Why Is Bread A Trigger For Unrest?

Melissa Block talks with Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of the book World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, about what's behind the doubling of grain prices over the last several years.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: We're going to talk more now about global food insecurity and the potential for unrest with Lester Brown. He's president of the Earth Policy Institute here in Washington and his article "The New Geo-Politics of Food" was the cover story of last month's Foreign Policy Magazine. Lester Brown, welcome to the program.

Mr. LESTER BROWN (Earth Policy Institute): My pleasure.

BLOCK: And there are, of course, many examples in recent years where the price of bread has been a trigger for social unrest. And I'm looking here at this picture of a protester in Yemen from February. He has two baguettes and a flatbread taped to his head. Why does bread become such a flashpoint?

Mr. BROWN: Well, it's a staple food. It is also often the food consumed in cities, which is where these things usually begin. They don't begin in rural villages, usually. And bread has become sort of a - in a sense, a food status symbol among those who can afford it who live in the cities. If you look at Mozambique overall, two-thirds of the grain consumption is corn. They remaining third is about half wheat and half rice, both of which are imported.

And so, it's the imported parts that are becoming most vulnerable to climbing prices in world markets. And this is where we're beginning to see the stresses building. People are trapped between rising prices and low incomes.

BLOCK: Let's talk about those stresses. When you look at the recent rise in global grain prices, what is the picture you see?

Mr. BROWN: Well, if we look at historical prices, say, those from 1950 through 2006, they were pretty stable. Occasionally, there would be a blip. But since then, we've seen world grain prices double, in some cases, triple. Last year, the heat wave in Russia, for example, we ended up drawing down world grain stocks by over 50 million tons.

This year was to be a year of rebuilding, but weather and climate have not been cooperating and it now looks as though we're going to draw stocks down further. If that happens, then we're going to see still higher grain prices and still more political instability over the next year or so.

BLOCK: When you look at the impact of rising world temperatures on grain, in particular, on grain productivity, what do you see? What's the connection there?

Mr. BROWN: The rule of thumb that crop ecologists use is that for each one degree Celsius rise in temperature during the growing season, we can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields - wheat, rice, corn. And that's the risk that we face now with climate change. It can have a huge effect and it can do it very quickly and suddenly.

BLOCK: All of those things you're describing also coupled with growing demand simply because there are so many more mouths to feed.

Mr. BROWN: Yes, the growth in world grain demand now is double what is was a decade ago. We're adding 80 million people a year. That means there will be 216,000 people at the dinner table tonight who were not there last night and that puts sort of an incessant pressure on the Earth's land and water resources.

We also now have rising affluence as a major demand growth contributor. There are probably close to three billion people in the world who want to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. And then the third factor is the use of grain to fuel cars. Last year in this country, we harvested 400 million tons of grain. Of that, 126 million tons went to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars.

BLOCK: I'm curious, Lester Brown, as somebody who's worked in this for what, half a century now in this field, you're sounding a warning bell about food insecurity and the global crisis that's looming. What is a path out? Would you see any way that this crisis is averted?

Mr. BROWN: The things I think we need to do are, one, to get serious about stabilizing world population. There's a huge family planning gap, some 215 million women in the world who would like to plan their families but do not have access to family planning services. Those 215 million women and their families represent over a billion people, mostly the poorest billion people in the world.

We can't afford to have that family planning gap. It costs very little to fill it and we need to do that.

Second thing we need to do is to begin focusing on raising water productivity. We've tripled world grain land productivity since 1950. We now need a worldwide effort to raise water productivity, because it is water now more than land that is constraining efforts to expand world food production.

BLOCK: Lester Brown, thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. BROWN: Melissa, my pleasure.

BLOCK: Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute. His most recent book is a "World On The Edge: How To Prevent Environmental And Economic Collapse."

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