Environment

Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?

Finally someone is listening to Lester Brown and his warnings of a collapse in our food supplies, as a new article reveals in Scientific American.

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.

It's not news that Lester Brown is warning about our unsustainable approach to feeding the planet.  But it is news that Scientific American has run a major article by him on how "The biggest threat to global stability is the potential for food crises in poor countries to cause government collapse."

Brown's "Key Concepts":

  • Food scarcity and the resulting higher food prices are pushing poor countries into chaos.
  • Such "failed states" can export disease, terrorism, illicit drugs, weapons and refugees.
  • Water shortages, soil losses and rising temperatures from global warming are placing severe limits on food production.
  • Without massive and rapid intervention to address these three environmental factors, the author argues, a series of government collapses could threaten the world order.

Brown's warnings, ignored for too long, are now being repeated at the highest levels.  For instance, I previously blogged on the UK government's chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, who laid out something very close to this collapse scenario in his speech yesterday to the government's Sustainable Development UK conference in Westminster (see "When the global Ponzi scheme collapses (circa 2030), the only jobs left will be green"):

You can see the catastrophic decline in those [food] reserves, over the last five years or so, indicates that we actually have a problem; we're not growing enough food, we're not able to put stuff into the reserves….

I am going to look at 2030 because that's when a whole series of events come together….

I will leave you with some key questions. Can nine billion people be fed? Can we cope with the demands in the future on water? Can we provide enough energy? Can we do it, all that, while mitigating and adapting to climate change? And can we do all that in 21 years time? That's when these things are going to start hitting in a really big way. We need to act now. We need investment in science and technology, and all the other ways of treating very seriously these major problems. 2030 is not very far away.

Brown's whole piece is worth reading.  I'll excerpt the key points, trends and quotable facts here:

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).

Here is the full list of 20 countries in the world that are closest to collapse, from worst to better, ranked in 2007 by the Fund for Peace and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace based on "12 social, economic, political and military indicators of national well-being."

Somalia
Sudan
Zimbabwe
Chad
Iraq
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Afghanistan
Ivory Coast
Pakistan
Central African Republic
Guinea
Bangladesh
Burma (Myanmar)
Haiti
North Korea
Ethiopia
Uganda
Lebanon
Nigeria
Sri Lanka

Brown continues:

… 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; 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.

And then there's water:

… 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….

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 Scientist:

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 [3,300 feet].

A World Bank study reports that 15 percent of India's food supply is produced by mining groundwater. Stated otherwise, 175 million.

Finally, there's global warming:

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.

That's an especially chilling statistic when you consider that we are facing warming of 4°C to 5°C or more this century on the business as usual emissions path.

Is there another techno-fix to the global food problem?  Brown says, not likely.

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.

You can get Brown's detailed solution, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, at www.earthpolicy.org/Books/PB3/.  I've discussed at length the energy and climate strategies in this blog.  Here is his short discussion of some other key measures:

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.

But as always, the first step is to realize that there is no silver bullet and there is no quick escape from the Ponzi scheme.  Brown ends with a terrific quote about thinking outside the box from my old boss Amory, which bears repeating:

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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