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For decades now, climate scientists have been telling us that global warming would affect us all. They warned of more extreme weather events. Droughts would spread. There would be more intense heat waves, more wildfires. And the combination of drought and heat could shrink harvests, which we saw in Russia in 2010 and 2012 and in the United States last year.
World agriculture is now facing challenges unlike any before. Producing enough grain to make it to the next harvest has tested farmers ever since agriculture began. But now the challenge is deepening as new trends - falling water tables, plateauing grain yields and rising temperatures - make it difficult to expand production fast enough.
Along with this is the growing demand for grain as 80 million more people are added to the population each year, as people in emerging economies move up the food chain and as grain is funnelled away to produce fuel for cars.
World food prices have more than doubled over the last decade. How will people who live on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder cope? They were already spending 50-70 percent of their income on food. Many were down to one meal a day before the price rises. Now millions of families in countries like India, Nigeria and Peru routinely schedule one or more days each week when they will not eat at all.
What happens with the next price surge? As food prices rise, we are likely to see more food unrest, such as when high food prices helped fuel the Arab Spring in 2011. This will lead to political instability and possibly a breakdown of political systems.
The world is now living from one year to the next, hoping always to produce enough to cover the growth in demand. Farmers everywhere are making an all-out effort to keep pace with the accelerated growth in demand, but they are having difficulty doing so.
As food supplies tighten, we are moving into a new food era, one in which it is every country for itself. Welcome to the new geopolitics of food scarcity.
This is evidenced most clearly in some of the more affluent grain-importing countries - led by Saudi Arabia, China, India, and South Korea - that are buying or leasing land long-term in other countries to grow food for themselves. Most of these land acquisitions are in African countries where millions of people are being sustained with food aid from the U.N. World Food Programme.
As of mid-2012, hundreds of land acquisition deals had been negotiated or were under negotiation, some of them exceeding a million acres. A World Bank analysis of these “land grabs” reported that at least 140 million acres were involved - an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States. This onslaught of land acquisitions has become a land rush as governments, agribusiness firms and private investors seek control of land wherever they can find it.
There was a time when if we got into trouble on the food front, ministries of agriculture would offer farmers more financial incentives, like higher price supports, and things would soon return to normal. But responding to the tightening of food supplies today is a far more complex undertaking. It involves the ministries of energy, water resources and health and family planning, among others. Because of the looming spectre of climate change that is threatening to disrupt agriculture, we may find that energy policies will have an even greater effect on future food security than agricultural policies do. In short, avoiding a breakdown in the food system requires the mobilisation of our entire society.
Can we prevent a food breakdown? The short answer is “Yes.” We have the resources to address these seemingly insurmountable issues.
On the demand side of the food equation, there are four pressing needs - to stabilise world population, eradicate poverty, reduce excessive meat consumption and reverse biofuels policies that encourage the use of grain to produce fuel for cars. We need to press forward on all four fronts at the same time.
On the supply side of the food equation, we face several challenges, including stabilising climate, raising water productivity and conserving soil. Stabilising climate requires a huge cut in carbon emissions, some 80 percent within a decade, to give us a chance of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. This means a wholesale restructuring of the world energy economy.
The world is in serious trouble on the food front. But there is little evidence that political leaders have yet grasped the magnitude of what is happening. Feeding the world’s hungry now depends on new policies on population, energy and water. Unless we move quickly to adopt new policies, the goal of eradicating hunger will remain just that.
Lester R. Brown is president of Earth Policy Institute and the author of Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity.