Lester Brown is an environmental analyst, and founder of the Worldwatch Institute, and the Earth Policy Institute. His grand plan was to observe global trends, and produce objective information. Brown’s many books and reports have provided rational advice for the world’s irrational policymakers. He has not sold his soul to corporate interests.
In 1994, Brown wrote an essay, Who Will Feed China? It triggered an explosive response. Chinese leaders angrily denounced him. But behind the scenes, they realized that their nation was vulnerable, because they had not perceived the big picture clearly. Brown expanded his essay into a book with the same title, published in 1995. It became a classic. Reading it 20 years later is eerie, because many of his warnings now sound like the daily news.
Before they industrialized, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan were already densely populated. Then, the growth of industry gobbled up a lot of cropland, which reduced food production, and forced all three to become dependent on imported grain. In 1994, Japan imported 72 percent of its grain, South Korea 66 percent, and Taiwan 76 percent.
Brown saw that China was on a similar trajectory. Cropland was limited, and it was rapidly being lost to sprawl, industry, and highways. They were likely to lose half of their cropland by 2030. They were also likely to add another 500 million people by 2030. As incomes rose, people were eager to enjoy a richer diet, including more meat and beer. This required even more cropland per person.
Freshwater for agriculture was also limited, and much of it was being diverted to growing cities and factories. About 300 cities were already short of water. China’s capitol, Beijing, was among 100 cities with severe water shortages. Demand for water was sure to rise. Only a few Chinese had indoor plumbing, and everyone wanted it.
Many farmers were forced to drill wells and pump irrigation water from aquifers, often at rates in excess of natural recharge — water mining. As enormous amounts of water were removed underground, subsidence occurs. The ground surface sinks, filling the void below, making it impossible for the aquifer to recharge in the future. In northern China, subsidence affects a region the size of Hungary. Irrigated fields produce the most food, but water mining will eventually force a reduction in irrigation. Some regions may be forced to stop growing rice, a water-guzzling crop, and replace it with less productive millet or sorghum.
Grain productivity (yield per hectare) annually grew an average of 7.1 percent between 1977 and 1984. The annual increase was less than 2 percent between 1984 and 1990, and just 0.7 percent between 1990 and 1994. There were great hopes for biotechnology, but 20 years of efforts led to no significant increase in grain yields. Meanwhile, the Yellow River moved 1.6 billion tons of topsoil to the ocean every year.
Now, assemble the pieces. Population was likely to grow from 1.2 billion in 1995 to 1.66 billion in 2045. Per capita grain consumption was growing, likely to increase 33 percent by 2030. Cropland area was likely to decrease 50 percent by 2030. Water for irrigation was limited, and certain to diminish. Annual grain harvests may have been close to, or beyond, their historic peak. The effects of climate change cannot be predicted, but might be severe. In 1995, the notion of Peak Oil had not yet spread beyond the lunatic fringe, and Brown didn’t mention it, but at some point, it will make modern agriculture impossible.
Demand for grain was rising at a rate that would sharply exceed China’s harvests. If their economy remained strong, they would have the money to import food. But, would the food they need be available on the world market? Following a century of catastrophic population growth, many nations were dependent on imported food.
As world population continued to grow, the ability to further increase food production was wheezing. World grain stocks fell from 465 million tons in 1987, to 298 million tons in 1994. At some point, surging demand for grain would exceed the surpluses of the exporters. This would drive up the price of food.
Brown selected ten large developing nations where population growth remained extreme, and projected how much food they would need to import by 2030. “By 2030, these countries — assuming no improvement in diet — will need to import 190 million tons of grain. This is six times the amount they import today and nearly equal to total world grain exports in 1994.”
We were moving into an era of food instability. “For the first time, an environmental event — the collision of expanding human demand with some of the earth’s natural limits — will have an economic impact that affects the entire world.” Annual economic growth for the world was falling. The global economy grew 5.2 percent in the ’60s, 3.4 percent in the ’70s, 2.9 percent in the ’80s, and 1.4 percent in 1990-94. Slower growth, plus rising food prices, plus falling incomes, sets the stage for trouble. “It could lead to political unrest and a swelling flow of hungry migrants across national borders.”
Agriculture was running out of steam. The wizards of industrial civilization insisted that perpetual growth was possible, because our miraculous technology could overcome all challenges. They were wrong. Brown concludes, “The bottom line is that achieving a humane balance between food and people is now more in the hands of family planners than farmers.” When Brown wrote, there were 5.6 billion of us. Irrational policymakers disregarded the urgent need for family planning. And so, today, at 7.2 billion, the world is a far more unstable place, with no light at the end of the tunnel.
Twenty years before Brown’s book, China realized that population growth was a problem. They were adding 13 million every year, and emigration was not a real option. Their one-child policy was launched in 1979, and the transition was bumpy. The birthrate fell from 2.7 percent in 1970 to 1.1 percent in 1994. It succeeded in preventing much misery, but it didn’t stop growth. Brown praised them for actually taking action, forcing the present generation to sacrifice for the benefit of future generations — a concept unimaginable to Americans.
Brown, Lester R., Who Will Feed China?, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.
Here are recent follow-up reports from the Earth Policy Institute:
Can the World Feed China? Lester R. Brown, February 25, 2014
Peak Water: What Happens When the Wells Go Dry? Lester R. Brown, July 09, 2013
Global Grain Stocks Drop Dangerously Low as 2012 Consumption Exceeded Production , Janet Larsen, January 17, 2013