Thursday, October 4, 2012

EcoSummit Expert Talks Family Planning

The Columbus EcoSummit brought together experts from all over the world to talk about ecology, sustainability and how we can work together to protect the place we all live. You know, our planet.

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.

Lester Brown
“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. 
The real threats to our nation aren’t other nations, Brown said. The real threats are climate change, population growth, rising food prices, political instability and failing states. And family planning will help humanity meet the challenge.

We wholeheartedly agree!


  1. I disagree with the population stabilization. it affects the human rights, because none can tell anyone that must have a specific number of children. moreover why is pointed out that the family planning should be accessible in the developing countries? why not also in the already developed countries (like USA, or Europe)? why don't we just make a worldwide law that forces all women in the world to have for example only 1 oe 2 children? because it wont work. why is USA where I'm living right now, I see more families with 3 kids and families with 1 or 2? why don't we change our behaviors and the american have lots to learn and long way to go: I give some examples of impressions I had when arrived from Europe:
    1. recycling: there is almost no recycling here where I live, while in europe has become a normal practice. here people do not even know that some goods (like batteries) can be recycled and they simply throw them away in the normal trash bin
    2. less energy comsuption: why do american need huge fridge, huge oven, a dishwasher, cooling system that cool down the office temperature to polar temperature in summer, tons of ice in summer for the sodas, dryers for clothes, when the sun and the wind would do a good job too in drying!
    3. transport: why do the americans use always cars (big ones) and do not built more bike pathways? and why the public transportation is so absent (for example buses from the airport to downtown columbus or trains)
    so, in my opinion there are many many alternatives to birth control in order to battle climate change and emissions, even by living a good and honest life with some energy.

  2. Hi Chiara! Thanks for reading! Population Connection supports voluntary access to family planning worldwide. We believe every woman deserves access to contraception so that she can make her own decision about having or not having a child. We agree with you: No one should tell anyone else how many children to have. That's coercion, and coercion is wrong. I totally agree with you about American consumption habits. We need to do better!

  3. Hi Amy,
    thanks for the explanation. yes, actually I agree with you that women all around the world deserve the possibility to decide for abortion or not. I'm against abortion, but I do not judge (I cannot judge because I'm not God) women who abort because there are sometimes so many different reasons behind that decision. So I agree with the access to the family planning.
    I did not want to be too much critic, but thank you for posting and therefore sharing my thoughts. I will now read more often The Reporter, in order to be more aware of many environmental and social issues.