Food: The Hidden Driver Of Global Politics The world's rapidly expanding population has created elevated demand for food, but changes in climate and irrigation have made it increasingly difficult to boost production accordingly. Environmentalist Lester Brown explains why he believes "food is the new oil" and may lead to political upheaval.
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Food: The Hidden Driver Of Global Politics

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Food: The Hidden Driver Of Global Politics

Food: The Hidden Driver Of Global Politics

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Get ready for a new era in which food scarcity is the hidden driver of world politics, an era in which countries are competing for food and for the land and water to grow it, an era in which even the U.S. will have a difficult time expanding its grain production.

That warning comes from my guest, Lester Brown, in his article "The New Geopolitics of Food." It's the lead article in the current food edition of Foreign Policy Magazine.

Brown founded the World Watch Institute, devoted to the analysis of global environmental issues. In 2001 he founded the Earth Policy Institute, with the goal of creating a roadmap for an environmentally sustainable economy. His article is adapted from his book "World on the Edge."

Lester Brown, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. LESTER BROWN (World Watch Institute): A delight to be here, Terry.

GROSS: Let's talk about some of the trends you've indentified as the underlying causes of today's high food prices. First, there's climate change. How's that affecting crops around the world?

Mr. BROWN: The rule of thumb among crop ecologists is that for each one degree Celsius rise in temperature, we can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. So that's the sort of the simplest link between climate change between rising temperature and grain yields.

But more fundamentally, the agriculture as it exists today has evolved during an 11,000-year period in which there's been rather remarkable climate stability. So agriculture is designed to maximize production with that climate system. But that climate system is now changing.

And so with each passing year the agriculture system and the climate system are more and more out of synch with each other, and it used to be when we had a weather event like a monsoon failure in India or a drought in the former Soviet Union or something, within a year or so things would go back to normal on the climate front. But now there's no norm to go back to. Things are in a constant state of flux. And that makes it difficult for the world's farmers.

GROSS: And there are a lot of water shortages around the world. You say irrigation wells are running dry in many places. Is there an explanation for that?

Mr. BROWN: Well, over the last several decades we've been increasing rather steadily world grain production to satisfy the growth in population and rising affluence.

And as a result, in this effort to expand production, more and more countries have been over-pumping. That is, they're pumping their aquifers faster than they recharge through natural precipitation. So water tables are falling.

And then eventually the wells go dry, and the pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge. So the water shortages, we're seeing this in Saudi Arabia now, where they've been pumping a non-replenishable aquifer and have been self-sufficient in wheat for more than more than 20 years. But now that aquifer is depleted, and their wheat production is in freefall.

But beyond that, World Bank data show that in India, 175 million people are being fed with grain produced by over-pumping. Our estimate for China is that 130 million Chinese are being fed with grain produced by over-pumping. And over-pumping at some point comes to an end.

And I don't think the world is prepared for adjusting to this reduced supply of irrigation water. And I would simply point out that more than half the world's people live in the 18 countries that we've identified where water tables are falling and aquifers are being depleted.

GROSS: So they're going to need to get their food from someplace, if they can't grow it themselves, because of the aquifers being depleted.

Mr. BROWN: Exactly.

So here's something I really hadn't thought about till reading your article, that, you know, a lot of people in countries like India and China are entering the middle class, and they're eating a more varied diet. And they're now competing for the foods that we eat, as opposed to having a largely, you know, like grain-based diet. So what does that mean, that there's going to be more competition for food?

Mr. BROWN: It does, and we see this most dramatically in China. We estimate that today there are probably close to three billion people in the world who are trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products: meat, milk and eggs.

And we can see what that means if we simply compare the United States and India. In India, annual grain consumption per person is about 400 pounds a year or roughly a pound a day. If you have only a pound a day, you can't convert much of that into animal protein because you have to consume almost all of that to meet your basic nutritional and energy needs.

But in the United States, we consume about 1,600 pounds of grain per person per year, the better part of a ton. But we don't consume much of that directly. The great bulk of it is consumed indirectly, in meat and milk and eggs, cheese, ice cream, yogurt, all the animal protein products that we consume.

GROSS: So we're now competing with other countries in a way that has never happened before for middle-class food like meat and eggs and milk. And this is coinciding with a time when there's less grain being produced because of climate change and because of over-pumping of irrigation wells. Is that the right term, irrigation wells?

Mr. BROWN: Yes.

GROSS: Yes, so this is all leading to crisis, you're saying.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah, it's not that...

GROSS: I'm going to add to the crisis, okay, and mention biofuels, because you say...

Mr. BROWN: Right.

GROSS: ...that one of the problems is in the past there's a big shortage of food in one country because of a monsoon or a drought or, you know, whatever catastrophe has caused it, and a country like the U.S. could step in and say: We're here, we're going to produce more. And - or we're just going to export more to you and solve your problem.

But we're not in a position to do that as easily now as we did before. Why not?

Mr. BROWN: Well, for a long time there was excess capacity in the world food economy. And so in the United States, for most of the last half of the last century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid farmers to hold some land out of production. It was a way of sort of balancing supply and demand, stabilizing the market.

And so if there was a monsoon failure in India, we would simply increase the amount of land that farmers could plant, and we'd quickly make up any deficit that existed. And we also had so much grain in stocks that in 1965, for example, when the Indian monsoon failed, we simply shipped a fifth of our wheat crop to India to avoid famine.

We couldn't do that today because we don't have that sort of slack in the system. So we've lost two cushions - one, huge stocks that we used to call surpluses; and the idle crop land.

And the problem is not that we're producing less grain today. We're producing more grain. But we're not increasing production fast enough to keep up with the growth in demand, and that's where the problem is.

One of the difficulties on the demand side is that in addition to population growth and rising affluence that enables people to move up the food chain, we now have, in the United States, the massive diversion of grain to produce fuel for cars.

On the demand side, the annual growth in the world consumption of grain used to be about 20 million tons a year. It's now 40 million tons a year.

So farmers have to produce a lot more each year to keep up, and they're beginning to have trouble, given the climate stresses, given the water shortages, and given the fact that in some countries, some of the more agriculturally advanced countries, farmers are catching up with scientists.

That is, they're using all the available technologies. So they can't increase their grain yields anymore because there are no unused agricultural technologies for them. This is true for rice growers in Japan. It's true for wheat growers in France and Germany and the U.K., for example.

So this is a new constraint on efforts to expand world food production that we don't have an answer to, at least not in the short run.

GROSS: So in the U.S., when you say that grain is being used for biofuels, it's really corn you're talking about, right?

Mr. BROWN: Mostly corn, yes, but you can use any grain.

GROSS: You write that the European Union is diverting some land from food crops to biofuels.

Mr. BROWN: Yes, and in Europe, as you may know, they use a lot more diesel fuel in cars than we do. And so this is what they're concentrating on mostly, and using various vegetable oils either produced within Europe from rapeseed or -which is in the mustard family, or palm oil that's imported from countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

GROSS: My guest is Lester Brown. His article "The New Geopolitics of Food" is published in the current edition of Foreign Policy Magazine. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Lester Brown. His article "The New Geopolitics of Food" is published in the current edition of Foreign Policy Magazine. It's about how food scarcity has become the hidden driver of world politics.

So, just to summarize the picture you're creating, you're saying now the ability to grow food is becoming a new form of geopolitical leverage. Countries are using food for political leverage. Give us an example of how that's working.

Mr. BROWN: Well, what has happened is that we've seen a shift in world agricultural trade from a situation that existed during the last half of the last century, where the exporting countries - like the U.S., Canada, Australia, Argentina - would get together and pressure Europe and Japan to open their markets to free competition.

We were never very successful at that, but in recent years, we have seen a shift from the question of access of markets to that of access to supplies. Because when grain supplies began to tighten in 2007 and into 2008, one of the things that happened was, with food prices rising everywhere, some of the exporting countries restricted or even banned exports for a period to try to keep their domestic food prices down.

For example, Russia and Argentina both restricted wheat exports. Vietnam, the number-two world rice exporter, banned rice exports for several months to try to get its domestic food prices under control.

And that created a panic in the importing countries, because they didn't feel like they could any longer count on the world market to supply their needs. So the first thing they tried to do was negotiate long-term agreements with grain exporters.

The Philippines, which imports rice, negotiated - I think it was - a five-year agreement for a million-and-a-half tons of rice a year from Vietnam. The Yemenis sent a delegation to Australia to try to get a long-term wheat agreement, because Yemen imports 80 percent of its wheat. But the Australians didn't bite.

And that generally failed, the idea of long-term commitments, because it was a seller's market. And so there was no reason for exporters to want to make long-term commitments.

So then the next step was that the more affluent grain-importing countries began looking for land in other countries on which they could produce grain for themselves, and the leaders in this were Saudi Arabia, China, South Korea. And they've been buying huge chunks of land.

GROSS: Where?

Mr. BROWN: Mostly in Africa, but some in Southeast Asia and also in Latin America.

GROSS: So you have countries like Saudi Arabia and South Korea and China buying land in Africa so that they could farm it for grain?

Mr. BROWN: Yes - for grain, and in some cases, to produce biofuels. A survey the World Bank did of these land acquisitions - as they're called in the diplomatic circles, or land grabs as they're called in the 100-or-so NGOs that are opposing these. These agreements now - and there are hundreds of them -have acquired roughly 140 million acres of land, which is equal to the land planted in wheat and corn combined in the United States.

So these are not trivial acquisitions, but they've not translated much into production yet. And a World Bank survey of these land acquisitions indicates that only 37 percent are planning to grow food, and then another 37 percent are planning industrial crops, which is mostly biofuels. And the others, it wasn't clear what they were planning to produce. But this is becoming a huge political issue in many parts of the world, and it's creating conflict between local populations and these investors.

GROSS: Is that because, like, local people are hungry, and there's food -there's land available to grow grain, but, like, China just bought it?

Mr. BROWN: Two of the principal countries that have been selling land - or leasing it long-term on typically 50-year leases, or what have you - are Ethiopia and the Sudan, both of which are high on the list of the U.N.'s World Food Program, countries that they help feed.

And the idea that the governments in these countries are selling huge chunks of land to other governments who are agribusiness firms representing other governments is really very difficult to explain.

And what we're probably looking at down the road is a situation where there will be extreme hunger in some of these countries where the investments are being made, and people will simply resist and try to block the trucks that are hauling the grain from the fields and to the ports.

And so we have all these flashpoints sort of lying around now, just waiting to be ignited by some event or an overall tightening in food supplies. And it's a new situation, and quite unlike any that we've faced before.

GROSS: You know what the situation you described is reminding me of? Oil, where countries or oil companies go in and develop the oil, and the people who live there don't necessarily profit from it, and their land is basically not theirs anymore.

Mr. BROWN: Yes. I think more and more people are beginning to realize that food is sort of the new oil in the sense that there's a real struggle now to control sources of food and food supplies. And the exporting countries are obviously in a strong position now.

And one of the most interesting recent developments has actually taken this to another stage, and this has happened just in the last several months. But in January, the South Koreans announced that they were creating a new public-private entity to acquire grain for import into South Korea. Now, South Korea is self-sufficient in rice, but it imports all of its wheat and all of its feed grains, virtually, which is about 70 percent of the total.

So what they have done, what this new entity has done, is open an office in Chicago, and their plan is to either buy or lease grain elevators and then buy grain directly from U.S. farmers to put in their grain elevators, and they will then ship the grain to South Korea.

So what they're trying to do, in effect, is to corner part of the U.S. exportable grain supply before it gets to market, and this represents an entirely new stage in the effort to try to secure food supplies by individual countries.

And what is so interesting about this is it's hard to imagine China or Japan or Saudi Arabia or any of many other countries just sitting by and watching the South Koreans tie up part of the U.S. exportable grain supply before it even gets to market.

And so I would expect the other countries to start doing the same thing, and the bottom line here is we may wake up one morning and realize there's not enough grain left for us.

GROSS: You mean because the farmers are going to get a better price from, you know, South Korean buyers or Chinese buyers?

Mr. BROWN: Yes. And they will pay quite a bit just to make sure they're going to have enough, because, as I noted earlier, they can't count on the world market now responding to their needs because there may not be enough, and when there's not enough exporting countries, begin restricting exports.

GROSS: So here's one thing that confuses me about the picture that you created. You say that in places like Sudan and Ethiopia, where there's so many starving people, countries are coming in and buying the land so that they could farm it themselves.

But I thought a lot of this land is non-farmable now, that there's droughts, and that's why - that's one of the reasons why there's so much starvation in those countries.

Mr. BROWN: Well, this land that's being acquired is actually not just a land acquisition. These are also water acquisitions, because the land without water wouldn't be very useful.

And this creates a fascinating problem in the Nile River Basin, to develop this particular example further, because Egypt either imports all of its grain or the water to produce its grain.

As you know, it essentially doesn't rain in Egypt. And so all of the Nile water is used by the time it gets to the Mediterranean - that is, the Nile is a bit like the Colorado River in the U.S. When it reaches the Bay of California, there's not much water left, and sometimes it doesn't even make it to the sea.

And so there's no extra water in the Nile system, and what these land acquisitions mean is that a lot of Nile water from upstream will be used on that land, and that water will not reach Egypt.

Now, under the existing treaties, Egypt is supposed to get 75 percent of the water from the Nile, and the Sudan 25 percent. Ethiopia wasn't expected to get any. But that treaty was signed in 1959, I think it was. And now suddenly, the Egyptian government has to deal not just with the governments of the Sudan and Ethiopia, but with the Chinese and the Saudis and the Koreans and many others who are investing in that, upstream in the Nile River Basin.

GROSS: I mean, do you foresee the possibility of, like, countries going to war over food?

Mr. BROWN: Well, another question is: Will countries go to war over water, for example? Because water's now becoming the key to expanding food production.

There's quite a bit of land in the world that can produce food, if there's water to go with it. And up until now, water has crossed national boundaries via the grain trade.

That is, the countries in North Africa and the Arab Middle East, for example, as their cities grow and they have less and less water for irrigation, then they important more grain. And because it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain, this is the most efficient way to import water.

GROSS: In other words, you're not literally importing water, but you're saving yourself from using a lot of water.

Mr. BROWN: Right.

GROSS: Lester Brown will be back in the second half of the show. His article, "The New Geopolitics of Food," is published in the current edition of Foreign Policy Magazine. It's adapted from his book "World on the Edge." Brown is the founder of the Earth Policy Institute.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Lester Brown about how food scarcity has become the hidden driver of world politics. His article "The New Geopolitics of Food" is in the current edition of Foreign Policy magazine. It's adapted from his book, "World on the Edge."

Brown is the founder of the Earth Policy Institute, which is dedicated to creating a roadmap for an environmentally sustainable economy.

Now you offer several things that you think can be done and should be done to make sure that we have enough food to feed everybody. And your solutions include produce higher crop yields with less water and conserve fertile soils, stabilize the climate to stop climate change as swiftly as possible and accelerate the shift to smaller families and stabilize the world population, which is growing rapidly.

Any easier suggestions than that? I mean that's really...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's really asking a lot.

Mr. BROWN: That's a full plate, no question about it. I think one of the things that is going to become clear very soon, I mean we saw some of it last year, was how climate does and will be affecting food production and food security. We saw the heat wave in western Russia last summer and the average temperature in Moscow was 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm for the entire month of July. It reduced the Russian wheat harvest from close to 100 million tons, which is what they were hoping for, to 60 million tons. They cut it by 40 percent.

By contrast, we harvest 400 million tons. And if we lost 40 percent of our grain harvest of 160 million tons there would have been chaos in world grain markets by the end of the summer. And we would've seen grain exporting countries restricting exports. We would've seen grain and food prices moving to levels we had never seen before.

And in addition to exporting countries restricting exports, we probably then would have seen oil exporting countries beginning to barter oil for grain so they could get the grain they needed. And then the rest of the world, particularly the poorer grain importing countries, would have been scrambling for whatever crumbs were left. And at that point, the loss of confidence in the world grain market could translate into a loss of confidence in the world economy more broadly. And that could be very dangerous.

GROSS: Now you've been doing environmental issues for a long time. You founded the World Watch Institute in the '80s, which was devoted to analysis of global environmental issues.

Mr. BROWN: Actually, we started the World Watch Institute in 1974, so it's even further back.

GROSS: Oh, older than I thought. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you haven't given up. Not much has changed for the better, you say. But you haven't given up. Do you consider yourself a man who is constantly frustrated by what you see?

Mr. BROWN: You know, I probably should be. But sometimes you're asked if you're an optimist or a pessimist, and someone answered that question recently and said it's too late to be a pessimist. And I think that sums it up well. But one of the things I do is go back and look at the economic history of World War II, and realize that we totally restructured the U.S. industrial economy almost overnight.

The attack on Pearl Harbor came on December 7th, 1941. It was extraordinarily successful in military terms, sinking, you know, sinking a large part of the U.S. Pacific fleet that happened to be at anchor there.

But then a month later, January 6th, 1942, President Roosevelt gave his State of the Union address in which he laid out arms production goals. He said we're going to produce 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes, thousands of ships. And people just couldn't relate to that because we were still in a Depression mode economy at the time.

But what Roosevelt and his colleagues knew was that the largest concentration of industrial power in the world at the time was in the U.S. automobile industry. So after his State of the Union address, he called in the leaders of the industry and said because you guys represent such a large share of our industrial capacity, we are going to rely heavily on you to help us reach these arms production goals.

And they said well Mr. President, we're going to do whatever we can. But it's going to be a stretch producing cars and all these arms too. He said you don't understand. We're going to ban the sale of automobiles in the United States. And that's exactly what we did. And we'd been producing three million a year even during the Depression.

We banned the sale of automobiles. So from early 1942 until the end of 1944, there were essentially no cars produced in the United States and we exceeded every one of those arms production goals. In the end, we didn't produce 60,000 planes, we produced 229,000 planes.

I mean, even today, it's difficult to visualize how we could do that. But the encouraging thing is that we did that and it didn't take decades to restructure the U.S. industrial economy, it didn't take years. We did it in a matter of months. And if we did that then, then certainly we can restructure the energy economy much more rapidly than most people think and thus, be able to stabilize climate before it spirals out of control.

GROSS: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Mr. BROWN: Terry, thank you. It's been a delight.

GROSS: Lester Brown's article, "The New Geopolitics of Food," is published in the current edition of Foreign Policy magazine. You'll find a link on our website,

Can meat created in a lab from stem cells help solve the world food shortage while preventing cruelty to animals? Coming up, Michael Specter talks about his article, "Test Tube Burgers," in the current edition of The New Yorker.

This is FRESH AIR.

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