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Lester Brown on Full Planets, Empty Plates 5:07min


I think we’re in transition from an age of abundance and surpluses to one of scarcity. Throughout the last half of the last century, the big problem was surpluses. We had these huge stocks that we had accumulated and the market simply wasn’t big enough to absorb them, but as we neared the end of the century, that began to change. We’ve seen corn and soybean prices reach all-time highs. It’s not a situation that’s going to go away.

The growth in world demand for grain has now doubled what it was a decade ago. It was increasing about 21 million tons a year. Now suddenly the annual increase is 41 million tons a year. And the principal reason for that is so many people moving up the food chain now at the same time. We estimate maybe three billion people are now moving up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products: meat, milk, eggs. So that’s where the big growth in demand is coming from now. If the world economy continues to grow, that’s going to continue to put more and more pressure on the Earth’s food-producing capacity.

The share of our food dollar that goes to farmers is about 14% so most of the price of food that we buy is the cost of transporting, processing, marketing, and so forth. Those prices haven’t changed very much. So if the price of grain, corn, or wheat doubles, we get a little increase in our food prices. But if you live in New Delhi, India, for example, and you go to the market and you buy wheat, bring it home, and grind it into flour to make chapatis, if the world price of wheat doubles, the price of your food doubles because you buy the wheat as wheat. So there’s no cushion between rises in world wheat prices and consumption.

Ideally, when there’s an abundance of food, most—in most societies, people have three meals a day. But then as things begin to tighten, they drop down to two meals a day. They get really tight, then it’s one meal a day. And it’s survival, but it’s pretty close to the edge. What we’re seeing now is in a number of countries that low-income families are planning for foodless days. They cannot afford to buy enough wheat or rice or corn, whatever they’re eating, to have even one meal a day. So it’s just amazing to see that in a country like the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Nigeria or Ethiopia that a substantial percentage—can be twelve to 20, 24%—of the families now plan foodless days. This is really a new step in the tightening of the world food supply.

I don’t think most political leaders are aware of how tight things are getting for the low-income populations of the world. My goal is to be neither optimistic nor pessimistic but realistic. We’re in a difficult situation. Climate change presents a huge threat to future food security, and I think we should be mobilizing to cut carbon emissions fast. And by “fast,” I don’t mean 80% by 2050. The game will be over long before then. I mean 80% by 2020. And that’s going to take almost a World War II-type mobilization, but that’s—there’s a lot at stake now. I mean, World War II, we were trying to protect a way of life. Now we’re trying to protect the future of civilization itself.

When we go back and look at archaeological sites of earlier civilizations like the Sumerians or the Mayans or what have you, in most cases it was food shortages that eventually brought those civilizations down. And I used to think that, you know, for our modern, technologically advanced society, food couldn’t be the weak link. I now think not only that it could be the weak link but that is the weak link.


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