Editor’s note: We’re proud to support the Earth Policy Institute’s online publication of Lester Brown’s book Full Planet, Empty Plates by publishing selections from the book. If you missed other installments, you can find them here; we’ll add new ones every couple of weeks. By Lester R. Brown As food supplies have tightened, a new geopolitics of food has […]
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Editor’s note: We’re proud to support the Earth Policy Institute’s online publication of Lester Brown’s book Full Planet, Empty Plates by publishing selections from the book. If you missed other installments, you can find them here; we’ll add new ones every couple of weeks. By Lester R. Brown At the international level, water conflicts among countries dominate the headlines. […]
For most of the time that human beings have walked the earth, we lived as hunter-gatherers. The share of the human diet that came from hunting versus gathering varied with geographic location, hunting skills, and the season of the year. During the northern hemisphere winter, for instance, when there was little food to gather, people there depended heavily on hunting for survival. Our long history as hunter-gatherers left us with an appetite for animal protein that continues to shape diets today.
To most consumers, the soybean is an invisible food, one that is embodied in many of the products found in any refrigerator. Clearly, the soybean is far more pervasive in the human diet than the visual evidence would indicate.
Between 2007 and mid-2008, world grain and soybean prices more than doubled. As food prices climbed everywhere, some exporting countries began to restrict grain shipments in an effort to limit food price inflation at home.Importing countries panicked. Some tried to negotiate long-term grain supply agreements with exporting countries, but in a seller’s market, few were successful. Seemingly overnight, importing countries realized that one of their few options was to find land in other countries on which to produce food for themselves.
Agriculture as it exists today developed over 11,000 years of rather remarkable climate stability. It has evolved to maximize production within that climate system. Now, suddenly, the climate is changing. With each passing year, the agricultural system is becoming more out of sync with the climate system.
Have yields of major grains, such as rice, corn, and wheat, started to plateau after decades of growth? Lester Brown explores this phenomenon in Chapter 7 from his recent book Full Planet, Empty Plates.
The massive diversion of grain to fuel cars has helped drive up food prices, leaving low-income consumers everywhere to suffer some of the most severe food price inflation in history. As of mid-2012, world wheat, corn, and soybean prices were roughly double their historical levels.
The thin layer of topsoil that covers the earth’s land surface was formed over long stretches of geological time as new soil formation exceeded the natural rate of erosion. Sometime within the last century, soil erosion began to exceed new soil formation. Now, nearly a third of the world’s cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming, reducing the land’s inherent fertility. Soil that was formed on a geological time scale is being lost on a human time scale.
Throughout most of human existence, population growth has been so slow as to be imperceptible within a single generation. Reaching a global population of 1 billion in 1804 required the entire time since modern humans appeared on the scene. To add the second billion, it took until 1927, just over a century. Thirty-three years later, in 1960, world population reached 3 billion. Then the pace sped up, as we added another billion every 13 years or so until we hit 7 billion in late 2011.
The world is in transition from an era of food abundance to one of scarcity. Learn more about this frightening transition in chapter one of Lester Brown’s Full Planet, Empty Plates.