But one crucial topic has been mostly absent: Population growth, and how on Earth we’re going to feed everyone. That changed on Thursday morning as Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, took the stage.
“We are in transition from an age of food surplus to one of food scarcity,” Brown said, but “some people are affected much more than others.”
People who live high on the food chain (including Americans) feel the effects of high grain prices less. If grain prices go up, we might pay $2.10 for a loaf of bread instead of $2. But that change is a huge hit to people who rely on grain for most of their diets and spend a larger percentage of their incomes on food.
In Nigeria, 27 percent of families are planning “foodless days” every week, Brown said. In Peru, it’s 14 percent.
“Food is the new oil, and land is the new gold,” he said.
Demand-side pressures on food production include population growth – 219,000 more people at the world’s dinner table every night – the use of grain for fuel, and increasing meat consumption, Brown said. The average Indian eats 400 pounds of grain per year. The average American eats the equivalent of 1600 pounds of grain per year – much of it in the form of feed to raise animal products we consume.
Just growing more food isn’t an option, either. Half of humans are living in places with water shortages, Brown said. Saudi Arabia used to grow all the grain it needed for its own population. But the nation has pumped its aquifers dry and will end grain production by 2016. Here in the United States, Texas and California are experiencing water shortages.
On top of that, research shows that photosynthesis – the process plants use to turn solar energy into chemical energy – stops entirely when the temperature gets high enough (global warming, anyone?) Increased soil erosion is leading to a new era of dust bowls and dust storms. And we may have hit an agricultural “glass ceiling,” Brown said. Wheat yields in France, Germany and the United Kingdom have plateaued, and farmers are using all currently available technologies to increase harvests.
Brown joked that he has the reputation of a doom monger. Former Illinois Sen. Paul Simon once said of Brown’s books that “Once you put it down, you can’t pick it up again.”
But there’s no need to curl up in a ball under your desk and whimper. Brown also offers solutions – if we’re willing to pursue them. Here is Brown’s prescription for feeding everyone:
- Raise water productivity. Irrigation uses 80% of available water. We need to rethink agriculture in an era of water scarcity and figure out ways to make every gallon go as far as possible.
- Stabilize population and eradicate poverty. Filling the “family planning gap” for the 222 million women in developing nations who don’t have access to family planning would help the world shift to smaller families, which in turn reduces poverty, which in turn leads to smaller families.
- Cut carbon emissions – and fast. Brown wants something on the level of a “wartime mobilization” to cut carbon emissions 80% by 2020. Our food security depends on shuttering coal-fired power plants and moving toward wind energy and electric cars – which could charge at night while demand is the lowest.
We wholeheartedly agree!