Foreign Policy Blogs

Lester Brown: Food crisis 2011 is here

Are rising global food prices here to stay?  Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute thinks so, and warns that things will only get worse in the face of climate change, increasing population, water scarcity, and soil erosion.

In “The Great Food Crisis of 2011” published in Foreign Policy Magazine, Brown argued the difference between past food crises and the present one:

“Whereas in years past, it’s been weather that has caused a spike in commodities prices, now it’s trends on both sides of the food supply/demand equation that are driving up prices. On the demand side, the culprits are population growth, rising affluence, and the use of grain to fuel cars. On the supply side: soil erosion, aquifer depletion, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, the plateauing of crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries, and — due to climate change — crop-withering heat waves and melting mountain glaciers and ice sheets. These climate-related trends seem destined to take a far greater toll in the future. “

Brown goes on to give examples of those stresses on the global food system.  For example, on the supply side, Saudi Arabia once relied on its own aquifer, or an underground water supply, which is now dried up.  From 2007-2010, Saudi wheat production fell by two-thirds, and “by 2012, wheat production will likely end entirely,” according to Brown.  This is no doubt part of Saudi Arabia’s recent impetus to lease land in Africa which was discussed earlier on the GFC blog.

On the demand side, Brown points out there is some good news in terms of our increasing population: “World population growth, which peaked at 2 percent per year around 1970, dropped below 1.2 percent per year in 2010. But because the world population has nearly doubled since 1970, we are still adding 80 million people each year.”  In addition to these new mouths, 3 billion people are “moving up the food chain” and consuming more grain-intensive livestock and poultry, generating even more demand for grains.

Biofuels are also increasing demand for grains.  According to the article, “In the United States, which harvested 416 million tons of grain in 2009, 119 million tons went to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars. That’s enough to feed 350 million people for a year.”

With these and other increasing stresses on food security, any hope for a “return to normal” state of affairs is unrealistic, according to Brown.

“Unless governments quickly redefine security and shift expenditures from military uses to investing in climate change mitigation, water efficiency, soil conservation, and population stabilization, the world will in all likelihood be facing a future with both more climate instability and food price volatility. If business as usual continues, food prices will only trend upward.”

Posted by Rishi Sidhu.

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  • Frank Hulbert Jr

    I live on a cattle ranch in Arkansas and both Arkansas and Oklahoma has been getting longer droughts each year and this year so far we have had very little rain in 17 months. Our 4 acre pond is almost dry and it is fed by artesian well. Our gardens and truck patch is burnt up and it has been replanted twice last year and once so far this year.

    Farmers are having problems in their gardens. Wells are going dry and Americans need to change congress and the senate so farmers not corporations can sell food to the american people.. We have a 150 mile radious of where we can sell our food. Corporations have a monopoly over the american farmers and rancher. Young people see no reason to stay on the farm since corporations have taken our profits away from us. In western Arkansas we cannot send food to New York, etc due to laws on the books. The corporations are taking over the food supply for cattle farmers and telling us how much we can make and the farmer and cattle ranchers have to take what the corporations force us to take. We can produce a lot more but the corporations and the government USDA and other reglatory agencies wont let us produce more.

    Chicken plants are draining water supply and prices for meat products will skyrocket due to reglatory laws and burocratics payoff.

    Help the farmers and Cattle ranchers and all the young people who want to grow food for the american people.