Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?

handful of riceLester R. Brown – Earth Policy Institute

In the May issue of Scientific American Lester R. Brown, President of Earth Policy Institute, discusses how food shortages could be the weak link that brings down civilization.

In this feature article, β€œCould Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?” Brown notes 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.

β€œIn the twentieth century,” Brown says, β€œdramatic 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 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.

There are a number ways to reverse these trends. Among other steps, as he offers in his book Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (available for free downloading), 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.

Visit http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=civilization-food-shortages to read the full article.

Image credit: Mr. Kris at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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