14, 2005: According to a Greek myth, Damocles, a
sycophantic courtier in 4th century B.C. Sicily, was given
an opportunity by the king to see what it was like to live
in royal luxury. He was seated at a dining table loaded with
the finest foods, but as he was feasting, he realized with
alarm that a sword was hanging over him, suspended by a horsehair.
In Outgrowing the Earth, Lester Brown describes
the sword of Damocles' of sorts that is hanging over our food
supply. Global temperatures are rising, water tables are dropping,
rivers are drying up and deserts are expanding, all of which
are leading to decreased food production. With human populations
still on the rise, there is a potential food crisis ahead.
Of course, an overhanging sword, implying a fast and abrupt
end, is a poor metaphor for our food situation. A better metaphor
would suggest a progressive decline, like a peppering of daggers.
Or—less dramatically—like a butler swooping in
and removing the steaming dishes, one by one, under your hungry
Outgrowing the Earth is a compendium of data and
analysis, which is to be expected from Lester Brown, the founder
and president of the Earth Policy Institute. Brown does recommend
changes to ensure secure future food security, but in essence
his book is a rigorous inquiry into the near future of food
production. Outgrowing the Earth deals with a simple
and essential question: will we as a species be able to produce
enough food, on our current path, to feed ourselves over the
next few years and decades?
To answer this, Brown examines the effects on the food supply
likely to result from global warming, depleted water tables,
population growth, industrialization, loss of cropland, over-fishing,
exhausted soil, erosion, and what he calls the “shrinking
backlog of technology"--the fact that new technologies
in agriculture no longer offer the large yield gains they
Considering that many of the numbers and concepts he has
to deal with in the book are vast (often in the hundreds of
thousands), Brown does well at making the information digestible.
For example, he mentions that in the United States, 0.07 hectares
of paved land is required for each car. It is easy to skim
over a figure like that. But when he goes on to say that this
means paving over an area the size of a football field for
every five cars, then you do pause to reflect on it.
Outgrowing the Earth takes a bird's-eye-view approach
in examining world food security. The emphasis is not on one
nation but on the relationships between nations, especially
between the major global food exporters and importers. Brown
does, however, devote entire chapters solely to China and
to Brazil, as they most reflect recent shifts in food production
and trade, with China emerging as a leading importer and Brazil
as a leading exporter.
The case of China serves to illustrate how industrialization
in densely populated nations leads to a decline in grain production.
China’s grain production more than quadrupled from 1950
to 1998, but over the following five years began to decline
significantly, with a total drop that exceeded Canada’s
entire grain harvest. Like its predecessors-in-industrialization--Japan,
South Korea and Taiwan (hence Brown’s term “the
Japan Syndrome”)--China has been facing a loss of grain
cropland due to the conversion of farmland into industrial
centers, the replacement of grain on the farms for higher-value
crops and the migration of rural workers into the cities.
Industrialization means more cars, hence more paved roads
and less arable land.
China also faces two acute ecological problems: decreasing
water levels and expanding deserts. Overplowing and overgrazing
are creating dustbowls of such magnitude that 240,000 villages
in China have been buried, abandoned or endangered. A black-and-white
photograph in the book depicts several Chinese soldiers standing
next to the top of a telephone pole that has been buried almost
up to the wires. In some areas, workers have had to attach
extension poles to the top of the semi-buried poles. Occasionally,
the sand and silt is later blown away, leaving behind a peculiar-looking
double-pole, with the wires at a height more suited for a
trapeze artist than a telephone repairman.
Brazil, on the other hand, has been expanding its cropland.
There is a large area of cultivable land in the interior of
Brazil called the cerrado. If this land were to become fully
cultivated it would represent the largest crop expansion since
the Soviet Union’s Virgin Lands Project during 1954-1960
(which led to a disastrous dustbowl, stripping the topsoil
and resulting in miserable yields). Brazil’s interior
could be a proving ground for a new sort of large-scale, enlightened
agricultural development, one that incorporates the ecological
value of the rainforest in its economic calculations. Or it
could be developed along the lines of the old model, impoverishing
the land and most of its people, with only the usual cadre
of good old boys left grinning.
In another Greek myth, King Tantalus offends the gods and
is punished by being condemned to stand for eternity, thirsty
and hungry, in a pool in the underworld. Every time he bends
to drink from the pool, the water recedes from his lips; every
time he reaches to pluck the fruit from the tree next to him,
the fruit recedes. Brown does not investigate the equally
important question of who can access food and who cannot.
As the migrating Okies of the Depression learned upon reaching
their ‘Promised Land,’ California, there may be
food all around you, but if you cannot get your teeth on it,
you will still go hungry. But before you can access food,
there has to be food produced. Before Tantalus can be tantalized,
the tree has to bear fruit. Outgrowing the Earth
is an investigation into precisely that topic, namely whether
there will be enough fruit on the tree, enough food on the
Constantine Markides can be reached at email@example.com.