July 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 gaze.
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 once did.
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 table.
Constantine Markides can be reached at email@example.com.