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The food bubble facing imminent collapse

  • Subject: [cg] The food bubble facing imminent collapse
  • From: "Tradingpost" tradingpost@gilanet.com
  • Date: Mon, 10 Jan 2005 11:45:42 -0700

The food bubble facing imminent collapse
ISIS Press Release 10/01/05 
The Institute of Science in Society

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reviews Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under 
Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, by Lester Brown, Earth 
Policy Institute, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003, 
ISBN 0-393-05859-X

Global warming is happening; and at a much faster, more 
abrupt rate than projected by the International Panel on 
Climate Change (IPCC) (see "Abrupt climate change 
happening", SiS 20). 

The news media have been filled with reports of heat waves, 
floods, droughts, hurricanes, accelerated melting of the 
polar ice caps and sea levels rising. And yet, they may be 
missing the most serious consequence of climate change 
thats staring us in the face: a collapse of food production 
on a global scale; or as Lester Brown of Earth Policy 
Institute puts it, "the bursting of the food bubble".

The economy must be restructured at "wartime speed", Lester 
Brown says, because we have built an "environmental bubble 
economy", where economic output is artificially inflated by 
over-consumption of the earths natural resources. He adds: 
"the destruction wrought by terrorists is likely to be small 
compared with the worldwide suffering if the environmental 
bubble economy collapses."

This same warning was first put forward no less forcefully 
by Edward Goldsmith and colleagues in A Blueprint for 
Survival published in 1972, and echoed by many since; 
notably Paul Hawkens The Ecology of Commerce (1993) and 
David Kortens When Corporations Rule the World (1995). 

Whats new in Lester Browns message is that the most 
vulnerable economic sector may be food. Food production is 
facing imminent collapse unless the urgent problems of water 
shortage, overpopulation and rising temperatures are tackled 
right away. (And no, he does not think GM crops are the 
answer to feeding the world.)

Water is fast running out

The world is fast running out of water after decades of 
unsustainable over-pumping of aquifers to expand food 
production to feed a growing world population. Water tables 
have fallen sharply and rapidly in scores of countries 
including China, India and the United States, which together 
produce nearly half of the worlds grain. Other more 
populous countries with depleted aquifers include Pakistan, 
Iran and Mexico. As water tables fall, rivers fail to reach 
the sea, lakes disappear and wells dry up. 

Conventional industrial agriculture is extremely water-
intensive. It takes 1000 tonnes of water to produce a tonne 
of grain. Worldwide, 70 % of all the water diverted from 
rivers or pumped from underground is used for irrigation; 
20% is used by industry and 10% for residential purposes. 

Growing needs of industry is diverting irrigation water from 
agriculture, and countries are turning to grain imports to 
make up for the shortfall. A person drinks 4 litres of water 
a day and an additional 2 000 litres is needed to produce 
the food eaten. In rich countries where grain is consumed to 
feed livestock, the water needed to produce food per person 
can easily reach 4 000 litres a day. 

Water shortages are generating conflicts between upstream 
and downstream claimants. 

Crops cease to produce at high temperatures

Another challenge facing farmers to keep up productivity is 
global warming. The 16 warmest years since record -keeping 
began in 1880 all occurred from1980 onwards, the three 
warmest years were 1998, 2001 and 2003. Crops are facing 
heat stresses that are without precedent. 

As the temperature rises above 34 C, photosynthesis slows 
down, dropping to zero for many crops at 37 C. At that 
temperature, corn plants in the US Corn Belt suffer from 
heat shock and dehydration, shrinking the harvest. 
Researchers at the International Rice Research Institute in 
the Philippines and the US Department of Agriculture 
developed a rule of thumb that each deg C rise in 
temperature above the optimum during the growing season 
reduces grain yields by 10%. Thus, according to projections 
of the IPCC  which some say is already an underestimate -
grain harvests in tropical regions could be reduced by an 
average of 5-11 percent by 2020 and 11-46 percent by 2050.

Research at Ohio State University indicates that as 
temperature rises, photosynthesis increases until 20C, and 
then plateaus until 35C when it begins to decline, ceasing 
entirely at 40C. At that temperature, the plant is in 
thermal shock, simply trying to survive. 

The most vulnerable part of the life cycle is at 
fertilization. Corn silk dries out rapidly in the heat, and 
prevents pollen tubes from reaching the kernels. Similarly, 
the fertility of rice falls from 100% at 34C to nearly zero 
at 40C. In north India, a 1C rise in temperature did not 
reduce wheat yields, but a 2C rise lowered yields at almost 
all of 10 sites. There was a decline in irrigated wheat 
yields ranging from 37 to 58% from heat alone; and when 
increased CO2 was factored in  which tends to increase 
photosynthesis - the decline ranged from 8 to 38%.

Grain production has been dropping

The problems of water shortage and increased temperatures 
are already hitting grain yields. Grain production has been 
declining in some smaller countries; but it is now falling 
in China, the most populous country in the world. Over the 
past five years, Chinas grain harvest has dropped from 390 
million to 340 million tonnes  a drop equal to the grain 
harvest of Canada. 

Sooner or later, says Lester Brown, China will enter the 
world grain market for imports, and that will cause food 
prices to rise, especially as world grain reserves are at an 
all time low.

In 2002, the world grain harvest of 1 807 million tonnes 
fell short of the world grain consumption by 100 million 
tonnes, or 5 percent. This shortfall, the largest on record, 
marked the third consecutive year of grain deficits, 
bringing stocks to the lowest level in a generation. 

In such a situation, the first to suffer will the worlds 
poorest and hungriest. The United Nations Food and 
Agriculture Organisation (FAO) latest estimates, based on 
data from the years 1998-2000, put the number of 
undernourished people in the world at 840 million. But since 
1998-2000, world grain production has fallen 5 percent, 
suggesting that the ranks of the hungry may be swelling. 

"Food is fast becoming a national security issue as growth 
in the world harvest slows and as falling water tables and 
rising temperatures hint at future shortages," says Lester 

More than 100 countries now import wheat. Some 40 countries 
import rice. Iran and Egypt rely on imports for 40 percent 
of their grain supply. Algeria, Japan, South Korea and 
Taiwan import 70% or more. Israel and Yemen import more than 
90%. And just 6 countries - the US, Canada, France 
Australia, Argentina and Thailand - supply 90% of grain 
exports. The US alone controls almost half of world grain 

China importing grain to make up for its deficits could 
destabilize world grain market overnight. When the former 
Soviet Union bought grain from the world market in 1972 for 
roughly a tenth of its grain supply following a bad harvest, 
the world wheat prices climbed from $1.90 to $4.89 a bushel.

"Ecological meltdown"

The problem of declining food production is dwarfed by the 
ecological impacts of the over-exploitation of resources to 
keep production high. China is singled out for "ecological 

Since 1980, Chinas economy has expanded more than fourfold. 
Income has also expanded by nearly fourfold lifting more 
people out of poverty faster than at any time in history. 
But this has resulted in over-ploughing, over-grazing, over-
cutting of forests and over-pumping of aquifers. 

With a population of 1.3 billion and 400 million cattle, 
sheep and goats, "weighing heavily on the land" and grazing 
flocks stripping the land of protective vegetation, a dust 
bowl has been created on a scale not seen before. China is 
at war with expanding deserts. Old deserts are advancing and 
new deserts forming. With little vegetation remaining in 
parts of northern and western China, the strong winds of 
late winter and early spring can remove millions of tonnes 
of topsoil in a single day, soil that would take centuries 
to replace. The Gobi Desert expanded by 52 400 square 
kilometres between 1994 and 1999, and is now within 150 
miles of Beijing.

Millions of rural Chinese may be uprooted and forced to 
migrate eastward as the deserts claim their land. 
Desertification has already driven villagers from their 
homes in Gansu, Inner Mongolia and Ningxia provinces. 
Unfortunately, they do not have an obvious place to escape 
to within China. Such environmental refugees will be 
increasingly common.

Chinas dust storms are spreading beyond its borders. On 
April 12, 2002, South Korea was engulfed by a huge dust 
storm from China that shut down schools and cancelled 
flights, and clinics were overrun with people having 
difficulty breathing. Koreans have come to dread the arrival 
of what they now call "the fifth season" of dust storms from 

Plan B for survival

Plan A  business as usual  must be replaced by plan B as a 
matter of urgency if we are to avoid the food bubble 
bursting, and with it, famine on a global scale, disease 
epidemics, social and political unrest, and wars. 

Plan B means shifting from a carbon-based energy economy to 
a hydrogen-based one to stabilize climate change. Iceland is 
the first country to adopt that as its national plan. 
Denmark and Germany are leading in wind-generated energy; 
Japan in solar cells. The evolution of fuel cells and 
availability of hydrogen generators will contribute to 
building a climate-benign hydrogen economy. The Netherlands 
has shown what can be achieved by phasing out motorcars in 
favour of bicycles. The Canadian province of Ontario is 
phasing out coal. It is replacing its five coal-fired power 
plants with gas-fired plants, wind-farms and making 
efficiency gains; the net result is to reduce carbon 
emissions equivalent to taking 4 million cars off the road.

Plan B means stabilizing world population at around 7.5 
billion, as some 34 countries in the world have already 
stabilized their populations. It means increasing the 
productivity of water in agriculture, for example, by drip-
irrigation pioneered in Israel. It means halting soil 
erosion by replanting trees, adopting minimum-till, no-till 
and other soil-conservation practices.

Finally, it means restructuring the entire economy by 
creating an "honest market", one that "tells the ecological 
truth", by including the indirect costs of goods and 
services into the prices, that values natures services 
properly and respect the sustainable-yield thresholds of 
natural systems such as fisheries, forests, rangelands and 

For petrol, calculating the true costs to society means 
including the medical costs of treating people made ill from 
polluted air, the costs of acid rain in damages to lakes, 
forests, crops and buildings, and most of all from global 
warming. Various studies have produced estimates of petrol 
prices raised to $3.30, or even $8.64 a gallon if drivers 
were to pay some of the indirect costs, including the 
military costs of protecting petroleum supply lines and 
ensuring access to Middle Eastern oil.

An example of valuing natures services is the decision of 
the Chinese government to ban all tree cutting in the 
Yangtze River basin after the flooding in 1998, which 
inflicted $30 billion worth of damages. The ban was 
justified by according to standing trees a worth three times 
that of cut trees.

A further measure is to shift taxation  lowering income 
taxes while raising taxes on environmentally destructive 

Sustainable agriculture left out

While most of the measures in plan B are laudable, they do 
not add up to the radical "restructuring" of the bubble 
economy called for.

Edward Goldsmith, Paul Hawken, David Korten and others have 
argued convincingly that the fatal error of our bubble 
economy is that it is predicated on unlimited growth. A 
major part of the solution may well involve abandoning 
unlimited growth as a matter of policy and as an index of 
progress and well-being, for an alternative economic model 
that emphasizes stability, autonomy and self-renewal at 
every level. But thats not going to happen so long as the 
dominant model of economic globalisation of the World Trade 
Organisation (WTO) holds sway.

Another weakness of plan B is that after having painted a 
dire picture of the unsustainable food bubble created by 
decades of industrial monoculture, Lester Brown nevertheless 
fails to call for a comprehensive shift to sustainable 
agriculture that would tackle the problems he has mentioned 
head on, as well as ones he hasnt mentioned, the most 
obvious being that industrial monoculture is extremely 
energy inefficient and dependent on fossil fuel, which too, 
is fast running out.

Organic and agroecological farming, by contrast, are proving 
productive, energy and resource efficient and 
environmentally friendly; they are able to provide food 
security for the poorest farmers, to protect biodiversity, 
to regenerate degraded land, and to turn soil from a carbon 
source back into a carbon sink. They are the key to 
delivering health to the nation, whether rich or poor (as 
described in articles in successive issues of Science in 
Society http://www.i-sis.org.uk/isisnews.php; also The Case 
for a GM Free Sustainable World 

It is nothing short of scandalous that out of the #500 
million allocated to implementing the UK governments 
Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food (Department for 
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, London 
www.defra.gov/farm/sustain/newstrategy/strategy.pdf), only 
#5 million was earmarked for supporting organic agriculture. 

The reason is that adopting truly sustainable agriculture 
would entail major conceptual and structural changes to the 
food production and delivery system that many governments, 
including the UK, are not prepared to face up to. These 
include rejecting global "competitiveness" and "efficiency" 
as artificially defined by the WTO to perpetuate the 
iniquitous exploitation of the world poor by the rich that 
has added untold misery to the lives of Third World farmers 
and food miles to agricultural produce shipped across the 
globe. They include, instead, supporting local production 
and consumption and shortening the food-supply chain to 
ensure that farmers get a fair price for their produce and 
consumers get the benefit of fresh, nutritious and health-
promoting food while reducing global carbon dioxide 

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