Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?


Breaking bread. Image credit: Jonzu in Seattle

In my new book, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, which we at Earth Policy Institute just launched today, I note that in early 2008, Saudi Arabia announced that, after being self-sufficient in wheat for over 20 years, the non-replenishable aquifer it had been pumping for irrigation was largely depleted. In response, officials said they would reduce their wheat harvest by one eighth each year until production would cease entirely in 2016. The Saudis then plan to use their oil wealth to import virtually all the grain consumed by their Canada-sized population of nearly 30 million people. The Saudis are unique in being so wholly dependent on irrigation. But other, far larger, grain producers such as India and China are facing irrigation water losses and could face grain production declines.A World Bank study of India's water balance notes that 15 percent of its grain harvest is produced by overpumping. In human terms, 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced from wells that will be going dry. The comparable number for China is 130 million. Among the many other countries facing harvest reductions from groundwater depletion are Pakistan, Iran, and Yemen.

The tripling of world wheat, rice, and corn prices between mid-2006 and mid-2008 signaled our growing vulnerability to food shortages. It took the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression to lower grain prices.

Past decades have witnessed world grain price surges, but they were event-drive--a drought in the former Soviet Union, a monsoon failure in India, or a crop-withering heat wave in the U.S. Corn Belt. This most recent price surge was trend-driven, the result of our failure to reverse the environmental trends that are undermining world food production.

These trends include--in addition to falling water tables--eroding soils and rising temperatures from increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Rising temperatures bring crop-shrinking heat waves, melting ice sheets, rising sea level, and shrinking mountain glaciers.

Sea-level rise would reduce agricultural productivity.
With both the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets melting at an accelerating pace, sea level could rise by up to six feet during this century. Such a rise would inundate much of the Mekong Delta, which produces half of the rice in Viet Nam, the world's second-ranking rice exporter. Even a three-foot rise in sea level would cover half the riceland in Bangladesh, a country of 160 million people. And these are only two of Asia's many rice-growing river deltas.

Accelerated glacial melting would reduce food output.
The world's mountain glaciers have shrunk for 18 consecutive years. Many smaller glaciers have disappeared. Nowhere is the melting more alarming than in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau where the ice melt from glaciers sustains not only the dry-season flow of the Indus, Ganges, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers but also the irrigation systems that depend on them. Without these glaciers, many Asian rivers would cease to flow during the dry season.

The wheat and rice harvests of China and India would be directly affected. China is the world's leading wheat producer. India is second. (The United States is third.) With rice, China and India totally dominate the world harvest. The projected melting of these glaciers if we stay with business as usual poses the most massive threat to food security the world has ever faced.

Food production is the weak link in the global economy.
The number of hungry people, which was declining for several decades, bottomed out in the mid-1990s at 825 million. It then climbed to 915 million in 2008 and jumped to over 1 billion in 2009. With world food prices projected to continue rising, so too will the number of hungry people, leaving millions of families trying to survive on one meal per day.
We know from studying earlier civilizations such as the Sumerians, Mayans, and many others, that more often than not it was food shortages that led to their demise. It now appears that food may be the weak link in our early twenty-first century civilization as well.

Agricultural colonialism.
The world is entering a new food era, one marked by rising food prices, growing numbers of hungry people, and an emerging politics of food scarcity. As grain-exporting countries restrict or even ban exports to keep domestic food prices from spiraling out of control, importing countries are losing confidence in the market's ability to supply their needs. In response, the more affluent ones such as Saudi Arabia, China, and South Korea are leasing and buying large tracts of land in developing countries on which to grow food for themselves.

Among the countries in which large tracts of land are being acquired are Ethiopia and Sudan, both already heavily dependent on World Food Programme lifelines to stave off famine. In effect, the competition for land and water, in the form of land acquisitions, has crossed national boundaries, opening a new chapter in the history of food security.
Our early twenty-first century civilization is showing signs of stress as individual countries compete not only for scarce food but also for the land and water to produce it. People expect their governments to provide food security. Indeed, the inability to do so is one of the hallmarks of a failing state. Each year the list of failing states grows longer, leaving us with a disturbing question: How many failing states before our global civilization begins to unravel?

Will we follow in the footsteps of the Sumerians and the Mayans or can we change course--and do it before time runs out? Can we move onto an economic path that is environmentally sustainable? We think we can. That is what Plan B 4.0 is about.
Plan B aims to stabilize climate, stabilize population, eradicate poverty, and restore the economy's natural support systems. It prescribes a worldwide cut in net carbon emissions of 80 percent by 2020, thus keeping atmospheric CO2 concentrations from exceeding 400 parts per million. In setting this goal, my colleagues and I did not ask what would be politically popular but rather what would it take to have a decent shot at saving the Greenland ice sheet and at least the larger glaciers in the mountains of Asia.

Emission cuts sustain food production.
Cutting carbon emissions will require both a worldwide revolution in energy efficiency and a shift from oil, coal, and gas to wind, solar, and geothermal energy. The energy efficiency revolution will transform everything from lighting to transportation. With lighting, for example, shifting from incandescents to compact fluorescent bulbs can reduce electricity use for lighting by 75 percent. But shifting from incandescents to the newer light-emitting diodes (LEDs) combined with light sensors can cut electricity use by more than 90 percent.

At least one of the new plug-in gas electric hybrids coming to market can get over 200 miles per gallon of gasoline. In the Plan B energy economy of 2020, most of the fleet will be plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars, and they will be running largely on wind-generated electricity for the gasoline equivalent of less than $1 per gallon.

The shift to renewable sources of energy is moving at a pace and on a scale we could not imagine even two years ago. Consider the state of Texas. The enormous number of wind projects under development, on top of the 9,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity in operation and under construction, will bring Texas to over 50,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity (think 50 coal-fired power plants) when all these wind farms are completed. This will more than satisfy the needs of the state's 24 million residents.
Nationwide, new wind generating capacity in 2008 totaled 8,400 megawatts while new coal plants totaled only 1,400 megawatts. The annual growth in solar generating capacity will also soon overtake that of coal. The energy transition is under way.

The United States has led the world in each of the last four years in new wind generating capacity, having overtaken Germany in 2005. But this lead will be short-lived as China appears set to blow by the United States in new wind capacity added in 2009.
China, with its Wind Base program, is working on six wind farm mega-complexes with generating capacities that range from 10,000 to 30,000 megawatts, for a total of 105,000 megawatts. This is in addition to the hundreds of smaller wind farms built or planned.
Wind is not the only option. In July 2009, a consortium of European corporations led by Munich Re, and including Deutsche Bank, Siemens, and ABB plus an Algerian firm, announced a proposal to tap the massive solar thermal generating capacity in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. A German firm calculates that solar thermal power plants in North Africa could economically supply half of Europe's electricity. Algeria, which has already completed its first solar thermal plant, has signed an agreement to supply Germany with solar-generated electricity. The Algerians note that they have enough harnessable solar energy in their desert to power the world economy. (No, this is not an error.)

The soaring investment in wind, solar, and geothermal energy is being driven by the exciting realization that these renewables can last as long as the earth itself. In contrast to investing in new oil fields where well yields begin to decline in a matter of decades, or in coal mines where the seams run out, these new energy sources can last forever.

The combination of efficiency advances, the wholesale shift to renewable energy, and expansion of the earth's tree cover outlined in Plan B would allow the world to cut net global carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020. In contrast to today's global electricity sector, where coal supplies 40 percent of electricity, Plan B sees wind emerging as the centerpiece in the 2020 energy economy, supplying 40 percent of all electricity.

Two tipping points at once.
We are in a race between political tipping points and natural tipping points. Can we cut carbon emissions fast enough to save the Greenland ice sheet and avoid the resulting rise in sea level? Can we close coal-fired power plants fast enough to save at least the larger glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau? Can we stabilize population by lowering fertility before nature takes over and halts population growth by raising mortality?

Yes. But it will take something close to a wartime mobilization, one similar to that of the United States in 1942 as it restructured its industrial economy in a matter of months. We used to talk about saving the planet, but it is civilization itself that is now at risk.
Saving civilization is not a spectator sport. Each of us must push for rapid change. And we must be armed with a plan outlining the changes needed.

Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization by Lester R. Brown can be downloaded for free from the Earth Policy Institute website.

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