Food shortages could threaten civilisation

Posted: 13 May 2009

Writing in the latest (May) edition of Scientific American Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute says that he has been driven to conclude that "food shortages could bring down not only individual governments but also our global civilization."

"Our continuing failure to deal with the environmental declines that are undermining the world food economy - most important, falling water tables, eroding soils and rising temperatures - forces me to conclude that such a collapse is possible" he writes.

"In the twentieth century, dramatic rises in grain prices resulted from poor harvests. They were event driven and short-lived," Brown says. "In contrast, the recent escalation in world grain prices is trend-driven, making it unlikely to reverse the rise in food prices without a reversal in the trends themselves."

Demand side trends include the addition of more than 70 million people to the global population each year, 4 billion people moving up the food chain - consuming more grain-intensive meat, milk, and eggs - and the massive diversion of US grain to fuel ethanol distilleries. On the supply side, the trends include falling water tables, eroding soils, and rising temperatures.

Higher temperatures reduce grain yields. They also melt the glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau whose ice melt sustains the major rivers and irrigation systems of China and India during the dry seasons. Without a massive intervention to reverse these three environmental trends, Brown argues, more and more states will fail, ultimately threatening civilization itself.

Discussing measures to reverse the trends Brown says that "Among other steps, it will take a massive restructuring of the world energy economy similar in scale and urgency to the wartime restructuring of the US industrial economy in 1942."

The full article can be read at www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=civilization-food-shortages