by Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute, Washington D.C., U.S.A.
In the May issue of Scientific American, Lester Brown discusses how food shortages could be the weak link that brings down civilization. In this feature article, “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?” Brown reveals that the biggest threat to global political stability is the potential for food crises in poor countries to cause government collapse. Those crises are brought on by rising demand and ever worsening environmental degradation.
“In the twentieth century, dramatic rises in grain prices resulted from poor harvests. They were event driven and short-lived,” Brown says. “In contrast, the recent escalation in world grain prices is trend-driven, making it unlikely to reverse the rise in food prices without a reversal in the trends themselves.”
Demand side trends include the addition of more than 70 million people to the global population each year, 4 billion people moving up the food chain—consuming more grain-intensive meat, milk, and eggs—and the massive diversion of U.S. grain to fuel ethanol distilleries. On the supply side, the trends include falling water tables, eroding soils, and rising temperatures. Higher temperatures lower grain yields. They also melt the glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau whose ice melt sustains the major rivers and irrigation systems of China and India during the dry seasons. Without a massive intervention to reverse these three environmental trends, Brown argues, more and more states will fail, ultimately threatening civilization itself.
In the article, Brown discusses measures to reverse the trends. “Among other steps,” he says, “it will take a massive restructuring of the world energy economy similar in scale and urgency to the wartime restructuring of the U.S. industrial economy in 1942.”