Modern Food Scarcity About to Boom

Competition for land and water resources will only intensify, environmental group president says.

Published on: Sep 28, 2012

The 2012 drought has only underscored the many concerns of food scarcity, water use, poverty and challenges in modern agriculture, according to Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental think tank.

"This year's corn crop shortfall will accelerate the transition from the era of abundance and surpluses to an era of chronic scarcity," Brown says. "As food prices climb, the worldwide competition for control of land and water resources is intensifying."

Brown calls the transition "the new geopolitics of food" and says food is the new oil, land is the new gold.

"Those of us in this country aren't affected that much when the price of wheat doubles, because we are insulated by all the processing that takes place," Brown says. "Beyond that, we only spend 10% of our income on food anyhow. But in some parts of the world, where people spend 50-70% of their income on food and the price of wheat doubles, they're in trouble."

Competition for land and water resources will only intensify, environmental group president says.
Competition for land and water resources will only intensify, environmental group president says.

Many of the world's poorer families have already reduced their consumption and routinely schedule days where they eat nothing. Brown cited a Save the Children survey which shows that 24% of families in India and 27% of families in Nigeria observe foodless days.

The reasons behind food scarcity range from growing demand from increasing populations to affordability of grain-fed meat. Brown says China now consumes twice as much meat as the U.S.

Demand from the renewable fuels industry has also increased world grain consumption, from 20 million tons a year a decade ago to 45 million tons a year today, Brown says.

Supplies are also beginning to plateau for rice in China and have already plateaued for Korea, while wheat yields in France, Germany and the U.K. have been stable for more than 10 years, which Brown says indicates that we need to increase world grain reserves, allowing for 110 days of carryover stocks.

Brown says shrinking water tables and rising global temperatures are also concerning. He estimates that cutting carbon will be key for climate stability.

"We need to cut carbon emissions 80% within the next decade, not by 2050, which is what political leaders like to talk about. We don't use 2050, because we think the game will be over long before that," Brown says.

He explains that the effect of high temperatures on food production is on full display in the United States where the drought "will reduce the U.S. corn harvest by 30% or more."

Brown says also the issues on deck in the realm of food stability rest not only on the agriculture departments, but also on the energy and family planning departments.

"If we cannot stabilize climate and population, there may not be a humane solution to the food crisis that is unfolding," Brown says.