Will Food Shortages Reshape The World Again? Food shortages have doomed civilizations for millennia. Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, argues that environmental degradation could lead to devastating food shortages today, despite advanced farm technology and genetically engineered crops.
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Will Food Shortages Reshape The World Again?

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Will Food Shortages Reshape The World Again?

Will Food Shortages Reshape The World Again?

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Switching gears - throughout history, great civilizations have crumbled at the mercy of simple things like water and soil. Maybe irrigation canals can run dry, leaving shrinking fields of barley to bake in the sun, as that happened with the Sumerians. Or, it could've been soil washing away after deforestation as appears to have happened for the Mayans. And in each case, the food supply dwindled and probably played a part in their downfall.

But then again, that was really a long time ago, right? Couldn't we counter those problems today? We have all this technology, advanced agriculture techniques. We can drill deeper wells. We can plant genetically engineered crops that thrive in dry or salty places.

Well, my next guest says that despite our modern advances, the problem - same problems that afflict those ancient civilizations, in concert now with climate change, could cripple us today. And if famine hits poor countries, it might threaten even the comfortable superpowers.

The next great threat to our civilization, he says, is not from conventional or terrorist attack, but from a growing food shortage and a social and political upheaval that challenge us.

Joining me now is Lester Brown, author of "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization."

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. LESTER BROWN (Author, "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization"): Ira, good to talk to you.

FLATOW: We, you know, we were looking at our archives, you've been on this program for eight years back and forth. And you were so right in predicting about - way ahead of anybody else - about the problems that would be, you know, that the grains would cost the countries out there to make them.

Dr. BROWN: Right. We've been - I've been doing for the last 30 years or so things like the State of the World reports at Worldwatch, and more recently, the Plan B series here at the Earth Policy Institute.

And we always or frequently begin by saying, you know, if the environmental trends that we're facing in the world continue, eventually we're going to be in trouble. But it was not clear what form the trouble would take.

And now, as I look at things, it seems to me that almost all these trends that we worry about affect the food prospect, and they affect it negatively.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BROWN: Historically, as you noted, we've - soil erosion has been around for a long time. It's one of the environmental trends that goes back to the beginning of agriculture itself. But others like falling water tables are quite recent.

We've had the pumping capacity to deplete aquifers basically only during the several decades since World War II. And what we're now beginning to see is falling water tables in more and more countries as our demand for water, and particularly irrigation water - and some 70 percent of all the water used in the world is for irrigation - we're beginning to see aquifers start to be depleted and wells going dry.

The most sort of politically interesting example of this has come in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, after the oil export embargo, after their oil export embargo in the mid-'70s, realized they were vulnerable to a counter-embargo of grain. So they began to scramble to see what they could do to increase their production.

FLATOW: Lester, hang on with that thought because we have to go to a break.

Dr. BROWN: Okay.

FLATOW: I'll let you finish it instead of just interrupting you a little later.

Dr. BROWN: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: So stay with us, Lester Brown and everyone else. Our number: 1-800-989-8255, if you want to talk to Lester Brown, author of "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization." We'll be back to take your questions, your Twitters, and everything else you'd like to ask. So stay with us. We'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Lester Brown, author of "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization." He's also founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington.

And we were talking about water shortages could - being the most significant environmental threat. And you were filling us on the history of Saudi Arabia and how they discovered that.

Dr. BROWN: The Saudis began to look around to see how they could become less vulnerable to a grain export embargo.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BROWN: Using their oil drilling technology, they discovered a fossil aquifer. A fossil aquifer is one that does not recharge. Just like oil, it was put down a long time ago in the - on a geological timescale.

And so they started pumping that water. And for more than 20 years, they were self-sufficient in wheat. They had a very high support price as you can imagine pumping water from such a depth.

But last year, they announced that their aquifer was largely depleted and that they were going to systematically phase out wheat production, reducing it one-eighth each year, until by 2016, they would effectively be out of the grain production business altogether.

What was interesting about that was not the effect this will have on the world grain balance because they produce less than one-half of one percent of the world's wheat harvest, but because they are the first government that's been willing to publicly talk about their water resources - what's happening, how they're being depleted and what that's going to translate into.

Other governments are facing difficult water problems, and among the large ones, India and China stand out. A World Bank study of India pointed out that 15 percent of India's people are now being fed with water from wells that are overpumping with - from wells that will be going dry one of these days. And that comes to about 180 million people being fed as a result of overpumping, which, by definition, is a short-term phenomenon.

FLATOW: And how do these things translate to national security problems for us in this country?

Dr. BROWN: Well, with China, I have done the same calculation the bank did for India and I get about 120 million Chinese being fed with - by overpumping. And at some point, these countries will have to come into the world market. And China, of course, is one of those.

And the loss of their underground water resources as result of overpumping and depletion, and also the melting of the mountain glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau, these are the glaciers that feed the Yangtze and the old rivers during the dry season…

FLATOW: So you have global warming exacerbating it.

Dr. BROWN: Exactly.


Dr. BROWN: So we have two water shortages sort of converging, one that's already very real, the other that's just getting underway. And so, there's a good chance that China will come into the world market in a big time for grain, in the same way that they have over the last decade or so for soybeans.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BROWN: China now imports 37 million tons of soybeans a year. The second-ranking soybean importer is Japan, under five million tons. So, they - China totally dominates the world soybean market now.

FLATOW: Isn't that good for us because we make a lot of these things that we should be able to sell?

Dr. BROWN: It's good for us in the sense that it's so good for us we now have more land and soybeans in this country than we do in wheat, for example. But what happens when China comes into this market on a large scale for grain and begins to compete with us for our grain harvest, driving up our grain prices, it will not be such an attractive proposition.

And historically, when we've been faced with a real competition for our grain harvest, as we were in the 1970s, we restricted exports in order to keep domestic prices - food prices from spiraling out of control.

But it's difficult to do that with China because China is our banker now. I mean, every month, here in Washington, the Treasury Department auctions off securities to Treasury bonds and bills to finance our deficit.

So, with China as our banker, we're facing an entirely new sort of geopolitics of food, whether - which means that whether like it or not…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. BROWN: …we're going to be sharing our grain harvest with the Chinese.

FLATOW: So they could say, well, no grain, no money.

Dr. BROWN: That's it. They're holding a trillion dollars. If they started dumping those dollars on the world market, we would scramble for cover in a hurry.

FLATOW: Wow - and you also write about, when talking about grain, that the -and you were first to talk about this years ago - there's the competition for fuel and food.

Dr. BROWN: There's an intense competition now. This year, nearly one-fourth of the U.S. grain harvest will be going to ethanol distilleries. And this is coming at a time when the world is facing water shortages, when climate change is beginning to affect the food prospect. And I don't think most people realize that we now have this competition between people and cars for the U.S. grain supply.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BROWN: And if we were to convert our entire grain harvest into fuel for cars, it would cover maybe 18 percent of our fuel needs. Or if you look at it in individual terms, the grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year.

FLATOW: Wow. And so we're going to be facing a tough choice about whether we want to eat, or sell it to China or turn it into fuel.

Dr. BROWN: The demand trends are sort of converging at this point in history in what John Beddington, who is the science adviser in the U.K., just sort of described as a perfect storm.

And so I think we're going to have to do some rethinking on the food front. And my guess is that the effect that we're having on the rest of the world, as it becomes more apparent, is going to lead to some changes in priority here.

I mean, basically in an effort to reduce our oil insecurity, we've created unprecedented world food security. And if food prices keep rising - and they've subsided a bit now because of the economic downturn, but they're going to be rising again. And when they do, they could create enough political instability in low income countries around the world that it would become a serious security problem for us.

FLATOW: Now, you point out some of those countries that have gone bankrupt, basically.

Dr. BROWN: There are a number of failing states now and they, you know, it's Afghanistan, Pakistan, the first failing state with nuclear weapons, Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti.

There's a long list of countries now around the world. And we're beginning to see the kinds of problems that countries like that can create. Somalia, for example, has created enormous headache for countries trying to run ships through the Suez Canal, for example, in the Indian Ocean.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And it all starts with the basic stuffs of life like water and grain.

Dr. BROWN: One of the things that governments expect of their people is personal security, and very close to that is food security. And if governments reach the point where they cannot provide food security, then they become somewhat irrelevant. And desperate people, hungry people or desperate people -and desperate people do desperate things.

FLATOW: And what would be your suggestions then for action?

Dr. BROWN: I think the first thing we should do is remove the subsidy that we now have for converting grain into ethanol. I mean, as a society, it's sort of ironic that as consumers, as taxpayers, we're subsidizing a rise in our food prices. I mean, what's wrong with that picture?

These subsidies to convert grain into ethanol are driving up food prices, not only in this country but around the world.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And then what?

Dr. BROWN: Well, that would be the first thing. And then the second thing would be to restructure our transportation system, because we also have the oil dependence problem. That's a security issue in its own right.

And what I think we need to do, and what I think we're going to end up doing is basically electrifying our transportation system. And that means shifting rapidly to plug-in hybrid cars and all electric cars. I think that's going to move very fast.

And the exciting thing about that is that when you use electricity from a wind farm, for example, to recharge your car at night, the fuel cost is less than a dollar for a gallon equivalent of gasoline. That is to say, the economics are really very appealing of being able to run our cars on electricity.

FLATOW: The - well, in terms of electricity, the Obama administration seems to be pointing also toward making that electricity with nuclear power. Do you agree on that?

Dr. BROWN: I don't think we're going to go very far down the nuclear road simply because it's so costly. You don't have to get beyond the economics to see that we have a problem with nuclear power.

I mean, I would remind you that Wall Street has not financed a single nuclear power plant in 30 years. And there's a reason for that.

FLATOW: They're sinking their money into solar and wind.

Dr. BROWN: Exactly.


Dr. BROWN: Big time.

FLATOW: Big time. But is it fast enough?

Dr. BROWN: And…

FLATOW: Can it supply enough of the power for the whole country?

Dr. BROWN: Oh, no question about that. Let me just point out that last year, coal power in this country increased by 1,400 megawatts, wind power increased by 8,200 megawatts.

I mean, in a sense, the race is over, I think. Or if you look at it globally, if you want to use nuclear, last year 2008 nuclear power worldwide increased by maybe 1,000 megawatts. Worldwide wind energy increased by 27,000 megawatts.

FLATOW: Yeah. We still have, half of our electricity does come from coal.

Dr. BROWN: It does.

FLATOW: How fast can that be replaced?

Dr. BROWN: It depends on how serious we get about trying to stabilize climate. And I have a feeling that we're going to see things happening with rising temperature and ice melting, crop-withering heat waves, etcetera, etcetera, more destructive storms that are going to generate more and more pressure to accelerate the shift to renewable sources of energy, and to begin closing down coal-fired power plants.

FLATOW: But other people might argue, you know, if we build nuclear - that's the fastest way in the largest scale that we can get us out of this. I mean, even folks who are considered, quote, unquote, "green" are saying nuclear is the way to go.

Dr. BROWN: They probably haven't looked closely at the economics, but I would simply remind us that it typically takes eight or 10 years to build a nuclear power plant.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. BROWN: Wind farms can go up in a year and often even less. And we have so much wind energy in this country. I mean, Department of Energy pointed out years ago that North Dakota, Kansas and Texas have enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs.

And now with advanced design wind turbines, we can say that those three states alone, three out of 50, have enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national energy needs.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BROWN: So it's not a matter of supply. It's there. It's just a matter of harnessing it.

FLATOW: Lester Brown, author of "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Lester - oh, but can we build the infrastructure? Can we get the electrical lines out from those places where there's a lot of wind, where there's a lot of solar potential - in the southwest? Can we get the electricity out?

Dr. BROWN: That's the challenge now, to build - what we really need is a national grid just to increase the efficiency of electricity use. I mean, we have situations in this country with jerry-built local grids that don't really integrate very well into a larger system.

We need to do what Eisenhower did in the 1950s with the interstate highway system, where he began - up until then, we just had a patchwork of roads around the country. Interstates didn't exist as we know them today. And that's exactly what we need to do now with a grid, begin to build some major transmission lines around the country.

It'll increase the efficiency of use. It'll also give us access to the, some of the cheapest electricity in the world.

FLATOW: All right. Lester Brown, always a pleasure to talk to you.

Dr. BROWN: Thank you very much, Ira.

FLATOW: You always get us to thinking. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. BROWN: My pleasure.

FLATOW: Lester Brown, author of "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization." He's also founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington.

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