REVIEW: Outgrowing the Earth
Feeding the world
The Earth Policy Institute tackles food scarcity

Reviewed by Constantine Markides


Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures

By Lester R. Brown
W. W. Norton & Co., 2005
ISBN: 0-393-32725-6
239 pp. $15.95, paper

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