Plan B Updates: The Great Food Crisis of 2011

Lester Brown, the president of the Earth Policy Institute, describes the current state of the global food system, focusing on high food prices, climate change and human population growth.

| January 17, 2011


Climate change, aquifer depletion and topsoil erosion will all play a part in the future of our food supply.


As the new year begins, the price of wheat is setting an all-time high in the United Kingdom. Food riots are spreading across Algeria. Russia is importing grain to sustain its cattle herds until spring grazing begins. India is wrestling with an 18 percent annual food inflation rate, sparking protests. China is looking abroad for potentially massive quantities of wheat and corn. The Mexican government is buying corn futures to avoid unmanageable tortilla price rises. And on January 5, the U.N. Food and Agricultural organization announced that its food price index for December hit an all-time high.

But whereas in years past, it's been weather that has caused a spike in commodities prices, now it's trends on both sides of the food supply/demand equation that are driving up prices. On the demand side, the culprits are population growth, rising affluence, and the use of grain to fuel cars. On the supply side: soil erosion, aquifer depletion, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, the plateauing of crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries, and — due to climate change — crop-withering heat waves and melting mountain glaciers and ice sheets. These climate-related trends seem destined to take a far greater toll in the future.

Supply and Demand: What's Causing Higher Food Prices?

There's at least a glimmer of good news on the demand side: World population growth, which peaked at 2 percent per year around 1970, dropped below 1.2 percent per year in 2010. But because the world population has nearly doubled since 1970, we are still adding 80 million people each year. Tonight, there will be 219,000 additional mouths to feed at the dinner table, and many of them will be greeted with empty plates. Another 219,000 will join us tomorrow night. At some point, this relentless growth begins to tax both the skills of farmers and the limits of the earth's land and water resources.

Beyond population growth, there are now some 3 billion people moving up the food chain, eating greater quantities of grain-intensive livestock and poultry products. The rise in meat, milk and egg consumption in fast-growing developing countries has no precedent. Total meat consumption in China today is already nearly double that in the United States.

The third major source of demand growth is the use of crops to produce fuel for cars. In the United States, which harvested 416 million tons of grain in 2009, 119 million tons went to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars. That's enough to feed 350 million people for a year. The massive U.S. investment in ethanol distilleries sets the stage for direct competition between cars and people for the world grain harvest. In Europe, where much of the auto fleet runs on diesel fuel, there is growing demand for plant-based diesel oil, principally from rapeseed and palm oil. This demand for oil-bearing crops is not only reducing the land available to produce food crops in Europe, it is also driving the clearing of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia for palm oil plantations.

The combined effect of these three growing demands is stunning: a doubling in the annual growth in world grain consumption from an average of 21 million tons per year from 1990 to 2005, to 41 million tons per year from 2005 to 2010. Most of this huge jump is attributable to the orgy of investment in ethanol distilleries in the United States between 2006 and 2008.

1/18/2011 6:39:38 PM

If only the 'leftists' would join the 'conservatives' and stop the idiotic corn/ethanol subsidies that reduces food crops while funneling taxpayer money to Archers-Daniels-Midland and other corporate conglomerates.

jo _4
1/18/2011 12:40:29 PM

It is possible that the US and Canada may have a secret weapon that will allow us to fair better than other countries. We have a huge amount of untilled grassland in areas that recieve enough rain to sustain them, thanks to urban sprawl. I beleive this food crisis will eventually drive suburban Americans to convert their lawns back into gardens. Yes, I know many of our lawns don't have good top soil now because the builders covered it or removed it. Or, we've put so many chemicals on it that it is no longer viable. This is why we really need to start cultivating them now, so we can begin to build the soil back. It is possible to tend a small home garden in such a way as to increase the quality of the soil.

1/18/2011 12:08:35 PM

Organic small scale agriculture using proven seeds is the answer. To use this crisis to push GMO seeds on the European continent is an abomination. They don't want to eat it and niether do the animals. GMO crops have been proven to cause health problems in animals including organ damage and reduced litter sizes and viability. Not only that, but GMO crops push all local diversity off the table in favor of a monoculture. It degrades the soils through excess use of herbicide and returns NOTHING to the land that feeds us. In china they are able to get 7 to 9 times the productivity per acre through growing crops like a garden. Interplanting, successive planting and crop rotations allow them to yeild more calories per acre. It would be foolish to wreck our soils further at a time when healthy soil is the only thing that will save us from drought stress and falling yeilds. The Amish know that farming starts and ends with soil health. Crop rotations and manure are the answer.

t brandt
1/18/2011 6:20:57 AM

Thank you for starting a discussion on the most important topic facing humanity: population growth approaching the point where the environment can no longer support us. Shame on you for bringing in so many lies and false analyses of the situation. Climate is not "changing". Even if it were, a warming of a couple degrees would expand productive area and bring more rainfall to agricultural lands. Yields would rise. Of course that really only compounds the problem by raising the carrying capacity. Population will rise to take advantage of it. Simple arithmetic shows your statement is false that increasd grain usage is due to ethanol production. In fact, most grain to EtOH increases are in the US and are carried out at the expense of reduced exports, not increased production or usage. But fuel from food is a stupid policy at best anyways. The European stagnation of grain production could be overcome by their finally allowing the use GMO technology. That also would raise the carrying capacity, compounding the dilemma. What you've missed is the all important link between high ag yield and its dependence on petroleum. When oil supply depletes, yields will fall and the ability to distribute the food will fail. As oil depletes, its price will rise and food prices must follow. (That's what's happening now.) BTW- anybody out there know what a "cubit" is?

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