Monday, March 1, 2010

Chapter 28: Food Scarcity: An Environmental Wakeup Call

As always I will begin this post by summarizing the opening paragraph of the chapter.

Lester Brown started out as a tomato farmer in Southern New Jersey and in 1974 founded the World Watch Institute in Washington D.C. and the Earth Policy Institute in 2001 which he currently serves as president and senior researcher of. He is refereed to by the Washington Post as "one of the World's most influential thinkers" and called the "guru of the global environmental movement" by the Telegraph of Calcutta, India. He has authored and co-authored some highly regarded books and some of the most recent being: Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures in 2005 and Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization in 2008. This chapter is made up of sections taken from one of Brown's books The Futurist (1998) in which Brown warns of economic and social collapse due to food scarcity. He also predicts that deforestation, soil erosion, coupled with greenhouse gas emission will lead to an economic decline of the global food system.

The Key concept of this chapter is: environmental degradation coupled with population growth as causes of food scarcity.

The first section is brief yet puts the ideas of Lester Brown into perspective. For the most part environmental damage has been local, for example affecting only a few fisheries and not the industry as a whole. However the scale of environmental damage is increasing and becoming more clear. "We cannot continue to deforest the earth without experiencing more rainfall runoff, accelerated soil erosion and more destructive flooding. If we continue to discharge excessive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, we will eventually face economically disruptive climate change. If we continue to over pump the earth's aquifers, we will only one day face acute water scarcity." Essentially the more we do to damage the Earth the more damaging the consequences are.

The next section titled : Agriculture: The Missing Link, states that the food sector is likely to be where environmental degradation turns into economic decline. Some example provided are the water logging of and salting of the land that lead to the decline of the Mesopotamian civilization and how soil erosion turned the once fertile African wheat lands that fed the Roman Empire into desert. Rising grain prices will be an early indicator that something is wrong and should grain prices rise out of the reach of more and more people, political instability will appear. The doubling of grain prices in 1996 did not affect most people as their food expenses are mostly in the area of processing costs than commodity prices. However, the almost 1.3 billion people who live on a dollar a day or less can be caught in a life-threatening situation should high grain prices persist. People unable to provide food for the families would turn to riot against the government and should it continue long enough the entire economic machine that the world holds dear would be affected in a very negative way. The problems of the poor would become the problems of the rich.

Some present consequences include:
1) The European Union has reduced the allowable fish catch to be lowered by 20% to avert the collapse of the region's fisheries.
2) Saudi Arabia has seen an over reliance on a fossil aquifer to expand grain production has contributed to an abrupt 62% drop in grain harvest between 1994-1996.
3) Brazil is now the largest grain importer in the Western Hemisphere due to soil degradation that follows the burning off of the Amazon rain forest for agriculture.

The Section: In Search of Land, is short yet contain many facts mostly concerned with the world's roughly 5.8 billion people. To combat this farmer have for centuries used techniques such as terracing, drainage irrigation and the Dutch have even reclaimed land from the sea! Between 1950 and 1981 the area reserved for grain production grew almost 25% (587-732 million hectares). It then declined to 683 million hectares in 1993. This is in part due to population growth which is (pardon the pun) "eating up" far land. by 2030 it is expected that grain production will shrink from 0.23 hectares per person to 0.08 hectares per person.

In Search of Water deals with, well, water. The world's farmers face a water scarcity along with crop related problems.Aquifers are being pushed beyond their sustainable needs by water demand. Grain harvest is a major factor in this as its production has nearly tripled between 1950 and 1990 and extended into dry and low-rainfall areas which have a heavy demand for irrigation. However, irrigation area per person has dropped by about 7% since 1979. Competition between cities and the countryside have intensified and the city usually wins, and water is diverted from crops forcing a country to import more grain. Importing one ton of grain is like importing thousands of tons of water. The bottom line of this section is that as irrigation water per person and cropland becomes more scarce prices of grain will be pushed upwards.

Onset of Food Scarcity, deals with evidence of degradation leading to food scarcity. Oceanic fish catch which has been plague by overfishing and pollution has had little growth since its increase from 19 million in 1950 tons to 89 million tons in 1989. Or how Grainland productivity increased by 2% between 1950 and 1990 but dropped to about 1% a year from 1990 to 1995. In the 1990s the U.S. tried devoting more land to cropland handle the slow rise in land productivity yet world carry-over stocks on 1996 dropped to the low level of 52 days of consumption and after 1996 only rose to 57 days, well below the 70 days of consumption required as a minimal buffer against a poor harvest. The late spring and early summer of 1996 saw the doubling of the price of grain and corn due to a heat wave along the U.S Corn Belt and China's emergence as the second-largest grain importer. During the summer of 96' Jordan (the country) was forced to remove the bread subsidy as the country suffered from the rising costs of imported wheat. This lead to several day long riots and threats to bring down the government.

The next section, titled An Unprecedented Challenge, is very long so I will mostly gloss over it and highlight the topics I think best describe the chapters intentions. The main idea behind this chapter is that ensuring future generations have enough food is not longer just an agricultural matter. This will depend on decisions made by family planners, farmers and ministries of energy. In order to attain a sustainable economy and secure future food supplies two components must be dealt with: stabilizing population size and climate. The first can be dealt with by radical changes in reproductive behavior while the latter relies upon restructuring the global energy economy.

Some governments facing lower fish catches and grain harvest declining may be forced to ask couple if they are morally justified in having more than two children which is in the number needed to replace themselves. Some good news on this subject is that some 32 countries (all in Europe except for Jordan) containing about 14% of the world's people have managed to stabilize their populations. This shows that it is possible.

As for stabilizing the climate, people have to lower the amount of fossil fuel burnt which is no small task as 85% of all commercial energy comes from said fuels. Some good news in this area is that wind energy is expanding by ore than 20% a year, and solar cells are following at a similar rate. solar/hydrogen economy is also beginning to emerge and gain momentum to.

As this post has no become longer than Noah's flood I'm going to quickly summarize the finals section title Feeding the Future". The world used to have three reserves to fall back on in the event of a poor harvest. Idle cropland under farm programs, surplus grain stocks and the one-third of the world grain harvest fed to livestock, poultry and fish yet by 1997 the first two have disappeared. The cost of such grain would turn many consumers to cheaper less grain-intensive livestock products but such prices would also mean big trouble for low-income consumers around the world. A way to handle this scenario is proposed in this chapter and that is to tax the consumption of livestock products and offsetting it with reduction in income taxes. Such a tax would be unpopular yet aid in political and economic stability. To sum it all up, the only way to ensure there are food stores for ourselves and the next generation is to is by moving the world economy off "the path environmental deterioration and eventual economic disruption and onto an economic and demographic path that is environmentally sustainable."

No comments:

Post a Comment