By Lester R. Brown

As food supplies have tightened, a new geopolitics of food has emerged—a world in which the global competition for land and water is intensifying and each country is fending for itself. We cannot claim that we are unaware of the trends that are undermining our food supply and thus our civilization. We know what we need to do.
    
There was a time when if we got into trouble on the food front, ministries of agriculture would offer farmers more financial incentives, like higher price supports, and things would soon return to normal. But responding to the tightening of food supplies today is a far more complex undertaking. It involves the ministries of energy, water resources, transportation, and health and family planning, among others. Because of the looming specter of climate change that is threatening to disrupt agriculture, we may find that energy policies will have an even greater effect on future food security than agricultural policies do. In short, avoiding a breakdown in the food system requires the mobilization of our entire society.
    
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 world needs to focus on filling the gap in reproductive health care and family planning while working to eradicate poverty. Progress on one will reinforce progress on the other. Two cornerstones of eradicating poverty are making sure that all children—both boys and girls—get at least an elementary school education and rudimentary health care. And the poorest countries need a school lunch program, one that will encourage families to send children to school and that will enable them to learn once they get there.

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 in prices, such as the costs to society of global warming. Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, noted when releasing his landmark study on the costs of climate change 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.

Along with stabilizing climate, another key component to avoiding a breakdown in the food system is to raise water productivity. This could be patterned after the worldwide effort launched over a half-century ago to raise cropland productivity. This extraordinarily successful earlier endeavor tripled the world grain yield per acre between 1950 and 2011.

Raising water productivity begins with agriculture, simply because 70 percent of all water use goes to irrigation. Some irrigation technologies are much more efficient than others. The least efficient 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. Because it is labor-intensive, it is used primarily to produce high-value vegetable crops or in orchards.

Another option is to encourage the use of more water-efficient crops, such as wheat, instead of rice. Egypt, for example, limits the production of rice. China banned rice production in the Beijing region. Moving down the food chain also saves water.

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.

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.

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.

For the full report click here.

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From Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester R. Brown (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.). Supporting data, video, and slideshows are available for free download at www.earthpolicy.org/books/fpep.

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By Lester R. Brown

Overnight, China has become a leading world grain importer, set to buy a staggering 22 million tons in the 2013–14 trade year, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture projections. As recently as 2006—just eight years ago—China had a grain surplus and was exporting 10 million tons. What caused this dramatic shift?

It wasn’t until 20 years ago, after I wrote an article entitled “Who Will Feed China?”, that I began to fully appreciate what a sensitive political issue food security was to the Chinese. The country’s leaders were all survivors of the Great Famine of 1959–61, when some 36 million people starved to death. Yet while the Chinese government was publicly critical of my questioning the country’s ability to feed itself, it began quietly reforming its agriculture. Among other things, Beijing adopted a policy of grain self-sufficiency, an initiative that is now faltering.

Since 2006, China’s grain use has been climbing by 17 million tons per year. (See data.) For perspective, this compares with Australia’s annual wheat harvest of 24 million tons. With population growth slowing, this rise in grain use is largely the result of China’s huge population moving up the food chain and consuming more grain-based meat, milk, and eggs.

Net Imports of Grain by China, 1960-2013

In 2013, the world consumed an estimated 107 million tons of pork—half of which was eaten in China. China’s 1.4 billion people now consume six times as much pork as the United States does. Even with its recent surge in pork, however, China’s overall meat intake per person still totals only 120 pounds per year, scarcely half the 235 pounds in the United States. But, the Chinese, like so many others around the globe, aspire to an American lifestyle. To consume meat like Americans do, China would need to roughly double its annual meat supply from 80 million tons to 160 million tons. Using the rule of thumb of three to four pounds of grain to produce one pound of pork, an additional 80 million tons of pork would require at least 240 million tons of feedgrain.

Where will this grain come from? Farmers in China are losing irrigation water as aquifers are depleted. The water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces half of the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, is falling fast, by over 10 feet per year in some areas. Meanwhile, water supplies are being diverted to nonfarm uses and cropland is being lost to urban and industrial construction. With China’s grain yield already among the highest in the world, the potential for China to increase production within its own borders is limited.

The 2013 purchase by a Chinese conglomerate of the American firm Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s largest pig-growing and pork-processing company, was really a pork security move. So, too, is China’s deal with Ukraine to provide $3 billion in loans in exchange for corn, as well as negotiations with Ukrainian companies for access to land. Such moves by China exemplify the new geopolitics of food scarcity that affects us all.

China is not alone in the scramble for food. An estimated 2 billion people in other countries are also moving up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. The combination of population growth, rising affluence, and the conversion of one third of the U.S. grain harvest into ethanol to fuel cars is expanding the world demand for grain by a record 43 million tons per year, double the annual growth of a decade ago.

The world’s farmers are struggling to keep pace. When grain supplies tightened in times past, prices rose and farmers responded by producing more. Now the situation is far more complex. Water shortages, soil erosion, plateauing crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries, and climate change pose mounting threats to production.

As China imports increasing quantities of grain, it is competing directly with scores of other grain-importing countries, such as Japan, Mexico, and Egypt. The result will be a worldwide rise in food prices. Those living on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder—people who are already struggling just to survive—will find it even more difficult to get by. Low-income families trapped by food price inflation will be unable to afford enough food to eat every day.

The world is transitioning from an era of abundance to one dominated by scarcity. China’s turn to the outside world for massive quantities of grain is forcing us to recognize that we are in trouble on the food front. Can we reverse the trends that are tightening food supplies, or is the world moving toward a future of rising food prices and political unrest?

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Lester R. Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of Breaking New Ground: A Personal History (W.W. Norton, 2013) and Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. Check out our supporting slideshow for additional data. More resources are available at www.earth-policy.org.

By Lester R. Brown

The scene plays out in India.

At a reception, I met the head of Indian operations for Esso (now ExxonMobil). When I asked him how business was, he said it was great. In particular, diesel sales to fuel irrigation pumps were nearly double the previous year’s level. Why? Because farmers were pumping continuously to try to save their crops.

Soon after, I met an embassy staff person, an avid duck hunter. He usually took off a few weeks in the fall to go hunting on a lake up north. This year he had canceled his vacation because the lake was dry.

An agronomist who worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) traveled extensively in rural India and often stopped his car in the countryside to take soil samples. But he complained to me that he could no longer get good core samples: the soil was so dry it crumbled and fell out of his auger as he withdrew it.

This was something that I had never seen in my years of farming. I became convinced that India faced a huge crop shortfall.

It was the fall of 1965 and I had come to India because the USAID mission in New Delhi had asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for someone to help them with an agricultural analysis.

What caught my attention in New Delhi right away was the condition of that year’s grain crop. The Indian government officially estimated grain demand for 1965 would be 95 million tons. I soon began to wonder whether a harvest anywhere near this amount would materialize. I found reports of drought in virtually every corner of the country. The drought appeared to be almost everywhere.

Since the United States was the dominant world grain supplier—the only country that could even think about filling a deficit of this scale—this warranted an urgent cable to alert my boss, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman. If a potential deficit of this magnitude was a real prospect, he needed the information as soon as possible.

However, if I were going to sound such an alarm, I needed to estimate the size of the deficit, despite having only fragmentary data. If my estimate of the deficit was too high, the United States would over mobilize and waste resources. But if my estimate was too low, that could lead to famine. I worked to strike the right tone in the cable to Freeman.

Off to Rome

The cable actually went to Washington on Wednesday, November 10. On Friday of the following week, I received a cable from Secretary Freeman. It was short and cryptic: “Please meet me in Rome tomorrow morning.” He would be in Rome attending the biennial conference of agricultural ministers organized by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

At that point, I asked to meet with India’s minister of food and agriculture, C. Subramaniam, to share my assessment with him. I urged him not to play it down when he got to Rome—unless he was convinced that it was off base. Otherwise, the U.S. government would not mobilize its grain aid quickly enough and the needed shipments might not arrive in time.

When I met Secretary Freeman on Saturday morning, he said he had shared my cable with President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ). My analysis played to one of LBJ’s deepest concerns: that India was neglecting its agriculture as it concentrated on industrialization. Its government simply seemed to assume that the United States would fill any grain deficits that India might face.

Creating dependency

If India continued on this path, it would become dangerously dependent on the United States in the event of any crop shortfalls. That was all the more problematic as this was a time when scores of other countries also depended on U.S. grain.

President Johnson and his team knew that if the recent agricultural trends in India continued, eventually India’s grain needs would exceed the United States’ capacity to meet them. When an Indian official was asked by a reporter about the adequacy of the country’s grain stocks, he responded, “Our reserves are in the grain elevators in Kansas.”

It was this casual thinking about food security in India, then a country with a population more than double that of the United States and growing by 10 million per year that alarmed the U.S. president. It led to what came to be known as the “short-tether policy” on U.S. food aid.

Constructive conditionality

LBJ had asked Secretary Freeman to get a commitment from the Indians to develop their agriculture—and fast. Any continuing food aid from the United States would be contingent on this.

India was facing a potentially massive famine. I wanted to make sure that both governments understood the gravity and urgency of the situation. Rarely have two governments been in a situation where the stakes, measured in human lives, were so high.

Freeman, Subramaniam and I met on Monday morning to discuss the situation. They asked me to draft an agreement between the two countries based on our discussion. At the end of the day, I had a draft. The agreement was short, three pages double-spaced.

I knew what India had to do. The government’s food price policy, which catered to the urban population by imposing ceiling prices on wheat and rice, had to be replaced. What was needed was a floor price guarantee for the farmers growing these grains. Fertilizer supplies had to increase rapidly. This meant shifting fertilizer production from the public sector to the private sector.

There were high-yielding dwarf varieties of wheat. Initially developed in Mexico by Norman Borlaug and his colleagues with support of the Rockefeller Foundation, they had been tested in India and performed very well. India needed to accelerate the dissemination of these high-yielding wheats.

Creating linkages across borders

Once we had negotiated the agreement that contained these essential points, Freeman cabled a draft to LBJ for approval. The president approved it immediately and Secretary Freeman signed the agreement. In essence, he committed the United States to providing massive food assistance—as long as India adopted the reforms.

The Indian government’s original five-year agricultural plan was a much longer, detailed bureaucratic document. My new draft was only a few pages on the key initiatives needed. Its strength was that it linked the movement of wheat from the United States to the implementation of a new food production strategy in India. The monsoon failure and the massive looming grain deficit had changed everything.

Inside the Indian government, Agriculture Minister Subramaniam took all the necessary steps. In effect, he said: Our agriculture is in trouble. We could be facing a huge grain deficit, a potentially massive loss of life. We have to reform our agriculture. Here is what we need to do.

You reform, we deliver

One thing the Indians did not anticipate was the extent to which the Johnson Administration was going to use food aid to force the Indian government to follow through on every measure in the agreement. If the Indian government did not accomplish certain measures, the ships would stop leaving U.S. ports.

It took the Indians a while to realize that LBJ was dead serious about the reforms. Several times in the months ahead, the ships stopped sailing because India had not fulfilled its part in implementing the bilateral agreement. They would move again only when India had met its commitments.

The greatest challenge was actually importing the 10 million tons of grain in a single year when India previously had never imported anywhere near this amount before.

To assess whether—and how—this massive amount could be moved in time, Secretary Freeman called on logistics specialists in the USDA, men who had served in the Army Quartermaster Corps in World War II. During the war, they had become masters of moving equipment and arms from point A to point B. Their ingenuity was boundless.

Yankee ingenuity to help India

What they did to greatly increase India’s port capacity was to lease one of the largest supertankers afloat at the time, the Manhattan. They then anchored the massive ship in the Bay of Bengal and used it as a port.

On one side, ships from the United States arrived with grain that was pumped on board and then unloaded on the other side into small, flat-bottomed, local boats called dhows, which were about 30 feet long.

Thousands of dhows were used to move the grain up the Ganges River and its tributaries to reach the parts of the country where the drought was most severe and the risk of starvation the greatest. It was remarkably successful.

The result

Final data on the 1965 Indian harvest showed it coming in at 77 million tons of grain—8 million tons below the Indian government’s original estimated consumption. In the effort to stave off famine, the United States that year shipped a fifth of its wheat harvest to India.

At that time, it was the largest movement of food ever between two countries. Some 600 ships, nearly two a day, left U.S. ports laden with wheat for India. Measured by the number of ships used in a single logistical operation, it ranks high on the all-time list. This record flow of food from the United States to India avoided what could have been one of history’s most devastating famines.

With the new agricultural development strategy, India doubled its wheat harvest in seven years, a record for growth in production of a food staple in a major country. No country, not even the United States, had ever managed such rapid growth.

For the United States, this was one of our finest moments. And not just because millions of lives were saved, but because our government had seen a rare opportunity to restructure India’s agriculture by dramatically boosting land productivity.

 

This essay is an adapted excerpt from “Breaking New Ground: A Personal History,” by Lester R. Brown, New York, W.W. Norton, 2013, and originally appeared in The Globalist on February 6, 2014. For more, check out Chapter 1, now up on our website, and browse through photo albums and hear from Lester Brown himself in select videos.

By Lester R. Brown

At the international level, water conflicts among countries dominate the headlines. But within countries it is the competition for water between cities and farms that preoccupies political leaders. Neither economics nor politics favors farmers. They almost always lose out to cities.

Indeed, in many countries farmers now face not only a shrinking water supply but also a shrinking share of that shrinking supply. In large areas of the United States, such as the southern Great Plains and the Southwest, virtually all water is now spoken for. The growing water needs of major cities and thousands of small towns often can be satisfied only by taking water from agriculture. As the value of water rises, more farmers are selling their irrigation rights to cities, letting their land dry up.

In the western United States, hardly a day goes by without the announcement of a new sale. Half or more of all sales are by individual farmers or their irrigation districts to cities and municipalities. The risk is that now-productive land will turn back into desert.

Colorado, with a fast-growing population, has one of the world’s most active water markets. Cities and towns of all sizes are buying irrigation water rights from farmers and ranchers. In the Arkansas River basin, which occupies the southeastern quarter of the state, Colorado Springs and Aurora (a suburb of Denver) have already bought water rights to one third of the basin’s farmland. Aurora has purchased rights to water that was once used to irrigate 19,000 acres of cropland in the Arkansas valley. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 400,000 acres of farmland dried up statewide between 2000 and 2005.

Colorado is not alone in losing irrigation water. Farmers in India are also losing water to cities. This is strikingly evident in Chennai (formerly Madras), a city of 9 million on the east coast. As a result of the city government’s inability to supply water to many of its residents, a thriving tank-truck industry has emerged that buys water from nearby farmers and hauls it to the city’s thirsty residents.

For farmers near the city, the market price of water far exceeds the value of the crops they can produce with it. Unfortunately, the 13,000 tankers hauling water to Chennai are mining the region’s underground water resources. Water tables are falling and shallow wells have gone dry. Eventually even the deeper wells will go dry, depriving rural communities of both their food supply and their livelihood. The intensifying competition for water at the local level led India’s Minister of Water Resources to quip that he is actually the Minister of Water Conflicts.

In the competition for water between farmers on the one hand and cities and industries on the other, the economics do not favor agriculture. In countries such as China, where industrial development and the jobs associated with it are an overriding national economic goal, agriculture is becoming the residual claimant on the water supply.

In countries where virtually all water has been claimed, as in North Africa and the Middle East, cities can typically get more water only by taking it from irrigation. Countries then import grain to offset the loss of grain production. Since it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain, importing grain is the most efficient way to import water. Similarly, trading in grain futures is, in a sense, trading in water futures. To the extent that there is a world water market, it is embodied in the world grain market.

For the full report click here.

For water data click here.

From Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester R. Brown (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.) Supporting data, video, and slideshows are available for free download at www.earth-policy.org/books/fpep.

By Lester R. Brown

When German chemist Justus von Liebig demonstrated in 1847 that the major nutrients that plants removed from the soil could be applied in mineral form, he set the stage for the development of the fertilizer industry and a huge jump in world food production a century later. Growth in food production during the nineteenth century came primarily from expanding cultivated area. It was not until the mid-twentieth century, when land limitations emerged and raising yields became essential, that fertilizer use began to rise.

The growth in the world fertilizer industry after World War II was spectacular. Between 1950 and 1988, fertilizer use climbed from 14 million to 144 million tons. This period of remarkable worldwide growth came to an end when fertilizer use in the former Soviet Union fell precipitously after heavy subsidies were removed in 1988 and fertilizer prices there moved to world market levels. After 1990, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the effort of its former states to convert to market economies led to a severe economic depression in these transition economies. The combined effect of these shifts was a four-fifths drop in fertilizer use in the former Soviet Union between 1988 and 1995. After 1995 the decline bottomed out, and increases in other countries, particularly China and India, restored growth in world fertilizer use.

World Fertilizer Consumption, 1950-2013

As the world economy evolved from being largely rural to being highly urbanized, the natural nutrient cycle was disrupted. In traditional rural societies, food is consumed locally, and human and animal waste is returned to the land, completing the nutrient cycle. But in highly urbanized societies, where food is consumed far from where it is produced, using fertilizer to replace the lost nutrients is the only practical way to maintain land productivity. It thus comes as no surprise that the growth in fertilizer use closely tracks the growth in urbanization, with much of it concentrated in the last 60 years.

World Rural and Urban Populations, 1950-2010, with Projection for 2015

The big three grain producers—China, India, and the United States—account for more than half of world fertilizer consumption. In the United States, the growth in fertilizer use came to an end in 1980. China’s fertilizer use climbed rapidly in recent decades but has leveled off since 2007. In contrast, India’s fertilizer consumption is still on the rise, growing 5 percent annually. While China uses 50 million tons of fertilizer a year and India uses 28 million tons, the United States uses only 20 million tons. (See data.)

Fertilizer Consumption in China, India, and  the United States, 1961-2011

Given that China uses 2.5 times more fertilizer than the United States and that the two countries’ average annual grain output totals are similar—450 million tons in China compared to 400 million tons in the United States—the grain produced per ton of fertilizer in the United States is roughly twice that in China.

Grain Production Per Ton of Fertilizer in China, India, and the United States, 1961-2011

This is partly because American farmers are much more precise in matching application with need, but also partly because the United States is the world’s largest soybean producer. (Brazil’s soy production has recently skyrocketed, bringing it into contention with the United States.) The soybean, being a legume, fixes nitrogen in the soil that can be used by subsequent crops. U.S. farmers regularly plant corn and soybeans in a two-year rotation, thus reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer that has to be applied for the corn.

Soybean Production in Top Five Countries, 1965-2013

Despite this U.S. advantage in fertilizer use efficiency over China, over-application poses serious pollution problems in both countries. Fertilizer runoff from the U.S. Corn Belt, for example, contributes heavily to an annual oxygen-starved “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico—an area where sea life cannot exist, which in some years grows to the size of New Jersey. Research suggests that U.S. and Chinese farmers could use substantially less fertilizer and maintain or even increase productivity.

In many other agriculturally advanced economies, fertilizer use has actually fallen in recent decades. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, which together account for over one third of the European wheat harvest, have maintained high production levels despite significant declines in fertilizer use. Farmers in France and Germany now use half as much fertilizer as they did in the 1980s, while U.K. fertilizer use has dropped by 40 percent. And in Japan, 56 percent less fertilizer is now used than in the peak year of 1973.

Fertilizer Consumption in Japan and Selected European Countries, 1961-2011

There are still some countries with a large potential for expanding fertilizer use. But in the many countries that have effectively removed nutrient constraints on crop yields, applying more fertilizer has little effect on yields. For the world as a whole, the era of rapidly growing fertilizer use is now history.

 

For further reading on the global food situation, see Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, by Lester R. Brown (W.W. Norton: October 2012). Supporting data sets and PowerPoint presentations are online at www.earth-policy.org/books/fpep.

By Lester R. Brown

India is now the world’s third-largest grain producer after China and the United States. The adoption of higher-yielding crop varieties and the spread of irrigation have led to this remarkable tripling of output since the early 1960s. Unfortunately, a growing share of the water that irrigates three-fifths of India’s grain harvest is coming from wells that are starting to go dry. This sets the stage for a major disruption in food supplies for India’s growing population.

In recent years about 27 million wells have been drilled, chasing water tables downward in every Indian state. Even the typically conservative World Bank warned in 2005 that 15 percent of India’s food was being produced by overpumping groundwater. The situation has not improved, meaning that about 190 million Indians are being fed using water that cannot be sustained. This means that the dietary foundation for about 190 million people could disappear with little warning.

India’s grain is further threatened by global warming. Glaciers serve as reservoirs feeding Asia’s major rivers during the dry season. As Himalayan and Tibetan glaciers shrink, they provide more meltwater in the near term, but there will be far less in the future. To complicate matters, the monsoon patterns are changing too, making these annual deluges more difficult to predict.

What India is experiencing is a “food bubble”: an increase in food production based on the unsustainable use of irrigation water. And this is happening in a country where 43 percent of children under age 5 are underweight. A survey for Save the Children found that children in one out of four families experience “foodless days”—days where they do not eat at all. Almost half subsist on just one staple food, thus missing vital nutrients that come in a diversified diet.

Although poverty has been reduced for some, two-thirds of the population still live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank. And the population is growing by nearly 30 million every two years, equal to adding another Canada to the number of people to feed. Within 20 years, India’s population is expected to hit 1.5 billion, surpassing China.

To feed all those mouths, the government needs to go beyond the revamped food distribution program laid out in the Food Security Act signed into law in September. Averting a sudden and devastating collapse of the food bubble will require efforts to address the underlying threats to India’s food system. This involves ramping up initiatives in health, family planning and education to put the brakes on population growth. It also means rethinking energy and transportation policies to reduce India’s contribution to climate change. It is incredibly shortsighted to be building coal-fired power plants in a country where climate change threatens to worsen water shortages.

Overpumping aquifers is hard to stop, in part because it is invisible, only apparent once a well goes dry. In July, the Indian government belatedly announced that it would boost spending to map out the country’s aquifers to better understand water availability and the rate of depletion, but this is just one step. The energy subsidies that encourage heavy overpumping of underground water will have to be phased out. Traditional water harvesting—capturing the excess water that comes during monsoons in small ponds—can help create a buffer. Farmers can also reduce water use by using more-efficient irrigation techniques and by growing less thirsty crops—for example, more wheat and less rice.

Today’s situation is reminiscent of what I found in 1965 when I was sent to India by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman to help evaluate the country’s forthcoming five-year plan. There were drought conditions in almost every corner of the country. It quickly became clear to me that the harvest would not come close to meeting the estimated demand. Without food aid, famine would be unavoidable.

I alerted Freeman, met with U.S. and Indian officials and drafted a plan. Thus was born President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “short tether” policy, tying U.S. grain shipments to India to a restructuring of India’s agriculture. The U.S. government’s shipment of 10 million tons of grain—one-fifth of the U.S. harvest that year—to India in 1965 became the largest food relief effort in history.

Today, food security is India’s No. 1 challenge, as it was half a century ago, even though the country now produces close to 240 million tons of grain compared with the 95 million tons needed in 1965.

Will we witness famine if many wells run dry at the same time? Or will the United States be called on to again come to the rescue?

With a third of the U.S. grain harvest now going to fuel for cars and another third going to feed livestock, U.S. exports are down. Global demand is increasing rapidly as populations expand and as more people move up the food chain, consuming grain-intensive animal products. A tightening grain situation means rising food prices for all, a trend that will continue without a global mobilization to use water more efficiently and quickly stabilize population and climate.

In the meantime, we hope India’s wells won’t run dry too soon.

 

This piece originally ran in the LA Times on November 29, 2013. Lester R. Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute and the author of Breaking New Ground: A Personal History and Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. Data and additional resources available at www.earth-policy.org.

By Lester R. Brown

For most of the time that human beings have walked the earth, we lived as hunter-gatherers. The share of the human diet that came from hunting versus gathering varied with geographic location, hunting skills, and the season of the year. During the northern hemisphere winter, for instance, when there was little food to gather, people there depended heavily on hunting for survival. Our long history as hunter-gatherers left us with an appetite for animal protein that continues to shape diets today.

As recently as the closing half of the last century, a large part of the growth in demand for animal protein was still satisfied by the rising output of two natural systems: oceanic fisheries and rangelands. Between 1950 and 1990, the oceanic fish catch climbed from 17 million to 84 million tons, a nearly fivefold gain. During this period, the seafood catch per person more than doubled, climbing from 15 to 35 pounds.

This was the golden age of oceanic fisheries. The catch grew rapidly as fishing technologies evolved and as refrigerated processing ships began to accompany fishing fleets, enabling them to operate in distant waters. Unfortunately, the human appetite for seafood has outgrown the sustainable yield of oceanic fisheries. Today four fifths of fisheries are being fished at or beyond their sustainable capacity. As a result, many are in decline and some have collapsed.

Rangelands are also essentially natural systems. Located mostly in semiarid regions too dry to sustain agriculture, they are vast—covering roughly twice the area planted to crops.   In some countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, beef cattle are almost entirely grass-fed.  In others, such as the United States and those in Europe, beef is produced with a combination of grass and grain.

In every society where incomes have risen, the appetite for meat, milk, eggs, and seafood has generated an enormous growth in animal protein consumption. Today some 3 billion people are moving up the food chain. For people living at subsistence level, 60 percent or more of their calories typically come from a single starchy food staple such as rice, wheat, or corn. As incomes rise, diets are diversified with the addition of more animal protein.

World consumption of meat climbed from just under 50 million tons in 1950 to 280 million tons in 2010, more than a fivefold increase. Meanwhile, consumption per person went from 38 pounds to 88 pounds a year. The growth in consumption during this 60-year span was concentrated in the industrial and newly industrializing countries.

The type of animal protein that people choose to eat depends heavily on geography. Countries that are land-rich with vast grasslands—including the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Russia—depend heavily on beef or—as in Australia and Kazakhstan—mutton. Countries that are more densely populated and lack extensive grazing lands have historically relied much more on pork. Among these are Germany, Poland, and China. Island countries and those with long shorelines, such as Japan and Norway, have turned to the oceans for their animal protein.

Over time, global patterns of meat consumption have changed. In 1950, beef and pork totally dominated, leaving poultry a distant third. From 1950 until 1980, beef and pork production increased more or less apace. Beef production was pressing against the limits of grasslands, however, and more cattle were put in feedlots. Because cattle are not efficient in converting grain into meat, world beef production, which climbed from 19 million tons in 1950 to 53 million in 1990, has not expanded much since then.  In contrast, chickens are highly efficient in converting grain into meat. As a result, world poultry production, which grew slowly at first, accelerated, overtaking beef in 1997.

The world’s top two meat consumers are China and the United States. The United States was the leader until 1992, when it was overtaken by China.  As of 2012, twice as much meat is eaten in China as in the United States—71 million tons versus 35 million.

Although the world has had many years of experience in feeding nearly 80 million more people each year, it has much less experience with also providing for 3 billion people with rising incomes who want to move up the food chain and consume more grain intensive products. Whereas population growth generates demand for wheat and rice, humanities’ two food staples, it is rising affluence that is driving growth in the demand for corn, the world’s feedgrain. Historically, world corn and wheat production trends moved more or less together from 1950 until 2000. But then corn took off, climbing to 960 million tons in 2011 while wheat remained under 700 million tons.

It is the increase in consumption of livestock products plus the conversion of grain into fuel that have boosted the annual growth in world grain demand from the roughly 20 million tons a decade ago to over 40 million tons in recent years. As incomes continue to rise, the pressure on farmers to produce enough grain and soybeans to satisfy the growing appetite for livestock and poultry products will only intensify.

 

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From Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester R. Brown (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.) Supporting data, video, and slideshows are available for free download at www.earth-policy.org/books/fpep.