeans in the 1970s when
domestic prices soared. But that is not an option with China. Chinese investors
now hold well over a trillion U.S. dollars, and they have often been the leading
international buyers of U.S. Treasury securities issued to finance the fiscal
deficit. Like it or not, U.S. consumers will share their grain with Chinese
consumers, no matter how high food prices rise.
Plan B: Our Only Option
Since the current world food shortage is trend-driven, the environmental trends
that cause it must be reversed. To do so requires extraordinarily demanding
measures, a monumental shift away from business as usual—what we at the Earth
Policy Institute call Plan A—to a civilization-saving Plan B. [see "Plan B 3.0:
Mobilizing to Save Civilization," at www.earthpoli cy.org/Books/PB3/]
Similar in scale and urgency to the U.S. mobilization for World War II, Plan B
has four components: a massive effort to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent from
their 2006 levels by 2020; the stabilization of the world’s population at eight
billion by 2040; the eradication of poverty; and the restoration of forests,
soils and aquifers.
Net carbon dioxide emissions can be cut by systematically raising energy
efficiency and investing massively in the development of renewable sources of
energy. We must also ban deforestation worldwide, as several countries already
have done, and plant billions of trees to sequester carbon. The transition from
fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy can be driven by imposing a tax on
carbon, while offsetting it with a reduction in income taxes.
Stabilizing population and eradicating poverty go hand in hand. In fact, the key
to accelerating the shift to smaller families is eradicating poverty—and vice
versa. One way is to ensure at least a primary school education for all
children, girls as well as boys. Another is to provide rudimentary,
village-level health care, so that people can be confident that their children
will survive to adulthood. Women everywhere need access to reproductive health
care and family-planning services.
The fourth component, restoring the earth’s natural systems and resources,
incorporates a worldwide initiative to arrest the fall in water tables by
raising water productivity: the useful activity that can be wrung from each
drop. That implies shifting to more efficient irrigation systems and to more
water-efficient crops. In some countries, it implies growing (and eating) more
wheat and less rice, a water-intensive crop. And for industries and cities, it
implies doing what some are doing already, namely, continuously recycling water.
At the same time, we must launch a worldwide effort to conserve soil, similar to
the U.S. response to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Terracing the ground, planting
trees as shelterbelts against windblown soil erosion, and practicing minimum
tillage—in which the soil is not plowed and crop residues are left on the
field—are among the most important soil-conservation measures.
There is nothing new about our four interrelated objectives. They have been
discussed individually for years. Indeed, we have created entire institutions
intended to tackle some of them, such as the World Bank to alleviate poverty.
And we have made substantial progress in some parts of the world on at least one
of them—the distribution of family-planning services and the associated shift to
smaller families that brings population stability.
For many in the development community, the four objectives of Plan B were seen
as positive, promoting development as long as they did not cost too much. Others
saw them as humanitarian goals—politically correct and morally appropriate. Now
a third and far more momentous rationale presents itself: meeting these goals
may be necessary to prevent the collapse of our civilization. Yet the cost we
project for saving civilization would amount to less than $200 billion a year, a
sixth of current global military spending. In effect, Plan B is the new security
Time: Our Scarcest Resource
Our challenge is not only to implement Plan B but also to do it quickly. The
world is in a race between political tipping points and natural ones. Can we
close coal-fired power plants fast enough to prevent the Greenland ice sheet
from slipping into the sea and inundating our coastlines? Can we cut carbon
emissions fast enough to save the mountain glaciers of Asia? During the dry
season their meltwaters sustain the major rivers of India and China—and by
extension, hundreds of millions of people. Can we stabilize population before
countries such as India, Pakistan and Yemen are overwhelmed by shortages of the
water they need to irrigate their crops?
It is hard to overstate the urgency of our predicament. [For the most thorough
and authoritative scientific assessment of global climate change, see "Climate
Change 2007. Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change," available at www.ipcc.ch] Every day counts. Unfortunately, we do not
know how long we can light our cities with coal, for instance, before
Greenland’s ice sheet can no longer be saved. Nature sets the deadlines; nature
is the timekeeper. But we human beings cannot see the clock.
We desperately need a new way of thinking, a new mind-set. The thinking that got
us into this bind will not get us out. When Elizabeth Kolbert, a writer for the
New Yorker, asked energy guru Amory Lovins about thinking outside the box,
Lovins responded: “There is no box.”
There is no box. That is the mind-set we need if civilization is to survive.
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