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World Policy on Air: Lester Brown

On this week’s episode of World Policy on Air, World Policy Journal managing editor Christopher Shay and World Policy Institute senior fellow William Powers talk with environmental activist Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute and the author or co-author of over 50 books. On the release of Brown’s latest book, Full Planet, Empty Plates, they discuss how demographics, climate change, and resource depletion are leading to a future of devastating food shortages, and why the developing world is far from ready to pick up the slack. Brown argues that food prices are the canary in the coal mine for the end of civilization as we know it, and that only fundamental changes to how humanity feeds, powers, and moves itself can avert this collapse. A full transcript can be found below.


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World Policy Journal: Welcome to World Policy on Air. My name is Christopher Shay and I am the Managing Editor at World Policy Journal. I'm William Powers and I'm a Senior Fellow and the World Policy Institute and author of Twelve by Twelve. Together we will be speaking with Lester Brown, founder of the WorldWatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute and the author or co-author of over fifty books. His most recent, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity was just released October 1st. 

Lester Brown: Yesterday.

WPJ: So your book is about the politics of food in an era of scarcity but let's start with the basics. Why do you see food scarcity increasing? And why is the agricultural marketplace so ill equipped to meet the challenge?

Brown: On the demand side of the equation, we have continuing rapid population growth. We are adding eighty million a year. That’s not new; this has been going on for some time. That means tonight at the dinner table there will be two hundred and nineteen thousand people who were not there last night. Tomorrow night there will be another two hundred and nineteen thousand and this increase after awhile begins to put a lot of stress on the earth's land and water resources. So we have population growth, and that’s not new, but what is new now is a lot of people moving up the food chain at the same time. And this means consuming more and more grain intensive livestock products. Just to put the numbers in perspective the average person in India consumes about four hundred pounds of grain per year, or roughly a pound a day. When you have only a pound a day you can't afford to convert much of that into animal protein. You need to consume most of it directly. In the United States we consume about sixteen hundred pounds of grain per day, most of it in the form of animal protein. We consume maybe a couple of hundred pounds in bread, breakfast cereals, and so forth, but the bulk of it is consumed in beef and pork and poultry, milk and eggs, dairy products like cheese, yogurt and ice cream. These are all grain products but they occupy a large part of our refrigerators. So the moving up the food chain takes a lot of additional grain particularly when you have a large number like maybe three billion people today moving up the food chain at the same time. A big chunk of them being Chinese of course. So we have population growth, we have rising affluence and then in the United States we have the use of grain to fuel cars. We are now, actually, using more grain to fuel cars then we are feeding the livestock and poultry. The lines have crossed just in the last few years. So this in the United States means that we are now converting about a hundred and twenty-nine million tons of grain per year into fuel for cars—that is out of a harvest of four hundred million tons of grain per year. So roughly a third of all the grain harvest in the United States goes to fuel cars, not to feed animals or to feed people.

WPJ: You talked about in the book, yields plateauing in developed countries, but having just come back from Bolivia, for example, which has tens of million of hectares of still arable land which has not been converted, it’s a country about three times the size of Germany with only nine million people, that’s already being bought up and being transferred into soy and other grains. Isn't that what will happen when the price goes up, that these countries that still have all this extra land will start to plant those areas?

Brown: Yeah, and the question is how do we define extra land? If land is in forest now, for example, as it is in large areas of tropical Latin America, it represents an extraordinary store of carbon. If that land is cleared and planted with soybeans, for example, there would be a huge release of carbon into the atmosphere which, in addition to fossil fuels, would speed up climate change.

WPJ: Right, but from a market perspective, those lands will be planted. A lot of that is already secondary lands that is already been cleared and could be planted without deforesting. A lot of it would be deforested but the point being that it’s not that there is going to be this radical shortage of food because those lands will be planted. I’ve seen the Brazilians are buying it up, the Israelis, other people are coming and just buying up that land and they are going to turn it into agriculture.

Brown: One thing to keep in mind is that it takes time to develop land—not the land itself, you can buy a half million acres of land, but that’s not producing on a half million acres. When you look at the land acquisitions over the last several years which now total at least a hundred and sixty million acres, which is roughly the area of wheat and corn together in the United States, there is very little actual production to show from this huge area of acquired land. And the reason for that is that modern agriculture requires a modern agricultural infrastructure. You can’t just buy land and expect to produce a lot on it unless you have all the support systems of a modern agriculture. You have to have fertilizer, for example, you have to have grain elevators to store the grain, if you're in irrigation you have to have a source of energy, either diesel fuel or a grid, and in most of these areas there is nothing approaching the grid.

So there is a whole set of, you have to have technical support services, you have to have people who know local insects and diseases. And it takes time and it takes a lot of resources to develop these. Now in a country like the United States, we have been working on this for the last century or so, so we have a well developed system. If you have a plant disease problem, you can call the county agent and agricultural extension agent and he'll probably know what it is, but if you're in Timbuktu, literally, there is no one to call. And if you blow a tire farming in upper New York state, you can call your farm equipment person and they'll have a new tire there in a couple of hours. But if you're in some place in Africa and you blow a tire, you could wait days or weeks to get a tire in there, and it would be very costly. So I mention these examples to simply make the point that the availability of land is one of the conditions for expanding food production, but it’s only one. And unless you have the others and can put them all together, you're probably not going to do very much.

If you look at the land grabs, the last time we did the tabulations—it’s been a few months ago now—but these land grabs started in late 2007, we are now in 2012, we could not find anywhere near a million tons of grain in the world being produced in these land acquisitions. And yet the area of land acquisitions is equal to the area in wheat and corn in the United States as I mentioned earlier. So it’s a huge area but it takes time and a lot of capital to develop it. It was interesting that the Saudis, who were, for thirty years, self-sufficient in wheat production because they were pumping from an underground aquifer to irrigate their wheat land. But that aquifer was a fossil aquifer, which means it could not recharge, and when it was gone it was gone and their wheat production just sunk like a stone in the water. So the Saudis then began looking for land and they have the money to buy land wherever they want and to make these investments, one would think, but after a while the government called the agency responsible and said ‘you know, you bought this land three years ago and you still haven't delivered any grain from it.’ And that’s when they realized that buying land is just the first step—then you have to build the infrastructure. You hear about, you need roads, well you do need roads but that’s only one of several things you need to support modern agriculture.

WPJ: Assuming there is this food scarcity in the future, would a country like Kuwait or Qatar or Saudi Arabia be willing to make those infrastructure investments in another country in order to secure that food?

Brown: The higher food prices become, the easier it is to rationalize these investments and to mobilize the capital for these investments to create a modern agricultural infrastructure. But it does take a huge amount of capital and it takes time. Building a grain elevator in Ghana, for example, pick an easy country, is not a simple thing. If you want to acquire a half million acres of land there and produce corn for export, you got to have a place to store it. There are no grain elevators in Africa expect in Cairo where ships come in and unload. I mention these examples just to make the point that it is not easy when you start from scratch to create a productive agricultural operation.  

WPJ: Are there any international organizations that are working on this and that have had imitable successes even on a small scale doing anything like this?

Brown: The most successful ones to date have been Korean investments, and mostly in Southeast Asia and in Siberia, coastal Siberia, which is not far from South Korea. But even there, the production amounts in several different places come to maybe ten, twenty thousand tons. And keep in mind the world demand for grain jumps by forty-one million tons a year so tens of thousands of tons here and there really don't do very much.    

WPJ: During the 2008 spike in food prices, a lot of analysts claimed commodity speculation really exacerbated the problem. How vulnerable is the current food system to financial speculation and is there any way we can change the global finical architecture to reduce the threat that speculation on commodities can pose to it?

Brown: Any time you get a rapid change in prices, practically a rapid run-up in prices, the people who know the most about this are the investment banks and commodity founds because they have people tracking trends all the time so they have a sense of where things are heading. So they can take advantage of that and it is not easy to control without messing up the market in unintended ways. I've seen a number of discussions of this but not very many well thought through proposals for dealing with it. 

WPJ: If we continue on this path that we are on, what countries, relatively speaking, will be the winners and which ones would be the losers?

Brown: The bigger winner in this would probably be the United States because we produce so much more food then we consume. We totally dominate world grain exports and we share with Brazil the leadership in soybean exports, so we're well positioned in this sense. China also produces…the U.S. and China produce about the same amount of grain. The U.S. produces many times more soybeans, but the difference is there are 1.3 billion people in China and only .3 billion in the United States, so for them it’s scramble time and they are now turning to imports of soybeans on a massive scale. Sixty percent of all soybeans that go into world trade now go to China, which is ironic when you consider that China gave the world the soybean originally. Soya is a Chinese word. And China, in order to get enough grain to support the move up the food chain of its people, is beginning to import grain, mostly corn, on a large scale.

WPJ: We've talked a lot about what's at stake, so let's move on. What can we do? Let's start with climate change. What can we do to slow the warming of the plant and the increase in the number of drought events?

Brown: Let me say first that agriculture as it exists today was designed to maximize production with a climate system that over the last eleven thousand years, since agriculture began, has been remarkably stable. There have been a few little blips here and there, but it has actually been quite stable. Now suddenly it has changed so the agriculture system and the climate system with each passing year are more and more out of sync with each other. And what the fallout from that will be is difficult even for us to project, but we do know it’s going to put a lot of stresses on world agriculture and it’s going to create a lot of uncertainty among world farmers. They won't know what to plan for and how to plant in response to that. So that’s one dimension of the problem.

The other thing about climate change is rising temperature alone we know reduces crop yields. The rule of thumb is for each one degree Celsius rise in temperature, yields fall about ten percent.  That’s the rule of thumb we've been using for years now. It turns out that is on the conservative side. It may be more like each one degree of Celsius rise in temperature drops yields by sixteen percent.  And we have seen, rather dramatically, in the United States this past summer what happened to the corn crop. It dropped by a third because of the combination of intense record heat and drought.

So the climate issue is so pervasive and so influential when thinking about future food security that we really need to launch an effort like the U.S. mobilization for war in 1942 when we totally restructured the U.S. industrial economy almost overnight. And the key to doing that, to producing all the planes and tanks and things we needed was that President Roosevelt banned the sale of cars, so suddenly the automobile companies had no place to go expect to produce tanks and planes, which they did on a huge scale. But it totally restructured the U.S. industrial economy literally overnight. It didn't take decades or years, it was done in a matter of months. We're in a situation like that with energy. We need to restructure the global energy economy and do it quickly. And we're not close to even thinking about the sort of effort that we need to make, but what was at stake in 1942 was a way of life in the world, democracy as we knew it. Today, it's literally the future of civilization itself that’s at stake and I don't think most political leaders in the world are close to grasping that.  What this is going to translate into if we don't move quickly to carbon emissions, and by that I mean cutting them eighty percent not by 2050, the game will be long over by then, but by 2020, over the next decade.

WPJ: So the goal of the Earth Policy Institute and your book Plan B and this new book is saving civilization as you just said and as it says in many places. Isn't that a bit of a grandiose kind of an idea that in some ways echoes past approaches that are very top-down? For example, in Plan B, there is always a budget for every aspect. If we spend this many millions of dollars, we'll achieve this much change. There has been criticism of that going back to Harding's article The Tragedy of the Commons and science up to the present of using a technocratic approach to what is basically more of an ethical or moral issue.  So how is it that we can spend X billions of dollars and save civilization? Isn't it another level, more of an ethical question?

Brown: It is but that ethical behavior has to translate into re-ordering priorities.  It requires a new definition of security. We today in Washington have a definition of security we inherited from the last century, a century that was dominated by two World Wars and a Cold War. It’s a military definition of security. But if I were to sit down or if you were to sit down today with a clean pad and started listing the threats to our security today, not in the 20th Century but in the 21st Century, on my list would be climate change, population growth, rising food prices, spreading political instability, a growing number of failing states. Armed aggression does not even make the top five in my list of threats to our security. But we are still tied to this image of the past which now, I think, is largely irrelevant. 

WPJ: Do you think it will have to get worse before people are willing to take collective action, and is it going to take an event stark enough to really create the political will, even within just the United States, to adopt these type of large-scale, radical measures that you are talking about?

Brown: It probably won't occur in the United States alone. It will be something that’ll go across borders in major way. These tipping points, if I can introduce that term, come quickly sometimes and we don't always see them coming. For example, the Berlin Wall coming down. How many analysts, political scientists, wrote about that before it happened?  No one. We didn't see it, but suddenly the Wall coming down was the visual symbol of a basic shift in public thinking in Eastern Europe. It led to the change of form of every government in that region.  And we've seen other tipping points—cigarette smoking, for example. I would guess this building is a smoke-free building today, along with most other buildings in the country. I mean, if you smoke today you feel like a refugee of some sort, going out in front of the building on the street to have a smoke. That came very quickly. The tobacco companies were so dominant at one time, not that long ago, fifteen years ago, they could testify on the Hill there was no proof of a link between cigarette smoking and health. Once everyone realized that that was not the case, then everything changed and it changed almost overnight.

So we don't know when we may hit a tipping point on the climate issue. My guess is that it won't take too many more summers like last summer to change things dramatically. It is interesting, last summer, you didn't hear much from climate deniers saying ‘oh, don't worry about this, it’s going to go away, it's just temporary, there is no change in climate.’ It would have been a tough sell and for good reason. So you didn't hear much about that. I mean, there were times when, turning on TV, on the news channels I thought I was watching the Weather Channel. There was a real shift in coverage and that actually began two years ago that we began to see the intense focus on floods and droughts and wildfires and tornadoes and hurricanes and so forth. We even discovered a new kind of storm we didn't know happened. It called a…

WPJ: Derecho.

Brown: Derecho. I mean, there we were, who knew what a Derecho was until it happened? So these tipping points are difficult to anticipate almost by definition, but they come, and when we hit those tipping points everything changes.  And the Arab Spring was another example of that. The Arab Spring was a replay of Eastern Europe. The people reached a point where they would no longer accept the form of government they had and the repression and the people at the top benefiting disproportionately.

WPJ: So what I hear you saying is that you are optimistic in that issues that are so far out of the mainstream political narrative like climate change, like water tables, population growth, it’s not even really being discussed so much in the presidential debates, what you’re saying is that despite that, there is this awareness among the citizens and there is this change coming.

Brown: Yes, change is coming for sure. And we hope we can anticipate the need for change so that we can manage the change—otherwise it will spiral out of control.  And the risk, if I were to pick one indicator that we should track in order to understand our future, to see where we are headed, it would be the price of food.  And if I were to pick a weak link in the system, it would be the food sector. I mean, I knew that was the case with the Sumerians and the Mayans and many other civilizations whose archaeological sites we now study, but I didn't think it would be us. I mean, we're pretty advanced, technologically and otherwise, we have a lot of information but as I think about it, I think that food is the weak link in our system just as it was for earlier economies. And I think we are beginning to see evidence of that now. And I don't expect that we are going to go back to normal next year or the year after or any time after that. It used to be when we had a drought in Russia or a monsoon failure in India or a heat wave in the U.S. Midwest, it was a one time event and things would tighten up for a while and the next year, things would be back to normal. But there is no normal to go back to now, that’s what's new.  We don't know where the climate is going to be next year or the year after. We know that it's changing, that we do know.

WPJ: I was struggling with what I thought was somewhat of a contradiction in your book about saying that we need to reduce poverty, of course, and bring people out of poverty and raise income standards, and at the same we want to reduce environmental degradation. And for example, you point to Liberia as a success story of a failed state that turned around and is now a lot more stable. I just returned from Liberia and actually the environment is being destroyed at a far greater rate under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who you talk about as a hero, then it was under Charles Taylor.  And this is according to many reports and what I've seen, it’s palm oil plantations, logging and other activities.  She is sort of taking a textbook World Bank development model for Liberia. Do you see what I mean that there is somewhat of a contradiction between wanting to have more of this kind of traditional development model and the courses you’re talking about in terms of climate stability?

Brown: Yes. One of the interesting things was that the situation tightened a few years ago and countries began thinking about land grabs, the one country that opposed this thinking was Japan, and said this is not the way to go. What we need to do is not to buy the land and displace these people.  What we need to do is to provide them with technical assistance to help them develop the potential themselves so that they can have a marketable surplus that we can buy. That’s what needs to be done and, I mean, you can't argue with that. But that’s not the way things unfolded because investors wanted to control the land, and they had the capital to do it. Land was becoming valuable. The market worked very well in this sense because they could go in and buy these large chunks of land.  From an economic point of view, if you were an investor and wanted to maximize the return for the people whose money you’re managing, that's the kind of thing you would do.  But in terms of global political stability, in terms of eradicating poverty, in terms of eradicating hunger, it’s the worst scenario that we can probably imagine.   

WPJ: I guess just to push you a little bit on my question, you’re basically in support of the current development model of increasing consumption as fast as you can and technological approach to development even though in some ways that increased per capita consumption is what is driving ...

Brown: Right. We've always been trying to solve the food problem looking at the supply side of the equation. How much do we have to expand production to satisfy this demand, whether it is population growth, moving up the food chain or what have you? What we now need to do is to look at both sides of the equation at the same time, and we need to begin asking ourselves, in this country, for example, is it in our advantage to move up to a sixteen hundred pound a year position of the food chain? And the answer is no. I mean, our healthcare costs go up the further we get up the food chain over a certain amount. You want to move up some distance so you have enough animal protein to have a healthy diet but we are so far beyond that, that it’s a huge waste of resources and it’s a costly waste of resources, not just in terms of the resources itself but the social effects on our society and the obesity problem and all the health problems that derive from that.  So we do want to help people move up the food chain who are now on the bottom rung of the food chain but to a degree where they are healthier and not beyond that.

So if we were to, and this is kind of hypothetical because there is no way of doing it, it’s kind of a cop-out in a sense, if we were to distribute equitably the world's grain supply, there wouldn't be any hungry people in the world. Everyone would be adequately nourished. But we rely on the market to distribute, so then the question is how can you manipulate the market? One way would be to tax the consumption of livestock products, for example, so that the affluent would pay some of the indirect costs that are associated with expanding agriculture, practically the moving up the food chain part. And it takes a lot more energy to produce that food when you move up high on the food chain, and more carbon emissions, so you're worsening two problems at the same time.

I think it would be great if countries around the world had bicycle policies. We are seeing in this country now twenty-six cities have bike share programs. But that should be an integral part of our transportation system and our social system. Interesting in Washington, this is expanding very rapidly now, more than any city in the country because it’s bicycle friendly and past city governments as well as the national government has supported it, creating a bicycle-friendly environment in the nation's capital.

But we need to be thinking in entirely different terms. For example, what would an economy look like that was designed for the 21st century, not the 20th century, or the 19th century remnants that we still have but the 21st century? And then begin to work toward that, and it would be very different from anything we know now or have known in the past. But it's not an unreasonable question to ask. And I've talked to the World Bank, I've talked to the Chinese, now everyone about this. We need to begin asking questions we haven’t asked before, which is what would an economy look like that was designed for this century? It would be low carbon, it would be water efficient; you can begin to define the characteristics by the conditions that exist today in which development is taking place.

WPJ: Part of the beautiful thing about your books is that you are showing that it’s not only wise but practical and that it can be done, and that’s sort of what I take away from Plan B and from the new book, Full Planet, Empty Plates is that we can do it and that there is a way, a pragmatic way of getting there.

Brown: We can. We don't have to wait for any new technologies. We have very efficient lighting technologies now. And just replacing all the light bulbs in the country with these new super efficient light bulbs, we can close all the coal-fired power plants in the country, which is what we are going to do anyhow, but this is a way of making that possible. We have to rethink both the demand and the supply side of the equation in very fundamental ways and in the context of the 21st century. 

WPJ: Well, thank you very much Lester and Bill. I'm Christopher Shay, managing editor of World Policy Journal. Bill Powers, senior fellow at World Policy Institute.  Thank you for listening to World Policy on Air.

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