Foreign Policy Blogs

The new “era of scarcity” – FP Magazine pt. 1

The new “era of scarcity” - FP Magazine pt. 1

Foreign Policy magazine has come out with their “food issue,” in which authors discuss how food is a driver of world politics.  While the authors discussed food’s role in the recent protests in the Middle East, and well as the intersection of hunger and poverty (the hungry are the poor and the poor are the hungry but perhaps it’s not that simple…), this first post will be about Lester Brown’s essay on the new global order arising from competition over limited resources of food.

Lester Brown defines the coming years as “a new era of food scarcity.” This Malthusian era is characterized by a decreasing food supply and by increasing demand, leading to ever higher food prices and instability that accompany them – for example the recent global food crisis and the 2011 “Arab Spring.”  Lester Brown pretty much paints a doomsday scenario if our current “business as usual” approach does not change, and while one can only hope his prophecies do not bear true, he tries to make a persuasive case.

Water tables

Take mother earth’s imperiled food supply.  According to Brown, declining water tables, increased soil erosion, desertification, and global warming are all putting new pressures on our ability to produce enough food.  Brown calls countries like Saudi Arabia “food bubbles,” where overpumping of aquifers created food surpluses, but who must now look elsewhere to import its food because the aquifers are empty and arable land at home is depleted.  According to Brown, India and China are food bubbles that are soon to arrive.


Along with decreasing water supplies is increased soil erosion and desertification.  As the UN states, the causes of desertification are “unsustainable human activities,” such as “overcultivation, overgrazing, deforestation, and poor irrigation practices,” as well as “climate variability.” As Brown writes, this sort of “land mismanagement is undermining the productivity of one-third of the world’s cropland.”  Two standout areas of desertification are western Mongolia and western China, as well as central Africa, where “desertification is having its greatest impact.”

Climate change

Climate ecologists state as a rule of thumb that a temperature of 1 degree above the growing season ideal results in a grain production loss of 10%.  With the rate of global warming extremely high, these changes could have a drastic effect on our ability to produce enough food.

Technology challenges

Brown points out that advances in crop yielding technology are leveling off among major industrialized producers since the middle of last century.   Brown does not address whether developing nations will be able to reduce the dearth in the global food supply by otherwise “modernizing” their own agricultural practices.  “ The UN and the Food and Agricultural Organization believe that they can, however, and have placed “increased agricultural investment” at the heart of their strategy for battling hunger in the developing world. The question of the sustainability of increased agricultural investment remains to be answered however, especially in light of the declining water tables and global warming that are now part of the equation.

Population and changing demands

On the demand side, the Malthusian doomsday scenario of too large a population is being borne out.  The world’s population will increase to 9 billion by 2050, which equals 80 million new people every year, mostly in the developing world.  Brown keys in on the changing demographics and demands of this new population that will further tax global food supply.  On the one hand is the oft-mentioned increasing wealth of China and India and the increased demand for meat that comes along with it.

On the other hand is the global desire for renewable energy.  Grain in the form of biofuels is now a competitor with oil, and in the U.S.A. grain based ethanol was over 1/4th of the total U.S. grain harvest in 2010.  Using that production for food instead of energy could potentially bring prices down – something that is in the interests of the consumer, but not of the farmer.

Impact on global politics

This is the “era of scarcity” that promises to modulate global politics in ways that it never has before.  One of Lester Brown’s major points is that the spirit of cooperation on food security that was established post World War II has eroded outside of multilateral institutions, exemplified on the one hand by the phenomena of “land grabbing.” The mutual benefits that “land grabbing” would seem to secure (jobs, infrastructure investment, agricultural inputs) are not readily delivered, according to Brown, making the promise of improved food security in developing countries even farther out of reach.

Protectionist policies enacted by governments, such as Russia’s banning of exports during its recent heat wave, can prevent the flow of food to countries that need to purchase it because they are not self-sufficient on their own.  This is the other side of free trade.  To be sure, protectionist sentiment against free trade has always been around, take the protests against NAFTA in the U.S., or the exhortation to “buy American” when the Japanese very successfully entered the U.S. car market in the 1970s.  But protectionist policies around the global supply of food can have much more volatile consequences, leading to the sort of protests that helped bring down the leaders of both Tunisia and Egypt.

Lester Brown is good to warn about this new era of scarcity and its impact on global politics.  But one thing Brown does not address is why, when the world currently produces enough food to feed the everybody, we still have nearly 1 billion hungry.  This is not a problem of scarcity, but a problem of poverty.  In the next post, we’ll blog about another article in the food issue of FP magazine written by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, directors of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about the surprising lessons they learned concerning the intersection of hunger and poverty.

Posted by Rishi Sidhu and Michael Lucivero



Rishi Sidhu

Rishi Sidhu is a freelance writer and journalist based in Boston, Massachusetts. He found his love for international relations while teaching English on the Japan Exchange and Teaching program in the rural town of Agematsu in Nagano prefecture. After 2 years in Japan, Rishi traveled to India to study Hindi and pursue his journalism career. He became interested in food security when he first heard people in India complaining about rising food prices and loves the issue because of its impact on all aspects of human society; from health to politics, from environmentalism to global development.