Book Review: "Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity" by Lester R. Brown, W.B. Norton & Co.
By Mark J. Palmer
International Marine Mammal Project
Earth Island Institute
Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute paints a scary future of the coming food crunch in his new book, "Full Planet, Empty Plates."
The coming perfect storm (to coin a phrase) of a growing human population coupled with hitting limits of available fresh water, limited arable land (which in too many places is eroding away), and global warming will mean less food grains that we all depend on, although, as usual, it is the poorest people with fewer options who will suffer the most.
Within my lifetime, human population has gone from 2.5 billion people in 1950 to 7 billion today. While changing lifestyles, birth control, government polices and an aging population are slowing population growth in the US, China and Europe, growth continues in sub-Sahara Africa and the Indian subcontinent, already areas where food availability causes severe hunger. Projections suggest 9.3 billion people will be on Earth in 2050.
Yet, the world supply of grain - corn, wheat, and rice - is severely limited today. Already, nations like China and Saudi Arabia are taking steps to lease or buy large tracts of land in third-world countries, chiefly Africa, to feed their own people, displacing small farmers.
Fresh water for irrigation, in Brown's view, is a key limited resource that we seldom think about. 40% of the world's grain crops need irrigation, but all over the world (including in the US) farmers are desperately depleting underground water supplies that in many cases cannot be replaced. As a result, wells are dug deeper and deeper to keep up with the dropping water tables.
Our continued burning of fossil fuels, Brown notes, is contributing to global warming that threatens to further wither grain crops, as has happened in several years in several places over the past few years. These crop failures will increase as the temperature increases, along with other effects of global warming, such as sea level rise and stronger storms. Ironically, the switch to growing corn and other grains for ethanol and biodiesel to avoid burning fossil fuels helps to further limit food crops, raise the price of corn and other grains and usurps land that used to grow food. The trend towards improved living levels in some countries such as China mean more people are eating meat, which itself is dependent on grains to feed livestock. At the same time, fish populations are suffering from over-fishing, with four-fifths of the world's major fisheries being exploited at maximum levels or being over-exploited with pending declines in catch and eventual crash, as has happened with the Atlantic cod.
We have already seen what the future looks like, although it got little notice in the US media. In 2007/2008, world grain prices doubled due to poor harvests and the limits to grain availability. There were riots in Egypt and Haiti. The prices went down with the global financial crunch, but have bounced back up in recent years. Brown notes that in 2012, as he was writing the book, the US corn crop started out in excellent shape, but withered under days of 100-degree heat in July in the Midwest.
As with Brown's other books and reports, "Full Planet, Empty Plates" is well written and meticulously documented (in order to save room in the printing, sources and notes are available online). He writes with passion and at the same time explains these huge trends in language easy to digest (if you will excuse the pun).
Brown provides a final chapter of suggested solutions, noting that the trends are intertwined and therefore cannot be attacked piece-meal by society. Energy use, pollution, poverty, and water management are all needed, but solving one problem is unlikely to fix things without addressing the other issues. But he also notes that individuals can tackle the issues individually and within existing Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs), while always keeping in mind the connections that help fuel the whole.
However, the solutions chapter is the weakest part of the book. This is a call to arms, not a handbook to end food scarcity. Brown does point to some encouraging trends - we know how to limit population growth because many nations have done so, and there are steps being taken to move away from fossil fuel use that are still tentative, but significant. Some of Brown's other publications provide a better menu of solutions, if you are interested.
Like all of Lester Brown's books, a great of deal of information is packed into a small package here, allowing a quick read and understanding of global trends that we need to change.