LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Population growth, rising affluence, water shortages and climate change are combining to create unprecedented pressure on the world’s food supply - pressure that is likely to play out both as slow rises in hunger and as famines linked to extreme weather events, a leading agriculture expert says.
“We have yet to grasp what climate change means in terms of food security,” says Lester Brown, an environment and agriculture specialist and president of the U.S.-based Earth Policy Institute. “We’re looking at changes on a scale we haven’t seen yet.”
In India, for instance, to keep grain harvests growing, groundwater is being pumped for irrigation at a rate much faster than it is being naturally replaced. In north Gujarat, water tables are falling by 20 feet (6.7 meters) a year, Brown said.
At the same time, India’s monsoon rains - vital for agriculture - show signs of shifting, this year coming at least two weeks earlier than expected and causing widespread deaths in the Himalaya region of India and Nepal.
As India’s population continues to grow by 18 million people a year, its wealthy turn to a richer diet, its poorest struggle to get enough calories each day, and its farmers battle more extreme weather, the country’s risk of food shortages is growing, Brown said in an interview in London.
“I think water is going to be the constraint,” he said. Countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iraq have already seen their water availability - and grain production - peak and begin to decline. Now “the question is what happens when that occurs in a big country,” such as India, said Brown, who last year published “Full Planet, Empty Plates,” a book on “the new geopolitics of food scarcity.”
CLIMATE AND FARMING OUT OF SYNCH
The essential problem, he said, is that the world’s agriculture “has evolved over 11,000 years to maximize production in a stable system. Suddenly the climate system is changing, and each year it and the agriculture system will be more out of synch with each other.”
In the Amazon, for instance, continued destruction of the forest, in part to feed China’s growing demand for soybeans, appears to be disrupting rain cycles in South America, threatening more frequent droughts and crop losses in important grain growing regions in Brazil and Argentina.
China, one of the world’s largest grain producers, also is struggling with increasingly severe weather, including worsening droughts, and fast-dropping groundwater tables. And the United States just last year saw as much as $200 billion in agricultural losses after a record drought.
Such changes are poised to translate into a deepening of world hunger, Brown said, with the risk that an extreme weather disaster in a major grain-producing country such as the United States, China or India could bring quick and more global famine.
How serious are the odds of that happening anytime soon? Enough that Brown thinks the world’s population will not grow from the current 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, as the United Nations predicts.
“I don’t think that (population increase) will happen,” he said. “The only question is, will it not happen because we get our act together to (slow population growth), or because we don’t?”
WOMEN AND EDUCATION TO THE RESCUE?
The best thing the world could do to reduce its risk of growing hunger, he said, is to “make sure women everywhere have access to reproductive healthcare and family planning services.”
Around the world, hundreds of millions of women want to plan their families and space their children, effectively curbing population growth. But “they don’t have the means to do that,” he said.
Another effective path to change is education, and “helping people understand that the future will not be a simple extrapolation of the past,” Brown said.
One big problem is that the world has plenty of experts in economics, climate change, development, agriculture, disaster risk and other fields, but few people able to understand the larger picture of how all those aspects combine to produce - or alleviate - hunger.
“A big problem is fragmentation and specialization of knowledge,” he said. “We’ve been so narrowly focused, looking at our own little piece, that very few people see the big picture.”
He hopes universities will launch degrees in “systems studies” to help a new generation of experts understand risks and possible courses of action in a broader context.
With worsening hunger looming, change needs to happen soon, he said. “Of all the resources we have, time is the scarcest.”
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