Food is the new oil. Land is the new gold.
Problems in a hot and hungry world.
In the early spring of 2012, U.S. farmers were on their way to planting some 96 million acres in corn, the most in 75 years. A warm early spring got the crop off to a great start. Analysts were predicting the largest corn harvest on record.
The corn plant is as sensitive as it is productive. Thirsty and fast-growing, it is vulnerable to both extreme heat and drought. At elevated temperatures, the corn plant, which is normally so productive, goes into thermal shock. As spring turned into summer, the thermometer began to rise across the Corn Belt. In the St. Louis, Missouri area, the southern Corn Belt, the temperature climbed to a record 105 degrees Fahrenheit or higher 11 days in a row. The corn crop failed.
Over a span of weeks, we saw how the more extreme weather events that come with climate change can affect food security.
The United States is the leading producer and exporter of corn, the world’s feed grain. At home, corn accounts for four-fifths of the U.S. grain harvest. Internationally, the U.S. corn crop exceeds China’s rice and wheat harvests combined. Among the big three grains—corn, wheat, and rice—corn is now the leader, with production well above that of wheat and nearly double that of rice.
The U.S. Great Drought of 2012 has raised corn prices to the highest level in history. The world price of food, which has already doubled over the last decade, is slated to climb higher, ushering in a new wave of food unrest. This year’s corn crop shortfall will accelerate the transition from the era of abundance and surpluses to an era of chronic scarcity. As food prices climb, the worldwide competition for control of land and water resources is intensifying.
In this new world, access to food is replacing access to oil as an overriding concern of governments. Food is the new oil, land is the new gold. Welcome to the new geopolitics of food.
For Americans who spend only 9 percent of their income on food, the doubling of food prices is not a big deal. But for those who spend 50–70 percent of their income on food, it is a serious matter. There is little latitude for them to offset the price rise simply by spending more. They must eat less.
A recent survey by Save the Children shows that 24 percent of families in India now have foodless days. For Nigeria, the comparable figure is 27 percent. For Peru, it is 14 percent. In a hungry world, hunger often has a child’s face. Millions of children are dangerously hungry, some too weak to walk to school. Many are physically and mentally stunted.
Even as hunger spreads, farmers are facing new challenges on both sides of the food equation. On the demand side, there have been two sources of demand growth. The oldest of these is population growth. Each year the world adds nearly 80 million people. Tonight there will be 219,000 people at the dinner table who were not there last night, many with empty plates. Tomorrow night, the next night, and on.
The second source of growing demand for grain is consumers moving up the food chain. As incomes rise, people eat more grain-intensive livestock and poultry products. Today, with incomes rising fast in emerging economies, there are at least 3 billion people moving up the food chain. The largest single concentration of these new meat eaters is in China, which now consumes twice as much meat as the United States.
Now there is a third source of demand for grain: the automobile. In 2011, the United States harvested nearly 400 million tons of grain. Of this, 127 million tons (32 percent) went to ethanol distilleries to fuel cars.
This growing demand for grain has boosted the annual increase in world grain consumption from 20 million tons a year a decade ago to 45 million tons a year today.
On the supply side, farmers continue to wrestle with the age-old threat of soil erosion. Some 30 percent of the world’s cropland is losing productive topsoil far faster than nature can replace it. Two huge new dust bowls are forming, one in Northwestern China and the other in Central Africa.
Beyond the loss of topsoil, three new challenges are emerging on the production front. One, aquifers are being depleted and irrigation wells are starting to go dry in 18 countries that together contain half the world’s people. Two, in some of the more agriculturally advanced countries, rice and wheat yields per acre, which have been rising steadily for several decades, are beginning to plateau. And three, the Earth’s temperature is rising, threatening to disrupt world agriculture in ways that can only be described as scary.
Among the countries where water tables are falling and aquifers are being depleted are the big three grain producers—China, India, and the United States. In India 175 million people are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. The comparable number for China is 130 million. In the United States, the irrigated area is shrinking in leading farm states with rapid population growth such as California and Texas as aquifers are depleted and irrigation water is diverted to cities.
After several decades of rising grain yields, some of the more agriculturally advanced countries are hitting limits that were not widely anticipated. Rice yields in Japan, a pioneer in raising yields, have not increased for 17 years. In both Japan and South Korea, yields have plateaued at just under 5 tons per hectare. (1 hectare = 2.47 acres.) China’s rice yields are now closely approaching those of Japan and may also soon plateau.
A similar situation exists with wheat yields. In France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—the three leading wheat producers in Western Europe—there has been no rise for more than a decade. Other countries will soon be hitting their limits for grain yields.
The newest challenge confronting farmers is global warming. The massive burning of fossil fuels is increasing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, raising the Earth’s temperature and disrupting climate. Historically when there was an extreme weather event—an intense heat wave or a drought—things would likely be back to normal by the next harvest. Now with the climate in flux, there is no “norm” to return to.
For each 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum during the growing season farmers can expect at least a 10-percent decline in grain yields. A study of the effect of temperature on corn and soybean yields in the United States found that a 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature reduced yields 17 percent. If the world continues with business as usual, failing to address the climate issue, the Earth’s temperature during this century could easily rise by 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit).
The effect of high temperature on food production is on full display in the United States where the summer drought and heat that covered much of the country, including most of the Corn Belt, will reduce the U.S. corn harvest by 30 percent or more.
As food supplies tighten, the geopolitics of food is fast overshadowing the geopolitics of oil. The first signs of trouble came in 2007, when world grain production fell behind demand. Grain and soybean prices started to climb, doubling by mid-2008. In response, many exporting countries tried to curb rising domestic food prices by restricting exports. Among them were Russia and Argentina, two leading wheat exporters. Viet Nam, the world’s number two rice exporter, banned exports entirely in the early months of 2008.
With key suppliers restricting or banning exports, importing countries panicked. Fearing they might not be able to buy needed grain from the market, some of the more affluent countries, led by Saudi Arabia, China, and South Korea, then took the unusual step of buying or leasing land long term in other countries on which to grow food for themselves. These land acquisitions have since grown rapidly in number. Most of them are in Africa. Among the principal destinations for land hunters are Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan, each of them countries that cannot feed the people who live there; millions of people are being sustained with food donations from the U.N. World Food Program.
As of mid-2012, hundreds of land acquisition deals had been negotiated or were under negotiation, some of them exceeding a million acres. A 2011 World Bank analysis of these “land grabs” reported that at least 140 million acres were involved—an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States. This onslaught of land acquisitions has become a land rush as governments, agribusiness firms, and private investors seek control of land wherever they can find it. Such acquisitions also typically involve water rights, meaning that land grabs potentially affect downstream countries as well.
For instance, any water extracted from the upper Nile River basin to irrigate newly planted crops in Ethiopia, Sudan, or South Sudan will now not reach Egypt, upending the delicate water politics of the Nile by adding new countries that Egypt must compete with for water. Egypt already has to import a great deal of grain.
The potential for conflict is high. Many of the land deals have been made in secret, and much of the time the land involved was already being farmed by villagers when it was sold or leased. Often those already farming the land were neither consulted nor even informed of the new arrangements. And because there typically are no formal land titles in many developing-country villages, the farmers who lost their land have had little support for bringing their cases to court.
Time is running out. The world may be much closer to an unmanageable food shortage—replete with soaring food prices, spreading food unrest, and ultimately political instability—than most people realize.
Solutions ~ Saving civilization is not a spectator sport.
On the demand side of the food equation, there are four pressing needs—to stabilize world population, eradicate poverty, reduce excessive meat consumption, and reverse biofuels policies that encourage the use of food, land, or water that could otherwise be used to feed people. We need to press forward on all four fronts at the same time.
The first two goals are closely related. Indeed, stabilizing population depends on eliminating poverty. Even a cursory look at population growth rates shows that the countries where population size has stabilized are virtually all high-income countries. On the other side of the coin, nearly all countries with high population growth rates are on the low end of the global economic ladder.
Shifting to smaller families has many benefits. For one, there will be fewer people at the dinner table. It comes as no surprise that a disproportionate share of malnutrition is found in larger families.
At the other end of the food spectrum, a large segment of the world’s people are consuming animal products at a level that is unhealthy and contributing to obesity and cardiovascular disease. The good news is that when the affluent consume less meat, milk, and eggs, it improves their health. When meat consumption falls in the United States, as it recently has, this frees up grain for direct consumption. Moving down the food chain also lessens pressure on the Earth’s land and water resources. In short, it is a win-win-win situation.
Another initiative, one that can quickly lower food prices, is the cancellation of biofuel mandates. There is no social justification for the massive conversion of food into fuel for cars. With plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars coming to market that can run on local wind-generated electricity at a gasoline-equivalent cost of 80¢ per gallon, why keep burning costly fuel at four times the price?
On the supply side of the food equation, we face several challenges, including stabilizing climate, raising water productivity, and conserving soil. Stabilizing climate is not easy, but it can be done if we act quickly. It will take a huge cut in carbon emissions, some 80 percent within a decade, to give us a chance of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. This means a wholesale restructuring of the world energy economy.
The easiest way to do this is to restructure the tax system. The market has many strengths, but it also has some dangerous weaknesses. It readily captures the direct costs of mining coal and delivering it to power plants. But the market does not incorporate the indirect costs of fossil fuels, such as the costs to society of global warming. Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, noted that climate change was the product of a massive market failure.
The goal of restructuring taxes is to lower income taxes and raise carbon taxes so that the cost of climate change and other indirect costs of fossil fuel use are incorporated in market prices. If we can get the market to tell the truth, the transition from coal and oil to wind, solar, and geothermal energy will move very fast. If we remove the massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, we will move even faster.
Although this energy transition may seem farfetched, it is moving ahead, and at an exciting pace in some countries. For example, four states in northern Germany now get at least 46 percent of their electricity from wind. For Denmark, the figure is 26 percent. In the United States, both Iowa and South Dakota now get one fifth of their electricity from wind farms. Solar power in Europe can now satisfy the electricity needs of some 15 million households. Kenya now gets one fifth of its electricity from geothermal energy. And Indonesia is shooting for 9,500 megawatts of geothermal generating capacity by 2025, which would meet 56 percent of current electricity needs.
In addition to the carbon tax, we need to reduce dependence on the automobile by upgrading public transportation worldwide to European standards. The world has already proved that passenger rail systems can be electric. As we shift from traditional oil-powered engines to plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars, we can substitute electricity from renewable sources for oil. In the meantime, as the U.S. automobile fleet, which peaked in 2008, shrinks, U.S. gasoline use will continue the decline of recent years. This decline, in the country that consumes more gasoline than the next 16 countries combined, is a welcome new trend.
Along with stabilizing climate, another key component to avoiding a breakdown in the food system is to raise water productivity. This begins with agriculture, simply because 70 percent of all water use goes to irrigation. The least efficient irrigation technologies are flood and furrow irrigation. Sprinkler irrigation, using the center-pivot systems that are widely seen in the crop circles in the western U.S. Great Plains, and drip irrigation are far more efficient. The advantage of drip irrigation is that it applies water very slowly at a rate that the plants can use, losing little to evaporation. It simultaneously raises yields and reduces water use.
Another option is to encourage the use of more water-efficient crops, such as wheat, instead of rice. China banned rice production in the Beijing region. Moving down the food chain also saves water.
Although urban water use is relatively small compared with that used for irrigation, cities too can save water. Some cities now are beginning to recycle much if not most of the water they use. Singapore, whose freshwater supplies are severely restricted by geography, relies on a graduated water tax—the more water you use, the more you pay per gallon—and an extensive water recycling program to meet the needs of its 5 million residents.
The key to raising water use efficiency is price policy. Because water is routinely underpriced, especially that used for irrigation, it is used wastefully. Pricing water to encourage conservation could lead to huge gains in water use efficiency, in effect expanding the supply that could in turn be used to expand the irrigated area.
The third big supply-side challenge after stabilizing climate and raising water productivity is controlling soil erosion. With topsoil blowing away at a record rate and two huge dust bowls forming in Asia and Africa, stabilizing soils will take a heavy investment in conservation measures. Perhaps the best example of a large-scale effort to reduce soil erosion came in the 1930s, after a combination of overplowing and land mismanagement created a dust bowl that threatened to turn the U.S. Great Plains into a vast desert.
In response to this traumatic experience, the United States introduced revolutionary changes in agricultural practices, including returning highly erodible land to grass, terracing, and planting tree shelterbelts.
Another valuable tool in the soil conservation tool kit is no-till farming. Instead of the traditional practice of plowing land and discing or harrowing it to prepare the seedbed, and then using a mechanical cultivator to control weeds in row crops, farmers simply drill seeds directly through crop residues into undisturbed soil, controlling weeds with herbicides when necessary. In addition to reducing erosion, this practice retains water, raises soil organic matter content, and greatly reduces energy use for tillage.
In the United States, the no-till area went from 7 million hectares in 1990 to 26 million hectares (67 million acres) in 2007. Now widely used in the production of corn and soybeans, no-till agriculture has spread rapidly in the western hemisphere, covering 26 million hectares each in Brazil and Argentina and 13 million hectares in Canada. Australia, with 17 million hectares, rounds out the five leading no-till countries.
These initiatives do not constitute a menu from which to pick and choose. We need to take all these actions simultaneously. They reinforce each other. We will not likely be able to stabilize population unless we eradicate poverty. We will not likely be able to restore the earth’s natural systems without stabilizing population and stabilizing climate. Nor can we eradicate poverty without reversing the decline of the earth’s natural systems.
Achieving all these goals to reduce demand and increase supply requires that we redefine security. We have inherited a definition of security from the last century, a century dominated by two world wars and a cold war, that is almost exclusively military in focus. When the term national security comes up in Washington, people automatically think of expanded military budgets and more-advanced weapon systems. But armed aggression is no longer the principal threat to our future. The overriding threats in this century are climate change, population growth, spreading water shortages, rising food prices, and politically failing states.
It is no longer possible to separate food security and security more broadly defined. It is time to redefine security not just in an intellectual sense but also in a fiscal sense. We have the resources we need to fill the family planning gap, to eradicate poverty, and to raise water productivity, but these measures require a reallocation of our fiscal resources to respond to the new security threats.
Beyond this, diverting a big chunk of the largely obsolete military budget into incentives to invest in rooftop solar panels, wind farms, geothermal power plants, and more energy-efficient lighting and household appliances would accelerate the energy transition. The incentives needed to jump-start this massive energy restructuring are large, but not beyond our reach. We can justify this expense simply by considering the potentially unbearable costs of continuing with business as usual.
We have to mobilize quickly. Time is our scarcest resource. Success depends on moving at wartime speed. It means, for example, transforming the world energy economy at a pace reminiscent of the restructuring of the U.S. industrial economy in 1942 following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
On January 6, 1942, a month after the attack, Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined arms production goals in his State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress and the American people. He said the United States was going to produce 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes, and thousands of ships. Given that the country was still in a depression-mode economy, people wondered how this could be done. It required a fundamental reordering of priorities and some bold moves. The key to the 1942 industrial restructuring was the government’s ban on the sale of cars that forced the auto industry into arms manufacturing. The ban lasted from early 1942 until the end of 1944. Every one of President Roosevelt’s arms production goals was exceeded.
If the United States could totally transform its industrial economy in a matter of months in 1942, then certainly it can lead the world in restructuring the energy economy, stabilizing population, and rebuilding world grain stocks. The stakes now are even higher than they were in 1942. The challenge then was to save the democratic way of life, which was threatened by the fast-expanding empires of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Today the challenge is to save civilization itself.
Scientists and many other concerned individuals have long sensed that the world economy had moved onto an environmentally unsustainable path. This has been evident to anyone who tracks trends such as deforestation, soil erosion, aquifer depletion, collapsing fisheries, and the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. What was not so clear was exactly where this unsustainable path would lead. It now seems that the most imminent effect will be tightening supplies of food. Food is the weak link in our modern civilization—just as it was for the Sumerians, Mayans, and many other civilizations that have come and gone. They could not separate their fate from that of their food supply. Nor can we.
The challenge now is to move our early twenty-first-century civilization onto a sustainable path. Every one of us needs to be involved. This is not just a matter of adjusting lifestyles by changing light bulbs or recycling newspapers, important though those actions are. Environmentalists have talked for decades about saving the planet, but now the challenge is to save civilization itself. This is about restructuring the world energy economy and doing it before climate change spirals out of control and before food shortages overwhelm our political system. And this means becoming politically active, working to reach the goals outlined above.
We all need to select an issue and go to work on it. Find some friends who share your concern and get to work. The overriding priority is redefining security and reallocating fiscal resources accordingly. If your major concern is population growth, join one of the internationally oriented groups and lobby to fill the family planning gap. If your overriding concern is climate change, join the effort to close coal-fired power plants. We can prevent a breakdown of the food system, but it will require a huge political effort undertaken on many fronts and with a fierce sense of urgency.
We all have a stake in the future of civilization. Many of us have children. Some of us have grandchildren. We know what we have to do. It is up to you and me to do it. Saving civilization is not a spectator sport.
The Washington Post has called Lester R. Brown “one of the world’s most influential thinkers.” He started his career as a farmer, growing tomatoes in New Jersey with his brother. After earning a degree in Agricultural Science from Rutgers University, he spent six months in rural India, an experience that changed his life and career. Brown founded the WorldWatch Institute and then the Earth Policy Institute, where he now serves as President. The purpose of the Earth Policy Institute is to provide a vision of an environmentally sustainable economy, a roadmap of how to get from here to there—as well as an ongoing assessment of progress. Brown has authored many books. His most recent is Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. It is available online at www.earth-policy.org/books/fpep and at booksellers. Supporting data, endnotes, and additional resources are available for free on the website.