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Lester Brown: The Sobering Facts on Global Resource Scarcity

user profile picture Adam Taggart Oct 07, 2013
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I have been wondering, is food the weak link in our modern civilization, too, as it was for these earlier civilizations? There was a time when I doubted that it could be. But now I think not only that it can be, but I think it likely will be the weak link. And if I were to pick one indicator to track that I think will tell us more about our future than any other, it would be the world price of grain.

Environmental analyst Lester Brown has made a lifetime career of tracking declining supplies of global resources. He is the founder of the Earth Policy Institute and author of the book Plan B 4.0 Mobilizing to Save Civilization, both of which provide massive data sets on the precipitous drop in key natural resources as well as urgent policy recommendations for addressing them.

In today's podcast, Chris and Lester discuss the global depletion themes that concern Lester most greatly, including population growth, water usage, limits to food production, and climate changes. In many of these areas, the picture painted by the data is alarming.  Our future choices are quickly being limited to when these constraints will limit our way of life, not if.

About 40% of the world’s grain is being produced in countries where the yield has already reached what I call the ‘glass ceiling,’ the one that is imposed by the limits of photosynthesis.    

Once you remove the nutrient constraints on crop yields and once you remove the moisture constraints, either because you have adequate rainfall or because you irrigate, then the remaining constraint is the process of photosynthesis itself. And so, if you look at the countries with high rice yields – for example, in Japan, rice yields have not increased for at least 15 years. They have been flat, and this was after a century of rising rice yields, but they have sort of hit the glass ceiling, the one imposed by the limits of the process of photosynthesis itself.

Of more concern, China’s rice yields are not just a few percent below those in Japan. So China’s rice yields are about to level off, as well, and these two countries together account for one-third of the world’s rice harvest.

So we are looking at climate effects on food production. We are looking at the limits of photosynthesis that are imposed on food production, and this is one we cannot escape. No one has a process that is more efficient than photosynthesis for converting solar energy into biochemical energy that we and other living things can use.

So we have got a third major constraint we are facing that is going to make it very difficult if not impossible to double food production by 2050. Do you see the scarcity of water? Wherever you look now in the world where there is irrigated agriculture, whether it is in the western parts of the United States or in the North China Plains, or India, just to look at the big-three grain producers, we see serious trouble with water.

The water tables in the United States are falling in the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma, in western Kansas and southwestern Nebraska, and it is because they are drawing on an aquifer that is called the Ogallala Aquifer, which is an aquifer that was laid down eons ago in geological time. It does not recharge naturally. So once that is pumped out, then irrigated agriculture will come to an end in that area. And we have already seen a very substantial shrinkage of irrigated area in Kansas and Oklahoma and in the Texas panhandle, for example. China is going to see exactly the same thing. It is seeing the same thing under the North China Plain, which produces half of China’s wheat and one-third of its corn. And I should note that in the Arab countries in the Middle East, as we have settled them, the depletion of aquifers has led to substantial declines in grain production, in some countries 20-30%. In Saudi Arabia, agriculture is going to disappear entirely by 2016 because all of their underground water resources will have been depleted for irrigation.

So we are looking at very challenging issues on the technology side of expanding agricultural production, and also on the climate side.

These are difficult issues to deal with, and I think there is always the hope of those who are in office that the crisis will not come during their term, that it will be for the next guy, the next person in office, to worry about. But when you think about it, it is a real challenge to figure out how you deal with things like over-pumping aquifers, which is so commonplace in the world.

The failure to mesh water-resource availability and population policy, I think, when we look back historically, will be seen as one of the decisive factors leading to a potential breakdown in some societies.

But despite the seriousness of our global predicament, Brown believes there is much in our control to determine how hard we slam into these natural limits to growth. His books outline numerous stewardship policies and other solutions, several of which he discusses in this podcast. But swift implementation is necessary for them to make a difference. And whether enough societies will mobilize to adopt them in time is the critical unknown factor at this time.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Lester Brown (32m:29s):

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