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Food, Not War, Is the Biggest Threat to World Security, Argues Lester Brown

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Even as Iran’s nuclear program raises the likelihood of yet another conflict in the Middle East, the bigger threat is a potential food crisis in the making, says Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute. “When I ask myself, what are the threats for out security today, foreign aggression doesn’t make top five,” Brown told attendees of the Affordable World Security Conference in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Grain: some countries are hitting a ceiling on agricultural productivity

Grain yields are beginning to hit a “glass ceiling” in many countries, Brown said, where farmers have already taken advantage of what science has to offer for improving yield. As more and more countries hit an upper limit on productivity, the world grain harvest will begin to plateau, even as demand for food continues to rise, causing a rise in prices. More worrisome, the global food market is vulnerable to external shocks such as prolonged drought. “We don’t have idle land, we’re flat out,” says Brown. “We don’t have [food] stocks. We’re living harvest to harvest. The question becomes, what if we have a major shortfall in the world?”

An extreme weather event could tip the scales, he says. For instance, the heat wave and drought in Russia in 2010 reduced the country’s grain harvest by 40 percent, which tightened world supplies. If such a heat wave in the American Midwest were to have a similar impact on the much larger U.S. harvest, “we would have chaos on world grain markets,” says Brown. “That would affect financial markets, and financial stability in the world, which rests on confidence.”

Water shortages are also increasing pressure on agriculture. Half the world’s people live in countries that rely in part on over-pumping aquifers to expand production. That’s true of the U.S. China and India, says Brown. Once these aquifers are depleted and rate of pumping is reduced to rate at which they are replenished by rain, the drop in food production will be dramatic. That scenario is already playing out in Saudi Arabia. Biofuels adds another stress on food markets.

The good news is that in the U.S. is making some small headway on the path to sustainability. Carbon emissions, which peaked in 2007 due to the economic recession, have continued to decline since then. Brown attributes the trend to a closing of more than 100 coal plants in recent years. Car use is also down—young people apparently drive less than their parents, and baby boomers are beginning to retire, which means they drive less. New cars are also more efficient—between 2010 and 2025, average gas mileage for cars will double, says Brown.

Image credit: Public Domain Photos

Fred Guterl About the Author: Fred Guterl is the executive editor of Scientific American and author of Fate of the Species (Bloomsbury). Follow on Twitter @fredguterl.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 3:02 pm 03/29/2012

    Well done, although you didn’t mention that agricultural productivity is also dependent on the availability of petroleum products: fuel for mechanization and distribution, chemicals for fertilizers and insecticides. At best, as oil becomes scarcer and prices continue to increase the cost of food production will also increase. As you mention there’s also the potential competition with biofuels for production resources…

    Regardless of any potential effects global climate change, the optimization of industrial agricultural production over the past ~200 years has yet to encounter extreme conditions of normal climate variation such as the 300 year Great Drought in North America that began about 1150 CE.

    In considering impending food security issues, the over-harvesting of sea food and the subsequent depletion of many species is also extremely critical…

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  2. 2. priddseren 4:17 pm 03/29/2012

    jtdwyer, you are right on and lets add the plastic containers made from petroleum used to process, package and store all of this food production.

    Yes people will go to war over food, money and other resources. Too bad for this author though because he is simply wrong. There is more than enough food production going on now and this could be easily increased. The problem is not production, it is distribution. The socialists here are out of their minds if they think every farmer on the planet doesn’t want to sell their products to 7 billion or more people. The issue is most of those 7 billion have some sort of thug run militia or crazed dictators in between them and the food or in between them and their own ability to produce food.

    I wonder if the warmists have ever actually stepped out of their computer model fantasy world long enough to have noticed millions of years ago, when CO2 was 3 to 5 times higher than any of their predictions, plants were growing everywhere and were of a massive size. I know I know, according to them the only outcome of warming and CO2 rising is somehow plants stop growing entirely. Still real historical evidence indicates that warming and more CO2 will likely increase the available arable land into areas not currently usable and the plants are likely to grow faster and larger, increasing the overall food production capability.

    And before the warmists start demanding dumb ass links to my so called proof, it does not take much to search out what flora existed for the last 100 million years and the use of some pretty basic critical thinking.

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  3. 3. GG 7:48 pm 03/29/2012

    An alarmist article. For example, Africa is nowhere near the technological glass ceiling. If modern farming was practiced in Africa, that continent alone could feed the rest of the world.

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  4. 4. Dr. Strangelove 2:27 am 03/30/2012

    World hunger is caused by poverty not by lack of food supply. World food production has been overtaking population growth since 1960s. We have oversupply of food at 3,000 kcal per capita per day. That’s enough to make all the people in the world obese since the recommended daily calorie intake is only 2,000 kcal. Instead we should stop wasting food and feed the poor.

    As for water shortage, why pump out water underground? Build dams to capture rain water. The world scenario is unlike Saudi Arabia which is mostly desert.

    BTW there are more cattle by weight than people. They drink more water and eat more grains than us. If we slaughter them all, we might double our water and food supply plus a lot of beef.

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  5. 5. JayHow 7:55 am 03/30/2012

    priddseren you comments appear to me to be emotionally and politically driven. The words that gave it away were “socialists” and “dumb ass”.

    Your logic is also very naive.

    “I wonder if the warmists have ever actually stepped out of their computer model fantasy world” .. very emotional … ” long enough to have noticed millions of years ago, when CO2 was 3 to 5 times higher than any of their predictions, plants were growing everywhere and were of a massive size”

    Alas if only the natural world and science were that simple. You want to isolate just a few variable and say that what happened 5 millions years go can be superimposed over the current situation.

    There are so many objections to that oversimplification that I have to stop typing…

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  6. 6. Chris G 10:59 am 03/30/2012

    Mostly agreeing with JT.

    Pridseren seems to think that you can get the same agricultural productivity out of what used to be permafrost peat and bare rock that used to be covered in ice as you can out of earth that has been supporting grass species for thousands of years. Also, that there are no costs associated with developing infrastructure, like roads and towns in the areas where climate shift has allowed agriculture. And, Prid has mentioned that there will be pluses, and that is somewhat true, but he is neglecting that the desserts that exist where Hadley cells downwell are expanding poleward, and encroaching on agricultural land. The net is not positive in the long term.

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  7. 7. Chris G 11:10 am 03/30/2012

    “If such a heat wave in the American Midwest were to have a similar impact on the much larger U.S. harvest…”

    Under BAU, it is not really a question of ‘if’, it is more a question of ‘when’. The incidence and area of extreme heat events has grown from less than 1% per year, to over 10% per year, over the last few decades. It is somewhat random where and when these events happen, but the incidence of this events is on the increase. If that trend continues, in another decade or two, the average coverage of such a heat wave will be 20%. If they are randomly distributed, that means you get a major crop failure 1 year in 5. Heaven help us if there are two such heat waves in any combination of the worlds major grain producing regions.

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  8. 8. Chris G 11:16 am 03/30/2012

    Distribution? Maybe, but distribution is a function of cost. If the poor, starving people had money, I suspect whoever had the food would figure out a way to get it to them. Food costs going up is not going to help that situation.

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  9. 9. Tafkao 4:01 pm 04/6/2012

    It is important to remember that we, and all the plants and animals we rely on for food have evolved to exist in balance in our current atmospheric mix.

    For example, cassava (a staple food crop) and clover (a stable fodder crop) both produce more arsenic when exposed to higher concentrations of CO2, and wheat produces more protein but less digestible starch.

    CO2 being good for plants isn’t necessarily a good thing for mammals.

    I’m unaware of any scientific evidence suggesting that increased CO2 would stop plants from growing, other than because of environmental changes, increased temperature or average rainfall, for example.

    I’m pretty sure most of the species alive “5 million years ago” have either evolved over the millennia to survive in our current climate, or have become extinct long ago, so there is little point in comparing life that could exist then with life evolved to exist in today’s conditions.

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  10. 10. bucketofsquid 5:32 pm 04/9/2012

    Don’t worry, when an extended drought hits more than 1 major food production area there will be mass displacement of the starving poor. This will lead to pandemics which will kill us off by the millions. Combine this with the use of birth control by the wealthier populations and voila – no over population problem. Watching the bounty/starvation cycle among deer and wolves was very educational.

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  11. 11. upload70 12:59 pm 10/6/2012

    Lack of food in the third world even though there’s an excess of it in the west.

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