Heard Off the Street: Lester Brown's 'Full Planet, Empty Plates' highlights threats to food supply

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For a nation where 36 percent of adults are obese, it is shameful how little we know about the threats to the fragile global system that puts all that food on our plates.

Lester Brown is trying to educate us.

Mr. Brown's compelling argument is made in his new book: "Full Planet, Empty Plates." His clear prose, studded with relentless statistics to buttress his argument, not only enlightens readers but frightens them by documenting the threats posed by climate change, soil erosion, depleted aquifers and burgeoning demand from nations that aspire to eat as well as we do.

Our obsession with gasoline prices notwithstanding, Mr. Brown warns that concerns about the supply of oil will be pre-empted by concerns over the supply of food.

"Food is the new oil. Land is the new gold," Mr. Brown writes.

He grew up on a farm and was a New Jersey tomato farmer before studying agriculture at Rutgers University and working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Mr. Brown founded the Earthwatch Institute in 1974 with money from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and headed the environmental research group until 2001, when he launched the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., group whose mission is to address global environmental and economic problems.

Gasoline is an appropriate starting point for understanding Mr. Brown's message.

Our national will to reduce reliance on foreign oil has prompted Washington to mandate burning our food. Use of grain to produce ethanol increased from 1 million tons in 1980 to 41 million tons in 2005 to 127 million tons today, he said. That's nearly a third of the U.S. grain harvest and enough to meet about 6 percent of U.S. gasoline demand. Increasing oil prices only drive more grain from mouths to fuel tanks.

The next time you're at a gas pump, think about what would happen if all that grain were used for food. Mr. Brown estimates it could feed 400 million people. The grain required to fuel an SUV with 25 gallons of ethanol, he adds, would be enough to feed one person for a whole year.

"There is no social justification for the massive conversion of food into fuel for cars," he writes.

If you think ethnic and religious conflicts make peace in the Middle East elusive, consider water problems that are forcing more Arab nations to rely on imported grain to feed their growing populations.

Turkey is diverting water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for hydroelectric plants and to irrigate crops. Downstream, Syria and Iraq are drawing less water from the rivers and depleting wells to nourish their crops. Grain production in both countries is falling.

Saudi Arabia, not wanting to be as dependent on imported grain as we are on imported oil, began using oil-drilling technology for water that would support wheat in the 1970s. Four decades later, after achieving wheat self-sufficiency, Saudi Arabia is running out of water. By 2016, the country will rely entirely on imported wheat to feed its 30 million people, Mr. Brown writes.

Attacking the issue another way, Saudi Arabia joined China, South Korea and other affluent countries in an overseas land rush, purchasing acreage or controlling it through long-term leases so they can farm it and send the crops back home. Three of the biggest countries providing the land are Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan, African nations that rely on United Nations aid to feed their people.

Meanwhile, the same three African nations are diverting water from the Nile River for the same reasons as Turkey, putting Egypt's crops at risk. Finding enough food to feed Egypt's population, expected to grow to 101 million by 2025, "is an imminent and daunting challenge," Mr. Brown writes.

Soybeans were once such a novelty crop that Mr. Brown remembers stopping by the roadside to examine them. Now they are used to supplement grain used to feed cattle, chickens and pigs and have become such a central element in our food chain that most everything in your refrigerator contains soybeans in one form or another, Mr. Brown said. More U.S. farm land is devoted to soybeans than to wheat, something most U.S. consumers probably don't know, he added.

But as vital as soybeans are to U.S. consumers, they are even more important to the Chinese as more of them aspire to U.S.-style diets. At one time, the 14 million tons of soybeans China grew matched domestic demand. But today, China is still producing 14 million tons and consuming 70 million tons, devouring nearly 60 percent of the soybeans other countries export.

As with an increasing number of commodities, what the Chinese are willing to pay is what U.S. consumers will have to pay.

Growing social unrest in the Middle East, Haiti, Mexico and elsewhere over food shortages and price hikes took on new meaning this summer when prolonged heat and drought conditions gave U.S. consumers a taste of what's at stake.

"People are clearly much more aware now how climate change can affect crop production and food prices," he said.

There are those who will find Mr. Brown an alarmist, who believe that human ingenuity, perhaps in cooperation with free enterprise, will find new ways to produce more from less. While we can hope they are right, there were probably Sumerians and Mayans who felt the same way.

If they had been more intelligent farmers, maybe they'd still be around to ask.


Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941.


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