Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?


an empty plate is a sad plate. Image credit:flickr,Masala Cha's photostream, excerpted.

In the May issue of Scientific American I discuss how food shortages could be the weak link that brings down civilization. For many years at Earth Policy Institute and before I have studied global agricultural, population, environmental, and economic trends and their interactions. Although I long resisted the idea that food shortages could bring down not only individual governments but also our global civilization, I can no longer ignore that risk.

'Countries in crisis requiring some external food assistance in 2008.' Image credit:UN-FAO

In this feature article, "Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?" I note that the biggest threat to global political stability is the potential for food crises in poor countries to cause government collapse. Those crises are brought on by rising demand and ever worsening environmental degradation.

In the twentieth century, dramatic rises in grain prices results from poor harvests. They were event-driven and short-lived. 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 U.S. grain to fuel ethanol distilleries. On the supply side, the trends include falling water tables, eroding soils, and rising temperatures. Higher temperatures result in lower 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, more and more states will fail, ultimately threatening civilization itself.

As I note in the article, there are a number ways to reverse these trends. 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 U.S. industrial economy in 1942.

To read the full article, Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?
More posts on food shortages.
Food Shortages Drive Global Prices to Record Highs
Native Seeds Fight Food Shortage and Global Warming
Half of World Population Could Face Food Shortages by 2100 ...
Common BioFuel Myth: Corn-Based Ethanol To Blame For Global Food ...

Tags: Drought | Population Growth