Lester Brown: “Were going to be living with tight food supplies and higher food prices through this harvest and the next”

The causes are not temporary, but fundamental trends

By Jake Caldwell, CAP’s Director of Policy for Agriculture, Trade & Energy

Renowned environmental analyst, Lester Brown, is predicting long term tight global food supplies and rising prices for the foreseeable future.

Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, made the comments and proffered his analysis of the present global food situation during a media call today to assess the prospects for the 2011 world grain harvest.

The Earth Policy Institute is scheduled to post a recording of the news conference and you can listen here.  A summary follows.

In an analysis of the upcoming 2011 global grain harvest (rice, wheat, corn, and cereals) Lester Brown and EPI are predicting a modest increase of 80 million metric tons in all grains over last year’s harvest. Unfortunately, that is 20 million metric tons short of the 100 million metric tons we will need to maintain the status quo of global supplies, and 70 million metric tons below the 150 million metric tons needed for ‘normalcy’ in grain supplies, according to Brown. As a result, the FAO food price index is likely to increase over the coming few months with the poorest nations hit the hardest by higher prices.

The 2011 harvest is buoyed by stable rice production, and predicted increases in corn and cereals production in the United States and the world. Increased irrigation and more rain and snowfall, have reduced fears of widespread drought and a poor wheat crop in China. China is the world’s largest wheat producer. According to EPI, with a better, but not exceptional, wheat harvest in Russia in comparison to last year when the crop was ravaged by extreme drought, wheat supplies globally are likely to increase 20 million metric tons.

The tightening of food supplies and higher prices is not a temporary phenomenon, but is fundamentally “trend driven” by a set of factors influencing supply and demand, according to Brown.

On the demand side, Brown sees the major drivers as:

  • Population Growth
  • Rising Affluence and Diet Change in Emerging Economies
  • Ethanol, and the diversion of grain for food to fuel

On the supply side, Brown believes the factors driving prices upward include:

  • Climate Change and the increasing disconnect between agriculture and a changing climate
  • Falling Water Tables — EPI has identified 18 countries with declining water tables due to overpumping of aquifers for irrigation. A telling example of aquifer decline is occurring in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia had been self-sufficient in wheat production for 20 years as a result of aquifer pumping. In 2008, Saudi Arabia announced it’s aquifer was severely depleted and in the last three years, it has seen its wheat crop decline 70 percent. Syria and Iraq are facing similar aquifer peaks and declines.
  • Soil Erosion
  • Inability of Technology to make significantly greater gains in yields from previous milestones.

As a result, Brown believes “We’re in a dangerous situation and we really don’t realize how dangerous it is.” Brown senses the time might be right for the world to consider an “International Food Reserve” to act as a control on the interacting supply and demand factors. He is concerned that international attention to transparency in stocks and stricter disciplines on speculators are good policies, but are “treating the symptoms, and not the cure.”  In Brown’s view, there is far too little discussion of such factors as population growth and its impact on food supplies.

In the near future, Lester Brown anticipates at least another few months of rising food prices in the FAO food price index and predicts, “We’re going to be living with tight food supplies and higher prices and all the instability that brings — through this harvest and likely the next harvest.”

By CAP’s Jake Caldwell

For more information on the global food situation, please see CP’s food insecurity series

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13 Responses to Lester Brown: “Were going to be living with tight food supplies and higher food prices through this harvest and the next”

  1. Mark Shapiro says:

    World running low on food?

    That would start to make headlines except that, as Brown points out, it is primarily the poor who will suffer and starve.

    Here in the US, it’s just one more reason to cut taxes.

  2. Michael Tucker says:

    Sure, we, the world, are in a very dangerous position but we are incapable of organizing a plan. Climate Change – no plan. World water crisis – no plan. World food crisis – no plan. We hope for a plan but all we can currently plan on is hope.

  3. Bob Lang says:

    Ominous parallels:

    “The Easter Islanders, aware that they were almost completely isolated from the rest of the world, must surely have realized that their very existence depended on the limited resources of a small island. After all, it was small enough for them to walk round the entire island in a day or so and see for themselves what was happening to the forests. Yet they were unable to devise a system that allowed them to find the right balance with the environment.”
    (Ponting, Clive. Green History of the World, Oxford University Press, 1991. p. 7)

    “To paraphrase Ponting, we are aware that Earth is completely isolated from the rest of the universe and we realize that our very existence depends on the limited resources of this one small planet. After all, it is small enough for us to fly around in a day or so and see for ourselves what is happening to the forests (and plains and waters). Yet we seem unable to devise a system that allows us to find the right balance with the ecosphere.”
    (Miller, Peter and William Rees. Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation, and Health. (Edited by D. Pimentel, L. Westra, and R.F. Noss). Island Press, 2000. p. 3)

  4. TomG says:

    All of Mr Brown’s predictions depend on 2011 being a sucessful harvest year….and if 2011 is a repeat of 2010??

    Or worse?

  5. Solar Jim says:

    The US is doing it’s part by historically heating the climate the greatest amount, as well as diverting a third of it’s corn kernels today (with future mandate for half) to burn in internal combustion engines for movement.

    Perhaps we need a different type of movement. Maybe some kind of national bowel movement to rid ourselves of politically corrupt, anti-American, globalized, fossil/fission-based, corporate plutocracy. Of course, with congress about to eliminate most funding for organic and sustainable agriculture programs, along with administration approval for more genetically engineered (GE) crops at the request of transnational corporate interests, that ain’t happenin’. Plutocrats and neocons must be intent on “starving the beast” in more ways than financial debt, war and fossil/fission contamination alone.

    Let us be thankful for our daily bread, ’cause the future is looking a little shaky. Or actually quite calamitous.

    Thanks to Lester Brown and EPI for their global perspective (of a ball hurtling in space with rising temperature and too much gas).

  6. Aaron Lewis says:

    Even a good harvest in 2011 will leave us with very tight food supplies, so Brown is looking out to the 2012 harvests. I feel that the farther out we look, the more time global warming has to toss a monkey wrench into the works.

    Most people are still mired in thought that our weather will go back to “normal.” No, that is the point of calling it “climate change”. Every year we have a new climate. Every year, the “normal”, changes.

    Last year at this time, nobody was expecting the summer weather that Russia and Ukraine actually experienced. Now, I see patterns in the jet stream that are similar to patterns that I wondered at a year ago. Russia has a new normal climate.

    In the last few years we have pumped a lot of CO2 into the air, and everything is warmer. In particular the Arctic is warmer, and that affects the jet stream, which drives the “storm track”. Our storm track is off its traditional track. Now, we have to expect weather that we have never seen before. I would say that today there is a no rational reason to expect (wheat) crops in 2013 to be as good or better than they were in 2010. There is always hope, but there does not seem to be good science to support that hope.

    Mr. Brown must be responsible rather than alarmist. I can just tell the truth.

  7. David B. Benson says:

    Yes, even Lester Brown is underestimating the trend.

    One of the four horsemen is named famine.

  8. Eve says:

    We have just seem some dramatic evidence of the instability of the Middle East. We can hope for greater democracy, but anyone who thinks this will happen tomorrow is fooling him/herself. How will declining
    water tables and continuing drought effect the region? How will Egypt
    feed its largely poor and growing population?

  9. JohnV says:

    Heat Damages Colombia Coffee, Raising Prices
    from the New York Times

    This will have more impact in developed countries than rising food prices.

  10. Michael Tucker says:

    Instability is evident in many nations but most in America do not pay attention. Expanding populations in sub-Sahara Africa will stress fragile and, for the most part, corrupt governments but we only pay attention when it threatens the world economy.

    Drought, falling river levels, electric power shutdowns, seawater contamination of coastal aquifers plague Vietnam but, since the rice harvest is over, the world little cares. We will have to wait and see how this previously large exporter of rice will fair with next years harvest and how the people respond to the current dreadful conditions.

    North Korea is suffering massive food shortages but as long as they stop shooting across the DMZ we ignore the complete instability of that pathetic nation.

    Do we really kid ourselves that all is well with Palestine? That situation could not possibly threaten world stability, could it? How long has that been going on for?

    We can count on instability to dominate world events. Unstable nations. Unstable water supplies. Uncertain food supplies.

    As for what to do about Libya, I sure hope we have learned that military intervention does not increase stability.

  11. Edward says:

    “we really don’t realize how dangerous it is.”
    Some of us realize how dangerous it is.

    “consider an “International Food Reserve”
    NO. We will keep it all to ourselves. That’s the way people are. Giving it away won’t help anyway.

  12. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Excellent analysis by Lester Brown on food supplies. These are as rightly pointed out due to climate change, depleting water resources, soil erosion etc. Immediate effective measures are needed to contain climate change.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India