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The New Geopolitics of Food

How can we help those on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder cope with rising food prices?

October 9, 2012

How can we help those on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder cope with rising food prices?

Producing enough grain to make it to the next harvest has challenged farmers ever since agriculture began. But now, the challenge is deepening as new trends — falling water tables, plateauing grain yields and rising temperatures — join soil erosion to make it difficult to expand production fast enough.

As a result, world grain carryover stocks have dropped from an average of 107 days of consumption a decade or so ago to 74 days in recent years.

World food prices have more than doubled over the last decade. Those who live in the United States, where 9% of income goes for food, are largely insulated from these price shifts.

But how do those who live on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder cope? They were already spending 50% to 70% of their income on food. Many were down to one meal a day already before the recent price rises.

Now millions of families routinely schedule one or more days each week when they will not eat at all. What happens with the next price surge?

Belt tightening has worked for some of the poorest people so far, but this cannot go much longer. Spreading food unrest will likely lead to political instability. We could see a breakdown of political systems. Some governments may fall.

As food supplies have tightened, a new geopolitics of food has emerged. In that brave new world, the global competition for land and water is intensifying and each country is fending for itself.

At the same time, 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 conditions 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.

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% 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.

For example, 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.

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, it will move even faster.

In addition to the carbon tax, we need to reduce dependence on the automobile by upgrading public transportation worldwide to European standards. Where cars are used, the emphasis should be on electrifying them.

The world has already partly electrified its passenger rail systems. As we shift from traditional oil-powered engines to plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars, we can substitute electricity from renewable sources for oil.

In the meantime, as the U.S. automobile fleet shrinks (after peaking in 2008), gasoline use in the United States will continue the decline of recent years. This decline — in the country that consumes more gasoline than the next 16 countries combined — is a welcome new trend.

The challenge now is to move our early 21st-century civilization onto a sustainable path. Every one of us needs to be involved. This is not just a matter of adjusting lifestyles by changing light bulbs or recycling newspapers, important though those actions are.

Environmentalists have talked for decades about saving the planet, but now the challenge is to save civilization itself.

This is about restructuring the world energy economy and doing it before climate change spirals out of control and before food shortages overwhelm our political system. And this means becoming politically active, working to reach the goals outlined above.

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.

We all have a stake in the future of civilization. Many of us have children. Some of us have grandchildren. We know what we have to do. It is up to you and me to do it. Saving civilization is not a spectator sport.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity (W.W. Norton) by Lester Brown. Published by arrangement with the author. Copyright © 2012 by Earth Policy Institute.


Because climate change threatens to disrupt agriculture, we may find that energy policies have a greater effect on food security than agricultural policies.

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.

In the United States, 9% of income goes for food. Those on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder cope spend 50% to 70% of their income on food.