The era of scarcity is upon us

The era of scarcity
is upon us


that food security is going to be the defining
issue of our time, as rising demand hits the
world's ecological limits

men in fieldBack in the early 1950s, when still at school, Lester Brown belonged to the Ten Ton Tomato Club. It gave him particular insight into what he describes as 'the defining issue' of the next decades.

Now President of the Worldwatch Institute, he draws on early success as a tomato grower to warn that the world is entering an era of food scarcity, after 40 years of rapidly growing harvests. For it taught him that technological progress has its limits.

Many experts, he says, assume that technology will always ensure plentiful food. Instead both farmers and politicians are going to face 'tough choices', as the new era unfolds. The phrase is the title of a new book he has written for the Food Summit, documenting 'a collision between continually expanding human demand for food and some of the Earth's natural limits' which, he believes, threatens the stability of civilization itself.

But back to the tomatoes. When he was 14, Brown and his older brother ('we were real hustlers') bought an old tractor for $200, rented a couple of fields and set up as growers near their home in southern New Jersey. After school, they worked the fields. Eventually, despite their youth, they were among the top 1 per cent of growers in the United States.

This more than qualified them for the Ten Ton Tomato Club, 'the Phi Beta Kappa of tomato growers', open to those who harvested that amount per acre. Then Campbell's Soups, seeking to lower the cost of an important raw material, put enormous research effort into increasing productivity. Within a few years the club could only continue to represent the best by becoming the Twenty Ton Tomato Club. But the pace of improvement could not be sustained and, despite all the research and effort of the past four decades, the growth in tomato yield per acre has slowed down greatly. Today the best growers, Brown notes, get some 30 tonnes per acre.

This, he explains, illustrates what is now happening to food supplies the world over. Between 1950 and 1990 grain yields more than doubled, but they have grown much more slowly since. The total world grain harvest almost tripled over the same 40 years - as yields rose and new land was brought under the plough - but it has inched up by less than 3 per cent over the whole of the 1990s to date. Yet demand for food continues to accelerate. 'The near tripling of the harvest by the world's farmers - from 631 million to 1,780 million tonnes - was a remarkable performance, one without historical precedent,' he says. 'But now the world has suffered a dramatic loss of momentum.'

Brown's worldwide commitment - for which he has been awarded many honours, including UNEP's premier Sasakawa Environment Prize - also sprang from his early career. In 1956, just out of his teens, he spent six months in an Indian village as part of the International Farm Youth Exchange Programme. Deciding, on return, to work on world food issues, he joined the international arm of the US Department of Agriculture. He helped India, on secondment, to design its Green Revolution strategy - which resulted in its wheat crop doubling in just seven years - and drew up the first ever systematic projections of global food, population, land and fertilizer to the end of the century.

For his last three years in Government he was Administrator of the Department's International Agricultural Development Service, resigning a few days before Richard Nixon became President to start the Overseas Development Council with Jim Grant, the late Executive Director of UNICEF. He founded the Worldwatch Institute just after the last great World Food Conference, in 1974 - for which he wrote a seminal book, By Bread Alone.

There are similarities between 1974 and 1996. Each conference has followed bad harvests, when the world's crop actually declined. Each has taken place when stocks were dangerously low and when grain prices had shot up. And each met amid predictions of a long-term crisis. But the world recovered remarkably smoothly from 1974, and many believe this will happen again.

women farmers in field

Fundamental differences

Not Brown. 'Most economists say that the current situation is similar to the mid 1970s,' he says. 'But there are fundamental differences. A lot of the things that could then be done to boost production will not work so well this time round.

'In the mid 1970s rising prices stimulated farmers into dramatically increasing their harvests, but now these will have much less effect. There will, no doubt, be a production response: prices will decline in the short run from the record highs they reached last spring. But what distinguishes the 1990s is that we are for the first time bumping up against some real natural limits - such as on fisheries, cropland, and the use of fertilizers - that it will not be easy to avoid.'

Nothing, he says, better illustrates the new situation than the fish catch from the world's oceans. Between 1950 and 1990 its growth even outstripped the unprecedented increase in the grain harvest, quadrupling from 19 million to 89 million tonnes. It far outpaced population growth: the amount of fish landed per person doubled from 8 to 17 kilograms a year. But since 1990, over the same period that the increase in the grain crop has slowed so dramatically, the oceanic harvest has stagnated and, as human numbers continue to increase, the catch per person has dropped.

'Oceanic fisheries may well have reached their limit,' he says. 'FAO marine biologists now report that all 15 oceanic fisheries are being fished at or beyond capacity; 13 are in a state of decline. We now face a shrinkage in the seafood catch per person, and continually rising prices, as long as population growth continues.'

It is much the same on land. The amount of grain harvested per person peaked in 1984 and has since fallen by about 15 per cent to its lowest level for 30 years. Four out of the last five harvests have failed to produce enough to meet consumption, causing stocks to fall unprecedentedly low.

Historically, increases in grain production have resulted either from bringing more land into cultivation or from increasing yields on what was already under the plough. The first predominated from the dawn of agriculture to around 1950, the second was the main driving force behind the near tripling of the harvest since then. Both are now faltering.

'By mid-century,' he says 'the frontiers of agricultural settlement had largely disappeared, leading to a dramatic slowdown in the expansion of the area of crops.' Such growth as there has been has often been on fragile land, highly vulnerable to erosion; yields dropped and much of it was taken out of production again. And the growth of cities and roads is eating up more and more good farmland. As population has risen, the amount of grain land per person has fallen by nearly half since 1950, to just 0.12 hectares. The Worldwatch Institute predicts it will fall by another third by 2030.

Meanwhile, yield per hectare - after growing more between 1950 and 1990 'than during the 10,000 years since agriculture began' - has scarcely risen at all this decade. Brown believes this 'hints at a much slower future rise in cropland productivity'.

Much of the past increase came from more than doubling irrigation, but since 1979 the amount of irrigated land per person has also been falling. Water supplies have become another constraint. 'Water tables are falling in the key food producing regions, including the southern Great Plains of the United States, several states in India and much of northern China. Some countries will soon face abrupt reductions in irrigation water supplies as aquifers are depleted.'

And, he adds, there is an 'even more troubling limit - the physiological capacity of existing crop varieties to use fertilizer'. As more and more artificial nutrients are added, a law of diminishing returns sets in until they fail to bring any meaningful rise in production. This is the 'principal explanation' for the recent stagnation in yields.

'The old formula of combining more and more fertilizer with ever higher-yielding varieties to expand the grain harvest is no longer working very well. Unless agricultural scientists can quickly find a new formula, the world is almost certain to face politically destabilizing food shortages in the not too distant future.'

No such breakthrough is in sight, he says. The technologies that led to the rapid increase in production - such as artificial fertilizer and plant breeding - were first discovered over 100 years ago and there has been no recent advance capable of producing a similar 'quantum jump'.

On top of all this, global warming threatens to make the world's climate hotter than at any time since agriculture began, with incalculable effects on food production. Already, he notes, intense heat and drought have cut three out of the last eight
US harvests. And yet, even as the world begins to hit these limits, the demand for food continues to accelerate. Population growth is partly responsible; after all, as he points out, anyone over 45 belongs to 'the first generation ever to witness a doubling of world population'.

But, 'rising affluence', particularly in Asia, is putting even heavier pressure on grain supplies. As people become better off, they eat more meat, often fed on grain (it takes 7 kilograms of grain to produce a kilogram of beef, 4 for a kilogram of pork). Over a third of the world's annual harvest - some 640 million tonnes - already goes to fatten animals for the table, and this is rising rapidly. When Western Europe and North America achieved economic takeoff they had 278 million and 166 million inhabitants respectively. 'This pales compared with the 3.1 billion in Asia now setting off on a similar economic journey - at a much faster pace.'

Inevitably, he says, prices will sharply increase, with devastating effects for the 1.2 billion poorest people who already spend 70 per cent of their incomes on food. 'No economic indicator,' he points out, 'is more politically sensitive than food prices': scarcity could lead to increased ethnic conflicts and social disintegration and give rise to unprecedented numbers of refugees.

'Rising food prices,' he predicts 'will be the first major economic indicator to show that the world economy is on an environmentally unsustainable path.' On the positive side, food scarcity could 'rouse us from our sleepwalk through history, convincing us to take the steps needed to create a sustainable balance between ourselves and our natural food support systems'.

The two most important of these steps, he argues, are stabilizing population and climate. He draws hope from the achievement of Japan and China since each cut population growth rates in half in seven years, but admits: 'It is hard to find any historic precedent for a challenge on the scale the world is now facing.

'It is going to be tough. It will thoroughly challenge our political institutions and political leaders everywhere. History judges leaders by whether they respond to the great issues of the time, such as slavery in the United States during the last century or the rise of fascism in Europe in this one. For our generation, this issue may well be food security.'.

Tough Choices is published by W. W. Norton & Co. and Earthscan (1996), and is available through the Worldwatch Institute.

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