Even as Iran’s nuclear program raises the likelihood of yet another conflict in the Middle East, the bigger threat is a potential food crisis in the making, says Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute. “When I ask myself, what are the threats for out security today, foreign aggression doesn’t make top five,” Brown told attendees of the Affordable World Security Conference in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.
Grain yields are beginning to hit a “glass ceiling” in many countries, Brown said, where farmers have already taken advantage of what science has to offer for improving yield. As more and more countries hit an upper limit on productivity, the world grain harvest will begin to plateau, even as demand for food continues to rise, causing a rise in prices. More worrisome, the global food market is vulnerable to external shocks such as prolonged drought. “We don’t have idle land, we’re flat out,” says Brown. “We don’t have [food] stocks. We’re living harvest to harvest. The question becomes, what if we have a major shortfall in the world?”
An extreme weather event could tip the scales, he says. For instance, the heat wave and drought in Russia in 2010 reduced the country’s grain harvest by 40 percent, which tightened world supplies. If such a heat wave in the American Midwest were to have a similar impact on the much larger U.S. harvest, “we would have chaos on world grain markets,” says Brown. “That would affect financial markets, and financial stability in the world, which rests on confidence.”
Water shortages are also increasing pressure on agriculture. Half the world’s people live in countries that rely in part on over-pumping aquifers to expand production. That’s true of the U.S. China and India, says Brown. Once these aquifers are depleted and rate of pumping is reduced to rate at which they are replenished by rain, the drop in food production will be dramatic. That scenario is already playing out in Saudi Arabia. Biofuels adds another stress on food markets.
The good news is that in the U.S. is making some small headway on the path to sustainability. Carbon emissions, which peaked in 2007 due to the economic recession, have continued to decline since then. Brown attributes the trend to a closing of more than 100 coal plants in recent years. Car use is also down—young people apparently drive less than their parents, and baby boomers are beginning to retire, which means they drive less. New cars are also more efficient—between 2010 and 2025, average gas mileage for cars will double, says Brown.
Image credit: Public Domain Photos
About the Author: Fred Guterl is the executive editor of Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @fredguterl.