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More Foodless Days Ahead, Unless ‘We’ Act Now


Cotton farmer Traore, 29, checks his cotton field outside Koutiala, Mali
Karim Traore, 29, a cotton farmer in Koutiala, Mali, checks his field for imperfections in August 2012. Traore said that good rains last year increased his crops, which he will sell to the Malian national cotton board. JOE PENNEY

Is the planet full? And how many plates are empty? These are the first two questions that came to my mind from the title of Lester R. Brown‘s new book, “Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity.”

With world population now standing at 7.1 billion and projected to exceed 9.3 billion by midcentury, most demographers would shy away from the phrase “full planet.” To be sure, world population grew at unprecedented rates during the past century, nearly quadrupling during the 20th century. It is therefore understandable that Brown, an internationally known environmentalist and president of the Earth Policy Institute, might view the planet as full, especially since he has lived through an extraordinary period where the world gained 5 billion additional inhabitants and he realizes the far-reaching consequences of this demographic growth on the environment and human survival.

Turning to those empty plates, it’s widely recognized that the world currently produces enough food to feed everyone. The problem, however, is that too many people – about a billion residing mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent – do not have sufficient land to grow or income to buy enough food. As a result, too many people are facing meals of empty plates. Brown reports, for example, that about a quarter of the families in India and Nigeria now endure foodless days.

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Moving beyond the catchy title, the purpose of Brown’s book is first, to raise understanding of the challenge of an approaching unmanageable food shortage with time running out; and second, to inspire people to take the needed action to avert this crisis. While Brown does a commendable job at raising awareness of a coming food crisis, the aim of inspiring action remains inconclusive.

The book is organized around 11 interesting, informative chapters that focus on diverse issues relating to food production and consumption, including population growth, eroding soils, water use abuse, climate change and leveling of grain yields. Brown presents his compelling arguments in straightforward language, buttressed with numerous facts, statistics and graphs.

A key observation he makes is that as food supplies tighten, the geopolitics of food are fast overshadowing the geopolitics of oil. The first signs of trouble came in 2007;  that year, 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.

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Lester R. Brown, environmentalist and author of "Full Planet, Empty Plates"
Lester R. Brown, environmentalist and author of "Full Planet, Empty Plates."

Brown also notes that as of mid-2012, hundreds of land acquisition deals had been negotiated or were under negotiation, some of them exceeding a million acres. These “land grabs” in poorer developing countries involved at least 140 million acres, exceeding the combined cropland devoted to corn and wheat in the United States. This campaign of acquisitions has become a land rush as governments – many seeking food security – agribusiness firms and private investors seek control of acreage wherever they can buy or lease it.

As with many environmentalists, Brown considers population growth a major factor behind the approaching food crisis. Although world population growth is slower than in the recent past, the planet is continuing to bring 219,000 additional people to dinner every evening, with many of them facing nothing on their plates.

Besides presenting convincing arguments about an pending food crisis, Brown focuses on the crucial issues that need action. On the demand side of the equation, he identifies four pressing needs: stabilize world population; eradicate poverty; reduce excessive meat consumption; and reverse biofuel policies that encourage the use of food, land or water that could otherwise be used to feed people.

On the supply side of the equation, Brown presents several challenges, including stabilizing climate, raising water productivity and conserving soil. While admitting that stabilizing the climate will not be easy, he believes it can be done if we act quickly. It will require a huge reduction in carbon emissions, some 80 percent within a decade, to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

Another major initiative proposed by Brown that can quickly lower food prices is ending biofuel mandates. For Brown, no social justification exists for the massive conversion of food into fuel for cars. Instead, he advocates a growing reliance on the plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars now coming to market, which can run on local wind-generated electricity at a gasoline-equivalent cost of 80 cents a gallon.

Even a quick read of the book will raise one’s understanding of an impending food crisis. Readers are likely to agree with Brown that the world may be much closer to an unmanageable food shortage – replete with soaring food prices, spreading food unrest with malnutrition and starvation for some and ultimately political instability – than most people realize.

"Full Planet, Empty Plates," by Lester R. BrownWhile his presentation of the challenge is convincing and his goal to inspire action is laudable, the problem at the heart of his book – as well as many other books of this type – is how to take the necessary actions to avert an unmanageable food shortage. He calls on the world to act now, but he is unclear on how these steps will be achieved.

Throughout his book, Brown relies on the term “we.”  A few examples noted in his conclusion are: “We cannot claim that we are unaware of the trends that are undermining our food supply and thus our civilization.  . . . We have to mobilize quickly.  . . . We know what to do.”

Evidently, he is not referring to his fellow Americans but to all the world’s citizens. While Brown’s “we” relates to the planet’s 7 billion people, for most of them, especially government officials, policy makers and politicians, the term “we” refers to a considerably smaller group, such as a nation, region, province or even city. The overriding principle for most is: We’re going to remain free, independent and responsible for taking of ourselves and you others will have to do the same.

Brown recognizes that worldwide action is required to address the coming food crisis and the sooner the better. Except for his reliance on the global “we,” however, his book does not elaborate on issues fundamental to tackling a food crisis. For example, who are the key actors deciding on the necessary actions? What are the major institutions or mechanisms for carrying out and monitoring the proposed actions? And how will these steps be financed?

Given his considerable knowledge, experience and writing skills, perhaps Brown may be persuaded to write an additional chapter to his book – or even another interesting book – that directly addresses the basic issues of who, what and how to realize the actions that are needed to avoid an unmanageable food shortage.

“Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity,” by Lester R. Brown;  978-0-39334-415-8

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Joseph Chamie recently retired as research director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York and as editor of the International Migration Review. He was formerly the director of the United Nations Population Division, having worked at the UN on population and development for more than a quarter century.

Chamie has written numerous population studies for the UN and, under his own name, written studies about population growth, fertility, estimates and projections, international migration and population and development policy. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a trustee of the Migration Policy Institute. He lives in the New York metro area.

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11 years ago

What a wonderful photograph!

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