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Peak Oil? What About Peak Food? A Conversation With Lester Brown

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In India, 24 percent of families have foodless days. That means that each week they plan what days they will not eat. In Nigeria, it is 27 percent of families. According to Lester Brown, "food is the new oil." Lester's new book, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, makes a very convincing case that the greatest threat we as a human species face is food scarcity -- and at 123 pages, the book is packed full of data and analysis to support this.

I had the privilege of meeting Lester Brown at a Wharton Club of D.C. event, then of spending a little more time with him and discussing this important topic. If you are not familiar with Lester Brown, he is one of the most influential thinkers on environmental topics, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, and author of over 50 books, including Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

According to Lester Brown, increasing food prices, climate change, population growth and water shortages will lead to an increasing number of failed states and will be at the forefront of conflict between nations. Armed aggression as we define it today does not even make his top five major threats for the 21st century.

We are transitioning from an era of food surplus to an era of food scarcity. There is a growing need for food -- each year, an additional 80 million people are born. Last year, we reached the 7 billion mark and will reach 9 billion before 2050 according to the United Nations. In addition, as incomes rise, meat consumption increases. Eighty percent of the grain Americans consume is in the form of meat, milk and eggs. "Water used in making that food amounts to about 2,000 liters per person per day, compared to the four liters that we drink each day", says Lester Brown.

Full Planet, Empty Plates points out ethanol production for automobiles is competing for a share of grain output. Aquifers are being depleted faster than they can replenish (assuming they can replenish, which in some instances is not the case). In several agriculturally advanced countries, rice and wheat yields are beginning to plateau. Topsoil continues to erode faster than new soil can form. Temperatures are rising, leading to droughts and to unpredictable weather for farming. According to the book, studies show that for each one degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum during the growing seasons, there is a 10 percent decline in grain yields (some estimates put it as high as 17 percent). A recent PwC study shows temperatures will rise by up to six degrees Celsius by the end of the century. This will lead to increased food prices, and increasing unrest in the developing world where a small rise in the price of grains can mean the difference between survival and starvation.

What's the solution? According to Lester Brown, "globally, the ministry of agriculture now depends on the ministry of energy and the ministry of health and family planning to ensure future food security." Two priorities discussed in the book are increasing water productivity and filling the family planning gap. Just as importantly, and closely linked to the first point, we need to redefine security. The U.S.'s view of security is antiquated, rooted in the past, not looking towards the future. America looks at national security by looking back to WWI, WWII and the Cold War. Climate change is the new enemy.

Climate change is not an abstraction. We have seen this in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, leading the mayor of the U.S.'s largest city, Mayor Bloomberg, to endorse one presidential candidate over another and cite climate change as the reason. We continue to hit temperatures that represent historical highs. There is no reason climate change should not be treated as a leading threat to our security.

Countries have shown that they can mobilize quickly and decisively when faced with a common enemy. Changing the energy landscape is a necessary step and it can happen quickly, as the U.S. has demonstrated in the past. President Roosevelt achieved massive change in a short period of time doing just that in 1942, in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. To prepare for the war, he banned the sale of automobiles. Car manufacturers had no choice but to begin producing airplanes, tanks and aircraft guns.

Restructuring the energy landscape would be a significant step in beginning to address many of these issues. Energy in general is a big consumer of water, but wind power requires no water. China has recognized the potential for wind and, in 2011, became the largest producer of wind. Let's hope other nations will do the same -- and that this will be a high priority on the agenda for the climate change conference in Doha starting later on this month.

I asked Lester Brown what I should tell my clients, organizations which we work with to help decrease their environmental footprint. His response: increase energy efficiency and energy conservation, and invest in renewable energy (especially wind). Changing to alternative forms of energy will not only reduce carbon emissions but will decrease organizations' use of water. Organizations can also support efforts to address other contributing factors, such as poverty, overpopulation and a reduction in the use of biofuels.

There are actions that we can all take -- and while the situation looks dark, Lester Brown, among others, has clearly outlined how we can address it. It is now up to us to act.

Anca Novacovici is the founder and president of Eco-Coach, Inc., an environmental sustainability consulting firm in Washington, D.C. You may contact her at anca@eco-coach.com. To learn more about Anca, click here.

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