Sustainability of World Agriculture

Population growth, climate change and resource consumption must be addressed to avoid food system failure.

| April 2016

  • Farmland
    The world's food supply is threatened by a variety of factors. Understanding how each of them relates to our agricultural system is crucial to achieving sustainability.
    Photo by Fotolia/asferico
  • Full Planet Empty Plates
    “Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity” by Lester R. Brown identifies and explains the factors contributing to the world’s shrinking food supply.
    Cover courtesy of W.W. Norton and Company

  • Farmland
  • Full Planet Empty Plates

Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity (W. W. Norton and Company, 2012) by Lester R. Brown explains why world food supplies are tightening, and what we need to do about it. A leading environmentalist, Brown examines the factors contributing to global food shortages. The following selection taken from Chapter 11: Can We Prevent Food Breakdown? discusses the areas that require collective action to sustain the food system.

Can We Prevent Food Breakdown?

World agriculture is now facing challenges unlike any before. Producing enough grain to make it to the next harvest has challenged farmers ever since agriculture began, but now the challenge is deepening as new trends — falling water tables, plateauing grain yields, and rising temperatures — join soil erosion to make it difficult to expand production fast enough. As a result, world grain carryover stocks have dropped from an average of 107 days of consumption a decade or so ago to 74 days in recent years.

World food prices have more than doubled over the last decade. Those who live in the United States, where 9 percent of income goes for food, are largely insulated from these price shifts. But how do those who live on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder cope? They were already spending 50–70 percent of their income on food. Many were down to one meal a day before the price rises. Now millions of families routinely schedule one or more days each week when they will not eat at all. 

What happens with the next price surge? Belt tightening has worked for some of the poorest people so far, but this cannot go much further. Spreading food unrest will likely lead to political instability. We could see a breakdown of political systems. Some governments may fall.



As food supplies have tightened, a new geopolitics of food has emerged — a world in which the global competition for land and water is intensifying and each country is fending for itself. We cannot claim that we are unaware of the trends that are undermining our food supply and thus our civilization. We know what we need to do.

There was a time when if we got into trouble on the food front, ministries of agriculture would offer farmers more financial incentives, like higher price supports, and things would soon return to normal. But responding to the tightening of food supplies today is a far more complex undertaking. It involves the ministries of energy, water resources, transportation, and health and family planning, among others. Because of the looming specter of climate change that is threatening to disrupt agriculture, we may find that energy policies will have an even greater effect on future food security than agricultural policies do. In short, avoiding a breakdown in the food system requires the mobilization of our entire society.






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