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Michael Givel

Apr 19, 2008, 12:00:29 PM4/19/08


Business-as-Usual Not a Viable Option

by Lester R. Brown

If food
security cannot be restored quickly, social unrest and political
instability will spread and the number of failing states will likely
increase dramatically, threatening the very stability of civilization

A fast-unfolding food shortage is engulfing the entire world, driving
food prices to record highs. Over the past half-century grain prices
have spiked from time to time because of weather-related events, such as
the 1972 Soviet crop failure that led to a doubling of world wheat,
rice, and corn prices. The situation today is entirely different,
however. The current doubling of grain prices is trend-driven, the
cumulative effect of some trends that are accelerating growth in demand
and other trends that are slowing the growth in supply.

The world has not experienced anything quite like this before. In the
face of rising food prices and spreading hunger, the social order is
beginning to break down in some countries. In several provinces in
Thailand, for instance, rustlers steal rice by harvesting fields during
the night. In response, Thai villagers with distant fields have taken to
guarding ripe rice fields at night with loaded shotguns.

In Sudan, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), which is responsible for
supplying grain to 2 million people in Darfur refugee camps, is facing a
difficult mission to say the least. During the first three months of
this year, 56 grain-laden trucks were hijacked. Thus far, only 20 of the
trucks have been recovered and some 24 drivers are still unaccounted
for. This threat to U.N.-supplied food to the Darfur camps has reduced
the flow of food into the region by half, raising the specter of
starvation if supply lines cannot be secured.

In Pakistan, where flour prices have doubled, food insecurity is a
national concern. Thousands of armed Pakistani troops have been assigned
to guard grain elevators and to accompany the trucks that transport

Food riots are now becoming commonplace. In Egypt, the bread lines at
bakeries that distribute state-subsidized bread are often the scene of
fights. In Morocco, 34 food rioters were jailed. In Yemen, food riots
turned deadly, taking at least a dozen lives. In Cameroon, dozens of
people have died in food riots and hundreds have been arrested. Other
countries with food riots include Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Mexico,
the Philippines, and Senegal. (See additional examples of food price

The doubling of world wheat, rice, and corn prices has sharply reduced
the availability of food aid, putting the 37 countries that depend on
the WFP's emergency food assistance at risk. In March, the WFP issued an
urgent appeal for $500 million of additional funds.

Around the world, a politics of food scarcity is emerging. Most
fundamentally, it involves the restriction of grain exports by countries
that want to check the rise in their domestic food prices. Russia, the
Ukraine, and Argentina are among the governments that are currently
restricting wheat exports. Countries restricting rice exports include
Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Egypt. These export restrictions simply drive
prices higher in the world market.

The chronically tight food supply the world is now facing is driven by
the cumulative effect of several well established trends that are
affecting both global demand and supply. On the demand side, the trends
include the continuing addition of 70 million people per year to the
earth's population, the desire of some 4 billion people to move up the
food chain and consume more grain-intensive livestock products, and the
recent sharp acceleration in the U.S. use of grain to produce ethanol
for cars. Since 2005, this last source of demand has raised the annual
growth in world grain consumption from roughly 20 million tons to 50
million tons.

Meanwhile, on the supply side, there is little new land to be brought
under the plow unless it comes from clearing tropical rainforests in the
Amazon and Congo basins and in Indonesia, or from clearing land in the
Brazilian cerrado, a savannah-like region south of the Amazon
rainforest. Unfortunately, this has heavy environmental costs: the
release of sequestered carbon, the loss of plant and animal species, and
increased rainfall runoff and soil erosion. And in scores of countries
prime cropland is being lost to both industrial and residential
construction and to the paving of land for roads, highways, and parking
lots for fast-growing automobile fleets.

New sources of irrigation water are even more scarce than new land to
plow. During the last half of the twentieth century, world irrigated
area nearly tripled, expanding from 94 million hectares in 1950 to 276
million hectares in 2000. In the years since then there has been little,
if any, growth. As a result, irrigated area per person is shrinking by 1
percent a year.

Meanwhile, the backlog of agricultural technology that can be used to
raise cropland productivity is dwindling. Between 1950 and 1990 the
world's farmers raised grainland productivity by 2.1 percent a year, but
from 1990 until 2007 this growth rate slowed to 1.2 percent a year. And
the rising price of oil is boosting the costs of both food production
and transport while at the same time making it more profitable to
convert grain into fuel for cars.

Beyond this, climate change presents new risks. Crop-withering heat
waves, more-destructive storms, and the melting of the Asian mountain
glaciers that sustain the dry-season flow of that region's major rivers,
are combining to make harvest expansion more difficult. In the past the
negative effect of unusual weather events was always temporary; within a
year or two things would return to normal. But with climate in flux,
there is no norm to return to.

The collective effect of these trends makes it more and more difficult
for farmers to keep pace with the growth in demand. During seven of the
last eight years, grain consumption exceeded production. After seven
years of drawing down stocks, world grain carryover stocks in 2008 have
fallen to 55 days of world consumption, the lowest on record. The result
is a new era of tightening food supplies, rising food prices, and
political instability. With grain stocks at an all-time low, the world
is only one poor harvest away from total chaos in world grain markets.

Business-as-usual is no longer a viable option. Food security will
deteriorate further unless leading countries can collectively mobilize
to stabilize population, restrict the use of grain to produce automotive
fuel, stabilize climate, stabilize water tables and aquifers, protect
cropland, and conserve soils. Stabilizing population is not simply a
matter of providing reproductive health care and family planning
services. It requires a worldwide effort to eradicate poverty.
Eliminating water shortages depends on a global attempt to raise water
productivity similar to the effort launched a half-century ago to raise
land productivity, an initiative that has nearly tripled the world grain
yield per hectare. None of these goals can be achieved quickly, but
progress toward all is essential to restoring a semblance of food

This troubling situation is unlike any the world has faced before. The
challenge is not simply to deal with a temporary rise in grain prices,
as in the past, but rather to quickly alter those trends whose
cumulative effects collectively threaten the food security that is a
hallmark of civilization. If food security cannot be restored quickly,
social unrest and political instability will spread and the number of
failing states will likely increase dramatically, threatening the very
stability of civilization itself.

Copyright ) 2008 Earth Policy
Institute. Lester R. Brown is President of the Earth Policy Institute.

For more information, see Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization,
available online for free downloading.

Data and additional resources at www.earthpolicy.org.

For information contact: Media Contact: Reah Janise Kauffman Tel: (202)
496-9290 x 12 E-mail: rjk (at) earthpolicy.org

Research Contact: Janet Larsen Tel: (202) 496-9290 x 14 E-mail: jlarsen
(at) earthpolicy.org

Earth Policy Institute 1350 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 403 Washington,
DC 20036 Web: www.earthpolicy.org
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