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New Agriculturist: Book reviews - Full planet, empty plates - The new geopolitics of food security
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Full planet, empty plates - The new geopolitics of food security

Full planet, empty plates

By Lester R. Brown
Published by W.W.Norton
Website: www.wwnorton.co.uk
2012, 144pp, ISBN 978 0 393 34415 8 (Pb), £10.99

"World agriculture is now facing challenges unlike anything before," writes Lester Brown. "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." Such facts will be familiar to readers of New Agriculturist. Nevertheless, in this short, concise volume, written in just a few months of 2012, Brown brings the threat of famine and social unrest starkly up-to-date.

Brown exposes the business as usual approach to global food production, under which flat-line production is failing to keep up with steeply rising demand. Soil, water and amenable temperature are key to plant growth but erosion, emptying aquifers, drying rivers, erratic or failed rains and rising temperatures clearly prejudice the sustaining of yields, let alone increases. Even in established global granaries - US, Australia, Argentina and Russia - yields have suffered from drought and there appear to be no corrective strategies beyond restriction of exports and acquisition of land overseas to meet domestic needs. The land bought or leased is almost invariably in countries already struggling to achieve food security, with some, like Ethiopia, themselves dependent on food aid.

Demand for grain has doubled in the past decade, both to feed the 219,000 extra mouths that join the global family every day and to feed the livestock and poultry that are needed to satisfy the demand of some 3 billion consumers who are 'moving up the food chain'. China's near six-fold increased consumption of pork illustrates this: 9 million tons of pork consumed in 1978 rising to 52 million tons in 2012. Between 1995 and 2011, China's consumption of soya (largely to feed its pigs) increased five-fold from 14 to 70 million tons. Yet China's domestic production of soya during that period remained the same. With water for irrigation increasingly scarce and with huge areas subject to drought and erosion, China must look abroad. Other Asian countries are following the same trend: South Korea, Malaysia and India have all acquired land abroad, as have Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, UAE and other Gulf States. Meanwhile the European Union's renewable energy law requiring ten per cent of its transport energy to come from renewable sources by 2020, is encouraging firms to invest in land to produce biofuels. One third of US maize (corn) already goes to distil ethanol.

In addition to the uncertainty of meeting future needs should there be a poor season in a major grain producing country or region, current availability of grain falls short of needs. Where populations already spend 50 per cent or more of income on food, further price increases can only lead to more hunger. Brown writes, "As a result of chronic hunger, 48 per cent of all children in India are undersized, underweight and are likely to have IQs that are on average 10-15 points lower than those of well-nourished children." Whereas average grain consumption in India is 380 pounds annually, in the US it is 1,400 pounds, 80 per cent of which goes to produce meat, milk and eggs. Over consumption has become a major health issue in the US and EU.

Brown's final chapter is titled "Can we prevent a food breakdown?" He believes we can, "but it will require a huge political effort undertaken on many fronts and with a fierce sense of urgency." The spur to do so is Brown's observation that, "Food is the weak link in our modern civilization - just as it was for the Sumerians, Mayans and many other civilizations that have come and gone. They could not separate their fate from that of their food supply. Nor can we."

Date published: January 2013

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