Thursday, February 27, 2014

Can The World Feed China? by Lester Brown

Overnight, China has become a leading world grain importer, set to buy a staggering 22 million tons in the 2013–14 trade year, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture projections. As recently as 2006—just eight years ago—China had a grain surplus and was exporting 10 million tons. What caused this dramatic shift?

Lester Brown

It wasn’t until 20 years ago, after I wrote an article entitled “Who Will Feed China?”, that I began to fully appreciate what a sensitive political issue food security was to the Chinese. The country’s leaders were all survivors of the Great Famine of 1959–61, when some 36 million people starved to death. Yet while the Chinese government was publicly critical of my questioning the country’s ability to feed itself, it began quietly reforming its agriculture. Among other things, Beijing adopted a policy of grain self-sufficiency, an initiative that is now faltering.

Since 2006, China’s grain use has been climbing by 17 million tons per year. (See data.) For perspective, this compares with Australia’s annual wheat harvest of 24 million tons. With population growth slowing, this rise in grain use is largely the result of China’s huge population moving up the food chain and consuming more grain-based meat, milk, and eggs.

In 2013, the world consumed an estimated 107 million tons of pork—half of which was eaten in China. China’s 1.4 billion people now consume six times as much pork as the United States does. Even with its recent surge in pork, however, China’s overall meat intake per person still totals only 120 pounds per year, scarcely half the 235 pounds in the United States. But, the Chinese, like so many others around the globe, aspire to an American lifestyle. To consume meat like Americans do, China would need to roughly double its annual meat supply from 80 million tons to 160 million tons. Using the rule of thumb of three to four pounds of grain to produce one pound of pork, an additional 80 million tons of pork would require at least 240 million tons of feedgrain.

Where will this grain come from? Farmers in China are losing irrigation water as aquifers are depleted. The water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces half of the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, is falling fast, by over 10 feet per year in some areas. Meanwhile, water supplies are being diverted to nonfarm uses and cropland is being lost to urban and industrial construction. With China’s grain yield already among the highest in the world, the potential for China to increase production within its own borders is limited.

The 2013 purchase by a Chinese conglomerate of the American firm Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s largest pig-growing and pork-processing company, was really a pork security move. So, too, is China’s deal with Ukraine to provide $3 billion in loans in exchange for corn, as well as negotiations with Ukrainian companies for access to land. Such moves by China exemplify the new geopolitics of food scarcity that affects us all.

China is not alone in the scramble for food. An estimated 2 billion people in other countries are also moving up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. The combination of population growth, rising affluence, and the conversion of one third of the U.S. grain harvest into ethanol to fuel cars is expanding the world demand for grain by a record 43 million tons per year, double the annual growth of a decade ago.

The world’s farmers are struggling to keep pace. When grain supplies tightened in times past, prices rose and farmers responded by producing more. Now the situation is far more complex. Water shortages, soil erosion, plateauing crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries, and climate change pose mounting threats to production.

As China imports increasing quantities of grain, it is competing directly with scores of other grain-importing countries, such as Japan, Mexico, and Egypt. The result will be a worldwide rise in food prices. Those living on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder—people who are already struggling just to survive—will find it even more difficult to get by. Low-income families trapped by food price inflation will be unable to afford enough food to eat every day.

The world is transitioning from an era of abundance to one dominated by scarcity. China’s turn to the outside world for massive quantities of grain is forcing us to recognize that we are in trouble on the food front. Can we reverse the trends that are tightening food supplies, or is the world moving toward a future of rising food prices and political unrest? More


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Anxieties mount in drought-stricken California

Ryan Jacobsen and his family have been farming their land for four generations. His ancestors were Volga Germans from the territories surrounding Russia's Volga River. More than 100 years ago, they settled in central California, in the town of Fresno, about a two-hour's drive southeast of San Francisco. They cultivated wine and grew fruits and vegetables. Jacobsen likes to talk about the past with his grandfather, who is now over 90 years old, but now, the dry spell is the only issue.

"The drought here in San Joachin Valley is absolutely the worst we've ever seen. And what we're looking at as far as this year, we're looking at hundreds of thousands of acres being fallowed, tens of thousands of jobs being lost, and billions of dollars of economic activity not coming to this community," said the 34-year-old farmer.

It has hardly rained in the last three years. The tall, lanky Ryan stands in front of one of his fields and shows how economically he and the farmers in the neighborhood use the precious water. Long hoses, which lay a few inches beneath the surface, lead the water straight to the roots of the turnips. The water is transported many miles through canals to the fields and originates from nearby reservoirs.

"Nothing evaporates here," Jacobsen said.

Big water bills

One local water supply is the San Luis Reservoir. During the winter, it's generally filled up to the rim due to rainy weather in the cold season. In the spring, melt water from the mountains also fills the reservoir. But because of the lack of rain, the reservoir is only 40 percent filled. What's usually a green shore now resembles a brown lunar landscape. And it becomes wider and wider the more the water level drops.

The water from this reservoir is expensive. Farmers pay around $100 (73 euros) to irrigate a small field for a few hours, which means the cost of cultivating crops increases. But higher costs for the products can't always be passed on to consumers. The competition in the agriculture business is stiff. Strawberries, grapes and nuts from Latin American countries are increasingly entering the US market.

"Eventually, you reach a point where farming isn't worth it," said Fotis Bilios. He works on a big farm that employs 300 workers and is located half an hour's drive from Fresno. Thousands of seasonal workers also help at the site to generate an annual turnover of $80 million. But the profits are plummeting now that rain is scarce.

"A quarter of the 7,100 hectares of farmland lies fallow," said the 43-year-old during a tour through the area. The "Stamoulis" farm is one of the most modern farms in California, and Bilios expects it will survive the drought. "It's a lot more difficult for many small farms," he added.

Facing financial ruin

Hundreds of farmers face bankruptcy, says Juliet Christian-Smith from the Union of Concerned Scientists environmental organization in San Francisco. It might rain occasionally in the coming months, but it won't be enough to fill the reservoirs. That's a bleak prospect for agriculture - the most important economic sector in California, with 50 billion dollars in revenues per year.

When asked why there's no more rain, Christian-Smith says she believes it is caused by climate change.

"There's very high consensus around increasing droughts in the future related to global climate change, because not only are we having earlier snow melts and less snow pack, which is one of our largest water reservoirs in the western US, but we're also having hotter temperatures, which means that outdoor plants require more water to survive," she said.

California's Governor Jerry Brown has made efforts at raising awareness of climate change issues and recently declared a state of drought emergency. Authorities estimate that around 200,000 hectares of land can't be used due to current conditions. The resulting damages amount to five billion dollars, the government estimates.

Another reason for the drought is that California's population has doubled to 38 million people over the last four decades. More people mean more water is consumed.

Fotis Bilios - like most of the farmers - does not speak highly of the government. He believes that too much water is being pumped into the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. "What's more important - that the people are able to take long showers or that they have food?"

The fight for water has only just begun. More


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

U.S.-India: Dealing With Monsoon Failure by Lester R. Brown

Earth Policy Book Byte Release - February 12, 2014

The following is an excerpt from Lester Brown’s new autobiography, Breaking New Ground: A Personal History. The first in his family to graduate from elementary school, he reveals what inspired him—and millions of those who have read his books—to become environmentally active. For more, check out Chapter 1, now up on our website, and browse through photo albums and hear from Lester Brown himself in select videos.

The scene plays out in India in 1965.

At a reception, I met the head of Indian operations for Esso (now ExxonMobil). When I asked him how business was, he said it was great. In particular, diesel sales to fuel irrigation pumps were nearly double the previous year’s level. Why? Because farmers were pumping continuously to try to save their crops.

Soon after, I met an embassy staff person, an avid duck hunter. He usually took off a few weeks in the fall to go hunting on a lake up north. This year he had canceled his vacation because the lake was dry.

An agronomist who worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) traveled extensively in rural India and often stopped his car in the countryside to take soil samples. But he complained to me that he could no longer get good core samples: the soil was so dry it crumbled and fell out of his auger as he withdrew it.

This was something that I had never seen in my years of farming. I became convinced that India faced a huge crop shortfall.

It was the fall of 1965 and I had come to India because the USAID mission in New Delhi had asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for someone to help them with an agricultural analysis.

What caught my attention in New Delhi right away was the condition of that year’s grain crop. The Indian government officially estimated grain demand for 1965 would be 95 million tons. I soon began to wonder whether a harvest anywhere near this amount would materialize. I found reports of drought in virtually every corner of the country. The drought appeared to be almost everywhere.

Since the United States was the dominant world grain supplier—the only country that could even think about filling a deficit of this scale—this warranted an urgent cable to alert my boss, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman. If a potential deficit of this magnitude was a real prospect, he needed the information as soon as possible.

However, if I were going to sound such an alarm, I needed to estimate the size of the deficit, despite having only fragmentary data. If my estimate of the deficit was too high, the United States would over mobilize and waste resources. But if my estimate was too low, that could lead to famine. I worked to strike the right tone in the cable to Freeman.

Off to Rome

The cable actually went to Washington on Wednesday, November 10. On Friday of the following week, I received a cable from Secretary Freeman. It was short and cryptic: “Please meet me in Rome tomorrow morning.” He would be in Rome attending the biennial conference of agricultural ministers organized by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

At that point, I asked to meet with India’s minister of food and agriculture, C. Subramaniam, to share my assessment with him. I urged him not to play it down when he got to Rome—unless he was convinced that it was off base. Otherwise, the U.S. government would not mobilize its grain aid quickly enough and the needed shipments might not arrive in time.

When I met Secretary Freeman on Saturday morning, he said he had shared my cable with President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ). My analysis played to one of LBJ’s deepest concerns: that India was neglecting its agriculture as it concentrated on industrialization. Its government simply seemed to assume that the United States would fill any grain deficits that India might face.

Creating dependency

If India continued on this path, it would become dangerously dependent on the United States in the event of any crop shortfalls. That was all the more problematic as this was a time when scores of other countries also depended on U.S. grain.

President Johnson and his team knew that if the recent agricultural trends in India continued, eventually India’s grain needs would exceed the United States’ capacity to meet them. When an Indian official was asked by a reporter about the adequacy of the country’s grain stocks, he responded, “Our reserves are in the grain elevators in Kansas.”

It was this casual thinking about food security in India, then a country with a population more than double that of the United States and growing by 10 million per year that alarmed the U.S. president. It led to what came to be known as the “short-tether policy” on U.S. food aid.

Constructive conditionality

LBJ had asked Secretary Freeman to get a commitment from the Indians to develop their agriculture—and fast. Any continuing food aid from the United States would be contingent on this.

India was facing a potentially massive famine. I wanted to make sure that both governments understood the gravity and urgency of the situation. Rarely have two governments been in a situation where the stakes, measured in human lives, were so high.

Freeman, Subramaniam and I met on Monday morning to discuss the situation. They asked me to draft an agreement between the two countries based on our discussion. At the end of the day, I had a draft. The agreement was short, three pages double-spaced.

I knew what India had to do. The government’s food price policy, which catered to the urban population by imposing ceiling prices on wheat and rice, had to be replaced. What was needed was a floor price guarantee for the farmers growing these grains. Fertilizer supplies had to increase rapidly. This meant shifting fertilizer production from the public sector to the private sector.

There were high-yielding dwarf varieties of wheat. Initially developed in Mexico by Norman Borlaug and his colleagues with support of the Rockefeller Foundation, they had been tested in India and performed very well. India needed to accelerate the dissemination of these high-yielding wheats.

Creating linkages across borders

Once we had negotiated the agreement that contained these essential points, Freeman cabled a draft to LBJ for approval. The president approved it immediately and Secretary Freeman signed the agreement. In essence, he committed the United States to providing massive food assistance—as long as India adopted the reforms.

The Indian government’s original five-year agricultural plan was a much longer, detailed bureaucratic document. My new draft was only a few pages on the key initiatives needed. Its strength was that it linked the movement of wheat from the United States to the implementation of a new food production strategy in India. The monsoon failure and the massive looming grain deficit had changed everything.

Inside the Indian government, Agriculture Minister Subramaniam took all the necessary steps. In effect, he said: Our agriculture is in trouble. We could be facing a huge grain deficit, a potentially massive loss of life. We have to reform our agriculture. Here is what we need to do.

You reform, we deliver

One thing the Indians did not anticipate was the extent to which the Johnson Administration was going to use food aid to force the Indian government to follow through on every measure in the agreement. If the Indian government did not accomplish certain measures, the ships would stop leaving U.S. ports.

It took the Indians a while to realize that LBJ was dead serious about the reforms. Several times in the months ahead, the ships stopped sailing because India had not fulfilled its part in implementing the bilateral agreement. They would move again only when India had met its commitments.

The greatest challenge was actually importing the 10 million tons of grain in a single year when India previously had never imported anywhere near this amount before.

To assess whether—and how—this massive amount could be moved in time, Secretary Freeman called on logistics specialists in the USDA, men who had served in the Army Quartermaster Corps in World War II. During the war, they had become masters of moving equipment and arms from point A to point B. Their ingenuity was boundless.

Yankee ingenuity to help India

What they did to greatly increase India’s port capacity was to lease one of the largest supertankers afloat at the time, the Manhattan. They then anchored the massive ship in the Bay of Bengal and used it as a port.

On one side, ships from the United States arrived with grain that was pumped on board and then unloaded on the other side into small, flat-bottomed, local boats called dhows, which were about 30 feet long.

Thousands of dhows were used to move the grain up the Ganges River and its tributaries to reach the parts of the country where the drought was most severe and the risk of starvation the greatest. It was remarkably successful.

The result

Final data on the 1965 Indian harvest showed it coming in at 77 million tons of grain—18 million tons below the Indian government’s original estimated consumption. In the effort to stave off famine, the United States that year shipped a fifth of its wheat harvest to India.

At that time, it was the largest movement of food ever between two countries. Some 600 ships, nearly two a day, left U.S. ports laden with wheat for India. Measured by the number of ships used in a single logistical operation, it ranks high on the all-time list. This record flow of food from the United States to India avoided what could have been one of history’s most devastating famines.

With the new agricultural development strategy, India doubled its wheat harvest in seven years, a record for growth in production of a food staple in a major country. No country, not even the United States, had ever managed such rapid growth.

For the United States, this was one of our finest moments. And not just because millions of lives were saved, but because our government had seen a rare opportunity to restructure India’s agriculture by dramatically boosting land productivity. More

Could a similar scene play out again on the sub-continent due to a spike in oil prices or changes in monsoon? Editor

# # #

This essay is an adapted excerpt from Breaking New Ground: A Personal History, by Lester R. Brown, New York, W.W. Norton, 2013, and originally appeared in The Globalist on February 6, 2014. Photo albums, videos, and additional resources are available for free download at

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Media Contact: Reah Janise Kauffman (202) 496-9290 ext. 12 |

Research Contact: Janet Larsen (202) 496-9290 ext. 14 |


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Threat to food security

Warming sea temperatures and ocean acidification put the millions around the world who rely on the sea, at risk.

He sat shirtless on his thin bamboo floor in a home built on posts rising out of the Banda Sea. Tadi had just returned in his dugout canoe from scanning crevices in a nearby reef for octopus. He and his neighbours spend every day this way – scouring the ocean for something to eat or sell. Fishing, here, is about survival.

Their stilt village on Hoga Island, Indonesia, has no industry, no land, no running water. They dive without oxygen, wearing hand-carved wooden goggles, and carry spearguns hacked from logs with their machetes. They eat what they catch and sell the rest, using the money to buy everything else they need: boat fuel, root vegetables, rice and wood.

Without fishing, “how would I feed my family?” asked Tadi, who like many Indonesians has only one name.

Now Tadi’s community, like countless others across the globe, is on a collision course with the industrialised world’s fossil fuel emissions. Hundreds of millions of people around the world rely on marine life susceptible to warming temperatures and ocean acidification, the souring of seas from carbon dioxide emitted by burning coal, oil and natural gas. That includes US Pacific Northwest oyster growers and crabbers in the frigid Bering Sea, who now face great uncertainty from shifts in marine chemistry.

But from Africa to Alaska, many coastal communities face a substantially greater risk. These cultures are so thoroughly dependent on marine life threatened by carbon dioxide that a growing body of research suggests their children or grandchildren could struggle to find enough food. The science of deciphering precisely who might see seafood shortages remains embryonic, but with many of the most at-risk coastal communities already facing poverty, marine pollution, over-fishing and rising seas, the potential for calamity is high.

“I can’t tell you how many people will be affected,” said Sarah Cooley, at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, who studies links between acidification and food security. “But it’s going to be a very big number.”

Said Andreas Andersson, an acidification and coral reef expert with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego: “These people are literally going to be fighting for their lives.” More